Special Report
Student Well-Being Q&A

What a Director of Social-Emotional Learning Does and Why It Matters

By Arianna Prothero — April 07, 2020 3 min read
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A conversation with Rose Prejean-Harris
Director of social-emotional learning, Atlanta Public Schools

Among the biggest barriers to deploying a robust social-emotional learning program is not having a dedicated leader at the district level whose sole focus is SEL, according to researchers and educators.

Very few school districts have such a person. Among the superintendents, principals, and teachers EdWeek surveyed on social-emotional learning, just 5 percent said there was an employee in their district’s central office who focuses exclusively on it. Twelve percent said they had a team of district-level employees who focus only on SEL.

Among those districts that do is Atlanta, where Rose Prejean-Harris is the director of social-emotional learning. She spoke with Education Week between conference calls as her district was in the early days of closing all schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic. She answered questions about what, exactly, an SEL director does and why her job is critical to making sure the district’s SEL initiatives produce academic and behavioral returns.

What are schools in your district expected to do in terms of social-emotional learning?

Rose Prejean-Harris

Our minimum standard of service is 60 minutes of explicit SEL instruction per week. That’s kind of our tier-one approach to SEL. That every school, every student, gets the same prescription of SEL.

On top of that, we are now doing things to make sure that SEL goes beyond just the explicit instructional time.

We call it integration of SEL. We look at whole-school programming, we look at academic integration, we looked at all of those pieces, and we are finding ways to make sure that you have SEL skills and that you’re reinforcing those skills that we’re teaching throughout the instructional day.

You have three SEL coordinators: one each for elementary, middle, and high schools. What do you and your team do specifically to help schools?

We use the train-the-trainer model. … That means every school has this SEL liaison, every SEL liaison gets this training, and then we give them the materials and the resources to be able to then do training in their school around these same things. We have a theme and a competency [SEL skill] of the month, so that programming is consistent throughout the district.

Now, walk me through an average workday. What does that look like? I mean, pre-coronavirus.

There is no average workday, seriously. As an SEL director, I do a lot of high-level things, for instance, meeting and collaborating with other departments, doing strategic planning, doing programming.

I always have sessions with my team, so that we can go through and discuss the development of the program, right. What does that look like? What do we want to make sure that we push out? How do we make sure that this is the same language? Consistency of programming is very important.

Then, also it may be meeting with another set of departments and it may be around how SEL plays a part with hiring, how SEL plays a part with special services, how SEL plays a part with school leadership teams. How does SEL play a part with content? How does SEL play a part with signature programs? Just having that voice at the table, to make sure that we are interweaving [SEL] throughout our district and into all of our district’s programming.

How much do you track data and what kind of data do you use to see how well SEL is working in schools?

If I had one area of real growth, that would be the area. I think we’re getting better at it, but the intentionality of it, at first, was not really there, because we were trying to get a program off the ground. Now we’re trying to be really intentional about looking at data and how to help best support schools based on that data.

We are helping [schools] to develop specific SEL goals that they are then going to monitor and track. If I am looking at the tone of teachers, and the tone that teachers are using with kids in the classroom, and I really want to target that particular behavior within my school, … then we’re helping them to define what those goals are, and then what their specific outcomes are, and then having a way to measure that.

Then, when you are changing those specific behaviors, then you’ll see an increase in the norm, right?

I don’t want SEL data to be a compliance piece. … I want it to be data that they can use to improve themselves as an adult, in their building, to help kids be more successful.

What do you see as the essence of your job?

I like to think of SEL as the glue that binds everything in the district together.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Q&A: What Does a Director of SEL Do?

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