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Dos and Don’ts When Choosing Social-Emotional Learning Curricula

By Catherine Gewertz — April 07, 2020 | Updated: May 26, 2020 8 min read
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Demand for curricula that teach social and emotional skills is soaring, as schools increasingly come to see those skills as something teachers should be teaching.

A survey last year by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a leading advocacy group on the topic, found that 70 percent of principals think teachers need a formal curriculum to teach SEL. Two years earlier, 43 percent thought so.

In a February survey of district leaders, school leaders, and teachers, the EdWeek Research Center found similar consensus: 74 percent of respondents either partly agreed or completely agreed that a formal curricula is important.

The share of schools implementing a separate, specific SEL curriculum is slowly edging upward, to 57 percent in 2019, from 51 percent two years earlier, the CASEL survey found. But there isn’t a broad consensus on which curricula to use. In the EdWeek survey, respondents revealed a splintered marketplace.

The most widely cited program was positive behaviorial interventions and supports, or PBIS, which isn’t a curriculum, but a method that helps schools improve social behavior schoolwide. The next most popular program was Second Step at 20 percent. The third most popular was “no program”—at 18 percent.

Choosing a curriculum can be daunting. What information do district leaders and principals—the ones most often tapped to make this decision—use to help choose a curricula? Their sources often aren’t based on research.

The research group MDR’s study in 2018 found 53 percent of district leaders and principals relied on colleagues’ recommendations. Nearly 3 in 10 said they used social media, followed by associations, trade shows and conferences, marketing emails, or publishers’ websites.

There are resources available, however, that can help leaders choose an SEL program that well-designed studies have shown to be effective. Education Week interviewed experts and practitioners and distilled their advice into core takeaways to use as you consider your SEL curriculum choice.

Ground Your Choice in Good Research

Overwhelmingly, our experts and district leaders urged colleagues to use three key guides that evaluate the research on SEL curricula. They are the CASEL guide, a guide created by the RAND Corp., and the federal What Works Clearinghouse.


Click here for more exclusive SEL survey results.

“These are the kinds of tools leaders should look to” as they’re exploring SEL curricula, said Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland district, which has been through the process several times. In 2008, the district chose the PATHS curriculum for K-5, and in the past few years, it’s added Second Step for middle school and Facing History and Ourselves for high school.

The CASEL guide was a key resource, Gordon said, helping him avoid getting “confused or misled by vendors,” whose emails steadily stack up in his inbox.

As he spoke with EdWeek, he read a sampling of the week’s emails aloud: “SEL sample units to help you plan for next year!” said one. “Looking for a unique SEL program? Vaping prevention, SEL, and more!” said another.

Take a Team Approach

District leaders said that a wide array of input was crucial to their decisions.

Patrick Farrell, the intervention and support coordinator in the Charlottesville, Va., schools, and Jodie Murphy, the district’s mental-wellness facilitator, assembled a team that included administrators, counselors, psychologists, and—importantly—teachers when they evaluated SEL curricula in 2017.

“You want to have people on your team who are going to be the deliverers of that curriculum,” Murphy said. “They’re going to be looking at it through the lens of, ‘How much time will this take? How easy will this be to deliver?’ I’m a clinician, not a teacher, so having that [instructional] lens at the table was important.”

Ally Skoog-Hoffman, the director of research-practice partnerships at CASEL, offers this checklist for inclusion on curriculum committees: chief academic officers; district directors of finance, student support, and professional development; school board members; teachers, parents, students, and—crucially—principals, whom she called a “key lever” in curriculum choice and implementation.

Take Inventory

Experts urge district and school leaders to revisit their vision and priorities and clearly identify what they need from a new SEL curriculum before embarking on the choice process.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

Schools need a formal program in order to adequately teach SEL to students.


Completely disagree


Partly disagree


Partly agree


Completely agree

Source: EdWeek Research Center survey, 2020

“Say I’m a school leader and I’ve got a vision I’ve communicated around a sense of belonging and a climate that fosters academic learning,” said Skoog-Hoffman.

