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School & District Management Reported Essay

Principals Need Social-Emotional Support, Too

For schools to flourish, districts must consider the well-being of their leaders
By Denisa R. Superville — September 14, 2021 7 min read
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This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.

Before the pandemic upended lives across the globe, K-12 districts were proud of their efforts to weave social-emotional learning into the fabric of their schools.

But they seemed to have overlooked a very important group in the process: principals—the people who set the tone and climate in schools and on whom the success of any school-based initiative rests.

That’s a remarkable oversight because SEL really can’t work in schools unless principals understand the research and practices undergirding it and are modeling appropriate behaviors for staff and students.

And the principal’s responsibilities—attending to students’ academic and social-emotional well-being; building relationships with staff, students, parents, and the broader community; engendering trust with stakeholders; making sound management decisions while also juggling their personal lives—demonstrate that they’re prime candidates who would benefit from a firm understanding and practice of SEL.

The pandemic and social justice protests over the last 18 months were clarion calls that principals desperately need SEL, too. Not just to support students and teachers, but for their own well-being and survival.

In the early days of the crisis, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals’ union for the New York City school system, surveyed school leaders in the city, then the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the emotions school leaders said they were experiencing: anxiety, stress, and frustration.

As principals start another uncertain school year, we must ask: Who is looking out for them?

Leadership preparation programs would be one place to start taking school leaders’ emotional and mental health seriously.

Knowledge and training in SEL competencies will help principals become better leaders, improve relationships schoolwide, and create stronger bonds with parents and communities, contends Julia Mahfouz, an assistant professor in the school of education and human development at the University of Colorado-Denver, who thinks that educator-preparation and licensure programs should infuse SEL competencies into coursework.

This would give principals a firm grounding in the research, along with opportunities to build their SEL muscle through reflection and collaboration, Mahfouz and others argue. It would also put school leaders on stronger footing to run successful schools and reduce job stress and, hopefully, principal turnover.

As principals start another un­certain school year, we must ask: Who is looking out for them?

“We need to integrate social and emotional learning into the immune system of the entire school district, if we want to get the outcomes that we all care about,” said Marc A. Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the co-creator of the RULER Approach to SEL—a program that teaches school community members how to recognize and regulate emotions.

The shift to center SEL in educator-preparation programs should ideally start when candidates are preparing to become teachers. This ensures that the awareness will be a “second skin to their professional identity” by the time they become principals, said Maia Niguel Hoskin, a visiting assistant professor and co-academic director of the school counseling program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

An early start also ensures that the burden of equipping school leaders with SEL skills does not fall solely on school districts, according to Melissa Schlinger, the vice president of practice and programs at CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which saw a spike in interest from districts during the pandemic.

There’s still a crucial role for districts to ensure that principals are continually refreshing these skills.

“SEL is a lifelong process of reflection and building your own capacity,” and it requires continuous support, Schlinger said.

But districts also have a burning problem in front of them right now and can’t—and should not—wait for prep programs to catch up.

They can take small steps that won’t break the bank to ensure that their principals are emotionally and mentally ready for the job as this national trauma chugs along.

  • Start with a baseline assessment. Offer a quick mandatory, anonymous 5-10 question survey for principals on SEL competencies. The survey can help districts assess the types of stress principals are experiencing in order to tailor professional development and other supports. said Hoskin.

  • Provide ongoing PD. Targeted, ongoing, job-embedded professional development and resources can improve principals’ understanding of SEL. With lots of products on the market, districts should carefully select those backed by evidence and a record of improving outcomes for staff and students. That would be a wise use of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, which provides aid to help with recovery from the pandemic.

  • Create “wellness days.” Wellness days for principals, like sick days, drive home the message that school systems value mental and social-emotional health. Districts can also add a “wellness corner” or “mental health watch” to their newsletters or host wellness weeks to normalize the importance of healthy school leaders, Hoskin suggested.

  • Transform meetings. They are often agenda-driven. Start instead with a welcoming ritual to build relationships and trust. Include time for reflections and small-group discussions, Schlinger said. End on an optimist note.

  • Strengthen mentoring. Veteran principals can help support or guide current early-career school leaders with stress management, coping strategies, and self-care.

  • Establish support groups. Trust and relationships are important SEL touchstones. Think about organizing groups of like-minded or similarly situated principals. For example, those leading elementary or Title I schools can help their peers with on-the-job challenges and reduce isolation.

  • Communicate clearly. Mixed messaging is a major reason why many principals have been feeling unmoored. While information continues to change rapidly during the pandemic, district officials can ensure that they are communicating clearly with school leaders what they know and when they know it, and provide school leaders with the necessary supports to accomplish their tasks. Communication should also be a two-way street. Principals must have opportunities to give feedback and to be heard by their bosses.

Changes can start small and be subtle, but consistency is the lynchpin. And that’s especially crucial this year for educators, parents, communities, and students weighed down by the accumulated trauma of the last two years.

“It’s not enough to have one PD a year,” Hoskin said. “That’s great, but what are we doing to maintain it during the year? That’s when the newsletter comes in, that’s when the wellness week comes in. … That’s when allowing them to take off mental-health days comes in. Those are the kinds of things that create an environment [that says] ‘we care about you.’”

In the longer term, we can look to prep-programs to fill the SEL knowledge and skills gap. And some programs are already adjusting.

“You can see there is a cry that’s happening on behalf of principals,” said Mahfouz, who wants national standards and state evaluation systems to recognize the importance of SEL for school leaders. “Higher education institutions are trying to respond. They are aware of the need.”

Through Yale, Brackett is offering an eight-week online course for school staff called “Managing Emotions in Times of Uncertainty and Stress.” Available on Coursera, more than 60,000 teachers, principals, and other educators have enrolled in it so far.

Hoskin also encourages brain breaks and mindfulness in class. In one exercise, students note everything that’s on their minds. They reflect on what is causing them distress. Sharing is optional, but Hoskin asks students to select something that is troubling them and put it aside for the duration of the class so they can be present in the moment.

Professors can also model the kinds of behaviors they’d like to see in their principal-candidates by discussing openly how they engage in self-care.

“Sometimes there is this shame behind self-care,” Hoskin said. “There should not be shame. There should not be a stigma.”

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 September 15, 2021 edition of Education Week as Principals Need Social-Emotional Support, Too

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