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Make SEL Work by Applying These 6 Best Practices

By Libby Stanford — November 07, 2022 10 min read
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Districts have incorporated social-emotional-learning principles into programs and curricula for decades as an effort to teach students how to manage emotions, achieve goals, show empathy, and build strong relationships. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Eighty-six percent of teachers, principals, and school district leaders told the EdWeek Research Center that their schools or districts teach social-emotional learning, according to a survey of 824 educators conducted Sept. 28 through Oct. 17. And 83 percent of survey respondents said that SEL has had a positive impact on their students’ academic performance.

Putting in place SEL programs that are effective depends on a few key factors, including how they’re implemented, whether the needs of all students are being considered, and whether the program is universal, researchers say.

“Effective SEL can be consolidated into one concept, and that is implementing SEL systematically across all the schools and the district rather than just within the classroom,” said Julia Mahfouz, an educational leadership professor at the University of Colorado-Denver.

Researchers recommend the following best practices for teachers, principals, and district leaders looking to implement or revitalize SEL programs and curricula:

1. Use evidence-based practices

SEL is most effective when it’s backed up by research and data, researchers say.

Organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, and the Committee for Children provide a host of resources on their websites to help districts develop evidence-based SEL practices.

“It’s really important that if you’re going to develop a program or use a program, that it’s really based in research and that there’s a good translation of research into practice,” said Tia Kim, the vice president of education, research, and impact at Committee for Children, a Seattle-based nonprofit that offers SEL programs to school districts.

Over time, districts should also be using their own data collection to assess the effectiveness of SEL even though evaluating that impact can be messy and imperfect. It’s important for schools and districts to evaluate whether students are engaged in SEL content and how easy or difficult it is for teachers to adapt SEL principles to their own teaching styles, Kim said. Equally as important, school and district leaders should use the findings from that data to adjust and adapt their programs to ensure they’re effective.

Committee for Children has also started working with districts to survey students to assess their schools’ SEL programs, she said.

“Sometimes, we are missing the youth voice and we’re really trying to develop programs for kids, so you need to know how it’s resonating with them,” Kim said.

2. Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. That will help prioritize equity

A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work when it comes to SEL. Instead, it’s necessary for school and district leaders to ensure that SEL meets the individualized needs of their community and the students they serve, said Sherrie Raven, the director of SEL implementation at CASEL.

One of the best ways to go about that is to set up a steering committee or advisory board made up of stakeholders from all parts of the school or district community, including parents, teachers, and school and district staff members.

“We know that social-emotional learning isn’t one-size fits-all,” Raven said. “And we know that it is, necessarily, shaped and determined by the community that it’s in.”

For example, school and district leaders can customize SEL based on a school’s racial demographics, socio-economic statuses, and knowledge of potentially traumatic events that have occurred in a community. All of those factors can inform how teachers approach SEL, what SEL-specific lessons are taught in the classroom, and what kind of misconceptions surrounding SEL might be prevalent in a community.

CASEL recommends that schools create robust partnerships with parents and community groups, have regular meetings and calls with families and parents to provide updates on students’ SEL progress, and develop relationships so that teachers and school leaders understand the cultural differences between a student’s home life and school experience.

By gathering feedback from stakeholders, school and district leaders can have a better understanding of the cultural context for their schools and communities, which will ultimately lead to a more equitable implementation of SEL, Mahfouz said.

“You can’t just bring any kind of SEL and say, ‘I’m implementing SEL,’ when there are certain specific needs within that school,” she said. If school and district leaders don’t apply cultural context and have an equity mindset when it comes to SEL practices, they won’t have effective SEL, Mahfouz added.

To take it further, schools and districts should embed SEL into the mission, vision, and strategic plan of the school and district, Mahfouz said. That way, it’s communicated to all stakeholders that SEL is a part of the everyday operations of a school.

Ultimately, if SEL isn’t equitable, it shouldn’t be considered SEL, Mahfouz said.

“Equity is embedded in SEL,” she said. “The idea of, let’s say, inserting equity language without actually doing the inner work is not SEL.”

3. Embed social-emotional learning into both daily lessons and standard curriculum

Researchers say SEL should be systemic and embedded into all parts of the school system. That means it should include both lesson plans specific to the practice and a curriculum that has SEL embedded within it.

In the October EdWeek Research Center survey, 38 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said their school or district “both set time aside during the school day to explicitly teach social-emotional skills and integrates social-emotional learning into academic subjects.”

A third of the respondents said social-emotional learning is integrated into academic subjects but their school or district doesn’t set aside specific time for teaching social-emotional skills. Nearly a third of respondents said the opposite—time is set aside to explicitly teach SEL but it’s not integrated into academic subjects.

