Student Well-Being

What’s Really Holding Schools Back From Implementing SEL?

By Arianna Prothero — April 16, 2024 4 min read
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The biggest barrier schools face in putting social-emotional learning curriculum in place is an age-old foe: time.

A lack of funding and support from teachers are big hurdles too, according to a new survey of school leaders.

The National Center for Education Statistics reached out to 1,700 public schools in February of this year as part of its School Pulse survey, collecting input from principals, vice principals, and other school-level leaders. The feedback received shows that school leaders are confident that their school environments help foster students’ social-emotional skills, even as they face many challenges in adopting and effectively implementing formal SEL curricula.

School leaders see what’s happening on their campuses on a daily basis and the social-emotional skills students are picking up, said Sherrie Raven, the director of SEL implementation for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. But, she said, a formal curriculum remains important. "[T]here are skills that students need to learn that might not be ‘caught’ just from the environment,” she said.

But she added that putting a formal curriculum in place can be difficult.

“Many schools do face barriers in implementing a formal curriculum,” she said. “Most often, these are barriers of time due to the limited number of minutes in each school day and the many areas teachers are asked to address.”

Seventy-two percent of school leaders in schools that had adopted an SEL curriculum cited time as the most limiting factor in executing the curriculum and 46 percent in schools that had not adopted a curriculum pointed to time as the most limiting factor in adopting a curriculum. Nearly two-thirds of schools in the survey said they had a formal SEL curriculum.

But from there, the challenges facing schools diverge.

Among the public schools that have a formal social-emotional learning curriculum, the second and third most-cited challenges limiting the effectiveness of the SEL curriculum were lack of teacher support (24 percent) and lack of parental and guardian buy-in (20 percent). Sixteen percent pointed to a lack of funding and to the curriculum being too burdensome for teachers to implement completely.

A lack of communication or using education jargon that parents don’t understand can work against school leaders’ efforts to implement or adopt an SEL program, said Karen Thierry, the research manager at Committee for Children who oversees the implementation of the organization’s Second Step social-emotional learning program.

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“Social-emotional learning is about teaching students life skills like communication and problem-solving, which are critical for success in school and in life,” she said. “Create opportunities to engage families and provide regular updates to help bridge understanding and support for social-emotional learning. You can connect via school newsletters, social media, or during in-person open houses or events when they can hear from leaders and teachers directly and ask questions.”

Among the schools that do not have a formal SEL curriculum, a lack of funding and a lack of materials and resources were the second and third most common barriers to adopting a program: Thirty-seven percent of school leaders said they didn’t have the money for a formal SEL curriculum while 34 percent said they lacked the materials and resources. Twenty-one percent said that a lack of district-level support for the curriculum was a barrier.

Schools without a formal SEL curriculum cited a lack of teacher support as one of the top five barriers to adopting an SEL program, with 17 percent of school leaders citing that as an issue and making it the fifth most-cited barrier for this group.

‘What you need to be doing to build relationships’

Teachers generally care about their students, said Raven, so getting them behind an SEL initiative is a barrier that school leaders can clear. Raven, a former principal, said that one way to get teacher buy-in is to make sure that school leaders are practicing what they preach.

“One time, I was in a training where the leader looked at me as the principal and said, ‘Everything that you expect your teachers to do to build relationships with students is what you need to be doing to build relationships with your staff.’”

Despite the challenges in implementing or adopting an SEL curriculum, school leaders are confident that their schools are places that foster and promote their students’ social-emotional development, whether or not they have a formal curriculum.

Eighty-five percent of school leaders agree that the culture at their school supports their students’ social-emotional growth, while 86 percent feel their discipline practices reinforce students’ social-emotional skills.

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

A similarly high percentage of school leaders—82 percent—say that their schools provide teachers with the support and resources needed to integrate students’ social-emotional skills into academic content.

Most school leaders also agree that teachers do dedicate time for students to practice social and emotional skills (72 percent) and that most teachers at their schools integrate SEL concepts into their lesson plans (62 percent).

One more important finding to note: School leaders are not raving about the effectiveness of their SEL curriculum, giving it mostly average marks. The plurality of survey respondents—45 percent—rated their SEL curriculum as moderately effective while nearly a quarter said it was either very effective or slightly effective. Only a handful rated their SEL curriculum as either extremely effective or not effective at all.

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