“I want an SEL curriculum that emphasizes building that sense of community and belonging. I’d ask these programs: Show me. Show me how your curriculum speaks to this idea of community building. And how does it integrate into my academic areas?”

It’s important to take inventory of what programs and practices are already in place and consider how they would dovetail with a new SEL curricula, she said. Practices like Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, a framework that blends academic and social-emotional support, should be part of that conversation.

“Never underestimate the power of getting an instructional team around a table and starting with a big piece of chart paper,” Skoog-Hoffman said.

“Step 1: Let’s write down all the initiatives we have in place. What’s working and what isn’t? How can SEL relate to these other elements? What would SEL look like in our math curriculum? I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s a powerful experience.”

Consider Your Population

Meria Carstarphen has led the SEL-choice process twice, as superintendent in Atlanta and when she led the Austin, Texas, schools a decade ago. A crucial part of the process, she said, was understanding the distinct needs of each district’s population.

In Austin, she had a large population of children in poverty and English-learners. The district had just come through a rough time with a spike in youth suicide. The district needed a curriculum that would address the “emotional strain in the community,” Carstarphen said.

Atlanta, by contrast, was reeling from a notorious cheating scandal when she arrived, with morale at an all-time low, she said.

Adults and children in the system needed help with self-regulation, respecting others, communication, and problem-solving. They needed an SEL curriculum that would help with a “massive reset” for everyone involved. David Yeager, who writes extensively about SEL as an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, said district leaders should be prepared to use different approaches—or vendors—in upper-middle and high school than the ones they use for K-5.

“Research is clear that SEL programs that work in elementary show effects that decline as kids get older,” he said. “The reasons for social-emotional problems in kids are different than the reasons for adolescents.”

Opt for Integrated and Explicit

The experts were unanimous that SEL instruction be integrated into the school day, rather than handled in one subject or discrete sessions. Yeager said research backs that up.

Social-emotional curricula that are “manifest in everyday routines, pulled across all courses, are more likely to be effective,” he said. “You don’t want curriculum where kids practice having relationships.”

Not only should SEL curricula be embedded in all subjects, it should be explicit, experts said. Carstarphen said she looks for curricula that help teachers be very clear on how to teach each skill.

“It’s the difference between, ‘We are going to have time in class for X,’ and ‘I’m going to teach you what empathy is. Here’s what the word means, here’s what it looks like and smells like, and here’s what happens when you don’t use it.’ You have to teach it,” she said.

Districts should carefully consider their capacity to provide the professional development a curriculum will require, not just at first, but perennially. Leaders should plan “not just for one-time training but for supporting teachers throughout the year,” Yeager said.

Gordon, the Cleveland CEO, said he and his team overlooked that when they chose the PATHS curriculum.

The district provided initial training, but later realized it needed a longer-term plan to train new teachers and teachers who switch grades, as well as “refresh” training for all staff members after about five years.

Gordon advised leaders to consider how much training each curriculum they consider will require. “Some are more turnkey and some need more adult support,” he said. “Make this explicit part of the questions you ask yourself.”

Watch Out for False Claims

Plan for more than the cost of training, too, said BJ Weller, who led the SEL curriculum choice in 2018-19 in Utah’s Canyons school district. Some programs require annual fees or include student manipulatives, which can boost the cost. “You think you’re getting a program for $1,000, but you might be spending $5,000 a year on the required student components,” he said.

When demand for curricula rises, vendors’ claims can sometimes exceed their products. Gordon said he worries that some vendors of social-emotional-skills curricula are repeating a dynamic that unfolded after the Common Core State Standards were widely adopted: falsely claiming their curricula were “aligned” to the new standards.

“There is a lot of stuff being rolled out as SEL,” he said.

“I worry that they’re stamping ‘SEL’ onto the package.” It’s particularly tricky in the case of SEL, too, because most states haven’t adopted SEL standards, so there’s no way to check how well the curriculum reflects standards.

“It gives publishers even more leeway to say, ‘This is it!’ Gordon said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Dos and Don’ts When Choosing SEL Curricula


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