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Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

Building an Effective SEL Program: Lessons From 3 Districts

By Arianna Prothero — November 07, 2022 12 min read
Third grade teacher, Stephanie Brugler, works with her class during an SEL lesson at the Jefferson PK-8 school in Warren, Ohio, on Nov. 1, 2022.
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Flush with COVID-19 relief aid and scrambling to meet students’ soaring emotional needs at the height of the pandemic, many school districts invested heavily in social-emotional learning.

And that momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing down: 61 percent of school and district leaders said in an EdWeek Research Center survey this fall that they expect funding and resources for SEL to increase over the next two years.

But how can schools ensure that those investments are sustainable and lead to results? Education Week spoke with three districts that have been implementing social-emotional learning districtwide for at least a decade to learn what has worked, what hasn’t, and what are the key elements to success. Among them: getting input from students, figuring out how to measure the seemingly unmeasurable, and focusing on adult SEL.

These districts—Austin Independent in Texas, Warren City in Ohio, and Washoe County in Nevada—have done this work while overcoming leadership turnover, staff skepticism, and, of course, a life-altering pandemic.

“When we started this work, nobody knew what social-emotional learning was and it really invoked thoughts of rainbows, and holding hands, and singing kumbaya, and connecting it to academic and life outcomes was a huge challenge back then,” said Trish Shaffer, who is in charge of social-emotional learning for the Washoe district. “Now ... talking about adult social-emotional competence and adult well-being is something that is commonplace. And we have parents and families who understand the need for social-emotional well-being, and they’re moving beyond this idea that social-emotional well-being is for others or indicates that something is wrong.”

Even with a surge of interest and funding, schools are still battling headwinds when it comes to teaching social-emotional learning—a concept that involves teaching kids non-academic skills, such as resiliency, empathy, goal setting, responsible decisionmaking, and emotional management to be successful in school, work, and life.

Nearly half of educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center this fall say that trying to catch students up academically is a major challenge to teaching SEL. Insufficient professional development and students’ overwhelming social-emotional needs rounded out the top three barriers to teaching social-emotional learning, according to the survey.

More than half of educators describe efforts to incorporate social-emotional learning into academic subjects as challenging. Fifty-three percent said it is “somewhat challenging,” and 9 percent said it is “very challenging.” Twenty-nine percent indicated it is “not very challenging,” and 9 percent said it “not at all challenging.”

The vast majority of educators indicate that the impact of SEL on students’ academic outcomes has been positive, with 83 percent saying that is the case. But the force of that impact is somewhat muted: 51 percent say it has been only somewhat positive, and 32 percent say the impact of SEL on classrooms has been very positive.

1. Start with the adults

There are some key factors that contribute to the success of social-emotional learning, such as high-quality, evidence-based curricula; integrating social-emotional learning into academic subjects;, and, finally, a school culture and climate that supports social-emotional learning.

Leaders in all three districts that Education Week spoke with were emphatic on this point: The adults in the school building need to build their social-emotional competencies before they can impart these skills to students.

It’s a lesson several of them said they had to learn the hard way.

“We focused a lot on the children at first, and we had quite a few principals tell us that they felt the adults—the teachers and administrators—really needed to do their own SEL work and evaluate what their skill sets were and the areas they needed to work on in order to be able to effectively model and teach those skill sets to the kids,” said Caroline Chase, the former assistant director of SEL for Austin schools. “That was a huge one we learned, early.”

That means professional development is a must—and not just one-time PD, but a continuous drip, said Statia Paschel, the current director of social-emotional learning for the Austin district. Like any other subject, educators need to have a solid understanding of what social-emotional learning is in order to feel prepared to teach these skills.

But according to the EdWeek Research Center survey, not all educators are describing their SEL professional-development experiences as home runs. Nearly 3 in 10 described their experiences as “ineffective.”

