Professional Development

How to Get the Adults in Schools to Improve Their Social-Emotional Skills

By Arianna Prothero — December 09, 2022 3 min read
Image of diverse hands in a team huddle.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Students will struggle to fully develop their social-emotional skills if the adults around them are not modeling strong skills themselves. This is why expert after expert will say that school or district leaders must start with adult social-emotional learning before launching an SEL curriculum for students.

But how do you address adults’ social-emotional learning without the message coming across as condescending? Education Week recently put this question to two experts: Trish Schaffer, the MTSS/SEL coordinator for Washoe County School District in Nevada, and Jill Merolla, the SEL coordinator for Warren City schools in Ohio.

They responded during an online panel discussion during Education Week’s recent K-12 Essentials Forum on SEL. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How do you go to your teachers, your principals, and others in the school building and say, “I want to fine tune your emotional-management skills or your empathy skills,” without sounding patronizing?

Schaffer: That has become a little more tricky over the past couple of years. Self-care has quickly become a dirty word here in the Washoe County school district, and when you talk about adult SEL, I have had people ask me, “Are you going to make us hold hands and sing Kumbaya?” It really is about how you’re messaging it.

Starting with the adults is all about experiencing social-emotional learning. In Washoe County school district, we started using the 3SignaturePractices in our meetings and in our professional learning early on [starting meetings or training with a welcoming or inclusive opening, including engaging activities such as brain breaks throughout the meeting, and ending the meeting with an optimistic closing].

The 3 Signature Practices are not an icebreaker, it’s not just a quick high-five. There is intentionality to connect to the learning and to have the adults connect to each other. When you go about it that way, it isn’t patronizing. You’re respecting them for what they bring to the table and, importantly, you’re telling them why you’re engaging in this work and, once they begin to experience that, you do see it start to show up in their classrooms and skills.

Given the time that we are in, still pandemic, post-pandemic, however you want to call it, you need to give adults a variety of options. They need to have opportunities to access social-emotional learning at their own pace, as well as to experience it in their professional learning: offering asynchronous learning, offering book clubs, offering different pieces of information where they can move along in their journey is something I highly recommend.

See also

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.
Third-grade teacher Stephanie Brugler works with her class during an SEL lesson in November at the Jefferson PK-8 school in Warren, Ohio.
Daniel Lozada for Education Week

Merolla: You have to be the model of what you expect. I think the modeling you show and appreciation I think that’s an important piece. ... [Based on] some surveying we’ve done of staff, listening to staff also about the pacing of their work, how they are being recognized [is important]. I try to listen to our teachers around the district on some of their concerns and being responsive to what they’re feeling. Because if you don’t do that, they cut you off.

I want to build off of what you just said about being responsive to teachers. How do you get buy-in from people in your schools?

Merolla: I feel like I’m listening more and then trying to provide more support in the areas that they’re talking about. One of the things we’re seeing with students is there is a lot of dysregulation, probably from trauma. We’re trying to connect what [teachers have] always done, to say what you’re doing is really SEL practices. I think we need to give them credit for doing a lot of the SEL along the way that they may not have noticed. One thing we have done is having our teachers share their best practices that they have been doing that maybe they didn’t realize were best SEL practices, trauma-informed practices. We did that in our PD this year. And teachers loved it because I think we allowed them to share some of their strengths.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Professional Development From Our Research Center What AI Training Do Teachers Need Most? Here's What They Say
Nearly half of educators are uncomfortable with the AI technologies they've encountered.
1 min read
opinion classroom q&a ai
F. Sheehan for EdWeek / Getty
Professional Development Can PD Ice Breakers Be Less Cringey? We Asked Teachers
PD sessions often start with a dreaded ice breaker. Here are some ideas to foster teacher relationships more naturally.
3 min read
Close up of a blue nametag on a lanyard with the word "Meh" written where the handwritten name would appear.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty
Professional Development Opinion To Improve the Professional Learning Experience, Create a Welcoming Environment
Showing school leaders hospitality can in turn encourage them to treat their staffs in a similar fashion.
Michael Nelson
4 min read
The favorite drinks for participants awaits them on a conference table.
The favorite drinks for participants awaits them on a conference table.
Peter DeWitt
Professional Development New Teachers Need Strong Mentors. Two Pros Offer Tips
A discussion of 8 essential elements for setting up and sustaining a mentorship program for new teachers.
1 min read
Middle school history teachers discuss their lesson plans for teaching about the Great Depression.
Middle school history teachers discuss their lesson plans for teaching about the Great Depression.
Allison Shelley for EDUImages