“If social-emotional learning is only these 30-minute lessons ... and then you turn around and ignore it, it’s not going to stick because students aren’t practicing it,” Raven said.

Integration of SEL into the curriculum can take many forms. For example, it can be as simple as a teacher helping a student who is struggling with a math problem by reminding the student how they can persevere to get through hard things. Or it can be a little more involved, such as providing a forum for students to debate curriculum topics or creating opportunities for group work in lesson plans so students can learn to work as a team and create social connections.

4. Ensure everyone is involved, not just the students

When done right, social-emotional learning should involve everyone in a school environment, not just the students. Raven, Mahfouz, and Kim all recommend that school and district leaders ensure their school staff are participating in their own social-emotional learning so they can be equipped to both teach SEL and model it for students.

While most people think of SEL as a way to help students learn “soft skills,” it can also be greatly beneficial for teachers, principals, district leaders, and even support staff. In the classroom, teachers can use the tenets of social-emotional learning to improve classroom-management skills, learn how to better engage students of different backgrounds in learning, and have fair and clear behavioral expectations, Kim said.

Professional development is “key to having good implementation and sustainability of SEL programs, not only within a school year but through multiple school years,” she said.

Learning how to put these skills to work is especially important for principals because they can influence the overall climate of the school, Mahfouz, the CU-Denver professor, said. Mahfouz, alongside Susan Davis, an SEL coordinator at St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colo., Melissa Lettis, dean of students at St. Vrain Valley Schools, and Margaret Vaughn, an education professor at Washington State University, found that principals with these skills are more prepared to handle inequitable situations by helping teachers recognize their own implicit biases toward students.

“Principals’ social-emotional competencies, well-being, and leadership form that foundation that influences the overall climate, teacher functioning and well-being, the family and community partnerships, and the whole downstream to student outcomes,” Mahfouz emphasized.

Raven also discovered the value of involving adults in more meaningful ways when she was the SEL director for the Austin Independent school district. At the time, Raven and her team thought they would be able to create effective social-emotional-learning strategies by simply teaching them to the students.

“The biggest misstep we made at the beginning was thinking we could start a social-emotional-learning program for students without doing the work with the adults first,” Raven said.

5. Develop strategies that address all student age groups

When people think of SEL, they often limit themselves to imagining how it’ll look for students at the elementary school level with children learning how to read emotions, practice their handshakes, or craft sincere apologies. But effective approaches should go beyond elementary school and be implemented throughout the curriculum at all age levels, Raven said.

“I don’t think [SEL] ever ends,” she said. “As adults, we’re always learning, too, but I think the look of it might change. The instruction might be more explicit when you’re in elementary school. When you’re in middle school and high school, it might be more about integrating it into the academics and reinforcing what you’ve already learned.”

Social-emotional learning can take many forms at different points in the education journey. For secondary students, it can include allotted time for self-reflection or group discussions about real-world events and how students are responding to them, Kim said.

“Historically, what we find is that there seems to be a lot of engagement and buy-in at particularly the elementary school level in teaching social-emotional learning,” Kim said. “But we do know social-emotional learning and development is a lifelong process and that we have to be constantly honing the skills and learning about them and supporting the skills both inside the classroom and out.”

6. Be proactive by being more transparent about what is being taught

In recent years, SEL has become tied up in political arguments over racism, sexuality, and gender identity and critical race theory, the academic concept that says race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies. In some instances, conservative political groups and politicians claimed social-emotional learning and equity are linked to critical race theory, which schools and experts say they are not.

Forty-one percent of school and district leaders said they’ve received feedback from parents concerned that SEL is teaching their children values they don’t approve of, according to the EdWeek Research Center’s October survey. Of those 41 percent who received pushback, 58 percent said they haven’t changed their emphasis on social-emotional learning, 28 percent said they’ve started emphasizing SEL more, and 14 percent said they’ve emphasized it less.

“When we think about all of the, in many ways, false conflicts that have been created and brought up around social-emotional learning and all of the rhetoric about what social-emotional learning is that’s not accurate, we know that people in districts are having to deal with that,” Raven said.

Involving the community and knowing it well can help school and district leaders navigate concerns, she said. Sometimes, that means being more transparent about curriculum and allowing parents and community members to view the exact lessons students are learning.

It could also mean being more proactive on the front end by clearly explaining to parents and the community that SEL teaches students basic life skills such as communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving, Kim said.

“If people start to really understand what it is, then I think some of the misconceptions around it can kind of go away,” Kim said.

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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 Make SEL Work by Applying These 6 Best Practices


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