Putting SEL to work with adults doesn’t just mean professional development around how to teach social-emotional skills, it’s also important for educators to know how to incorporate those skills into their daily lives and interactions, said Mike Gifford, the principal of the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology in Washoe County.

“One thing I think we could have done a better job of is prepping the school leaders with why we were doing this work and how they could incorporate it into their daily interactions at school,” said Gifford, who used to work in the district’s SEL department. “It doesn’t have to be this brand-new thing; it can be how you greet people in the hallway.”

2. Get teacher and principal support in meaningful ways

In addition to robust professional development, coaxing out teacher and principal buy-in instead of strong-arming educators into taking on SEL is another important strategy.

The Washoe school district started rolling out its social-emotional-learning initiative first with the principals and teachers who were interested in it—an approach Gifford said created a lot of SEL ambassadors and organically seeded interest in the idea.

But even with the best strategy, there will be holdouts and people who push back, he said. As a principal, Gifford makes time to meet with them individually to hear their concerns.

“A lot of people who are skeptical of SEL are numbers people, and they don’t see the numbers in SEL, so you have to show them what the data says,” he said.

School and district leaders shouldn’t expect to get 100 percent buy-in, but they can get close, Gifford said.

And it’s important to emphasize that teaching SEL skills isn’t a job limited to just the teaching staff—it’s something every adult in the building can impart and model, said Shaffer.

“Each role, from the superintendent to bus drivers, to principals, to teachers, needs to understand what piece of social-emotional learning they own,” she said.

In addition to buy-in, school and district leadership should also seek educator input. That’s something Jill Merolla, the SEL coordinator for the Warren City schools said she wishes her district had done. In hindsight, she said it would have helped if her district had identified teacher advisers to work along with district leadership and outside consultants when it first started implementing its social-emotional-learning programs.

“I was a teacher a long time ago; I don’t live in that world anymore,” Merolla said. “We did include our school counselors who are in our school buildings, but they aren’t teaching. I think we’re ... maybe backtracking a little bit on going a little deeper into [teachers’] view of what we’re doing and how [SEL] can be improved.”

3. Seek out and use students’ input

Using students’ perspectives, concerns, and feedback to help guide implementation and continue to fine-tune the evolution of SEL in schools—or student voice, in SEL parlance—has been another crucial piece to establishing programs that deliver results, according to leaders from all three districts.

Promoting and using student voice can take a variety of forms.

The Austin schools recently created a student-equity council that has a representative from each high school in the district. The council helps advise and inform decisions at the district’s upper-leadership level.

In addition to creating student-advisory committees on topics such as mental health, student engagement, and safe and healthy schools, the Washoe County school system also holds an annual student conference. Students give presentations and lead breakout sessions with staff and community members to discuss challenges in their schools.

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Conceptual image of students interacting.
Mary Haasdyk for Education Week

In the Warren City schools, students participate in focus groups where they provide insight to educators and district leadership.

Finally, regularly surveying students—a strategy used by all three districts—gives educators valuable insight into students’ experiences in the building, said Dante Capers, the associate superintendent of student services, wellness, and success in the Ohio district.

He’s found that the solutions to the problems and concerns students raise in the surveys are often relatively low lifts and that addressing those issues is an important way to create an environment where social-emotional learning can thrive. On some recent surveys, Dante said, students requested changes to improve school climate and safety—from creating more opportunities for positive celebrations to having adults more visible in the hallways.

“Our students, especially in the middle and high schools, had a really high response rate about their academic goals for this year,” he said. “The challenge that was given to the buildings was, ‘OK, how do we leverage that? Let’s identify what those goals are, let’s have kids talk about those goals so we can support and hold them accountable to those goals throughout the year.’”

4. Figure out how to measure impact as best as you can

Measuring the success of social-emotional learning in schools has long been a challenge. How does a teacher, school, or district gauge improvement in intangibles like emotional self-control or persistence without a concrete measurement tool like a test?

The short answer: It is not easy. But between student surveys and data that schools are already collecting, it can be done, according to the educators from these three districts.

Twenty-three percent of educators say their school or district has not evaluated the impact of social-emotional learning on students at all in the past two years. A quarter said their school or district has placed “a little” emphasis on evaluating the impact of its SEL programming, and 33 percent indicated there has been “some” emphasis. The smallest share—19 percent—reported their school or district has put “a lot” of emphasis on evaluating SEL.

One way the Washoe County district approaches the challenge is through surveying students on their social-emotional skills.

Asking students how well they rate their own abilities is an imperfect measure, but the district has found that students who report higher social-emotional competencies on their annual student survey have significantly higher reading- and math-test scores and high school GPAs, as well as lower rates of suspension and absenteeism. They are also less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate on time.

Schools can also use students’ ratings of their social-emotional skills to figure out where students’ weaknesses and strengths are.

“Our kids tell us overwhelmingly that being polite to an adult whether they know them or not is very easy for them because from the time they are in kindergarten we teach them that,” said Shaffer. “But they also tell us that talking to someone they don’t know or inviting a student they don’t know into their friend group is difficult or telling a friend when they are upset or stressed is difficult.”

Kindergarten teacher, Heather Dellmuti, reads a book as part of an SEL lesson with her class at the Jefferson PK-8 school in Warren, Ohio, on Nov. 1, 2022.

In addition to examining survey data, the Washoe district also considers data on academic achievement, attendance rates, behavioral referrals, graduation rates, and participation in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Measuring the impact of social-emotional learning, said Paschel, is a qualitative exercise that requires looking for trends and connections in a smorgasbord of data.

“Let’s take discipline referrals for example. How do I look at discipline referrals that I have for this cohort of students as they move throughout their day?” she said. “What is it about when these students are in this area, or this time of day, or with this teacher that is different than when they are in this area, or this time of day, because the students are the same. What is the difference with campuses that explicitly plan for transformative SEL practices versus the academic outcomes in campuses that do not?”

5. Build programs that will survive school district leadership turnover

To see results, social-emotional learning must be sustained. And that can be a challenge with inevitable turnover in most school districts, especially at the leadership level.

“[Superintendents] have a shelf life of three to five years,” said Shaffer. She said the key to SEL’s longevity in her district is that, even though she oversees it, it’s collectively owned. “Principals own it in their building, teachers in their classrooms, our families own it in their homes, students own it within our student voice work.”

Deeply embedding SEL in school and district culture insulates it from turnover and changing priorities, said Shaffer. In the Washoe schools, Shaffer said SEL is now embedded in nearly everything—from principals opening a meeting with their staff with a warm welcome to teachers ending class on an optimistic, forward-looking note.

“It’s who we are,” she said.

Building that deep commitment among principals, teachers, school counselors, and other staff who will champion the work through leadership turnover has also been instrumental in sustaining social-emotional learning in Warren City, said Capers.

“Turning that responsiveness into passion and giving them space to lead,” he said. “That ensures that the work endures and doesn’t rest with just one leader or one person.”

As Warren City’s SEL program has matured, the district has moved toward doing more of its training in-house. Investing in school counselors and having them act as SEL coaches not only makes the training more relevant and tailored to each school, said Merolla, it also makes delivering professional development more sustainable over the long run when the district doesn’t have to hire expensive consultants.

Outside investment in SEL—whether through grants or partnerships—also helps provide a powerful incentive for new leadership to continue to invest in social-emotional learning, said Merolla.

The resources and personnel a district or school puts into its social-emotional-learning initiatives not only helps anchor SEL in the district, said Paschel, it also sends a silent but clear message about leadership’s level of commitment to the idea.

“Organizational charts speak to your values as a district,” said Paschel. “If you have one person who is trying to do this work for the whole district, that says something. You have to have the manpower to support this implementation until campuses have sustainability to keep going.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Building an Effective SEL Program: Lessons From 3 Districts


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