Few can argue that Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is having a moment in education, and rightly so. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic mitigations caused staff and student stress to skyrocket, thought leaders in education knew the value of implementing SEL-forward practices in schools. SEL programming is linked with improved academic outcomes, stronger student connections to peers and the school community, and a reduction in disciplinary referrals (Durlak et al., 2011; Sklad et al., 2012; Zins & Elias, 2006). One would think that infusing school programming with a systemic focus on SEL is a no brainer, but...

Schools and districts have fragile ecosystems. With staff speaking out about their struggles to teach during the pandemic, many educational leaders are concerned about sparking initiative fatigue.  Couple initiative fatigue with rising teacher stress, and districts risk mass staff exodus. Fear of culture regression, staff attrition, and program failure may cause school and district leaders to press “pause” on any new initiatives. Resist this urge.

Enhancing school curricula with SEL programming does not need to foment revolt. School and district leaders can successfully implement universal SEL programming through careful planning and strategies to increase staff buy-in gradually with some key shifts in culture, staff development, and instructional strategy.

Share the Why

Most school staff are highly motivated to make a difference in the lives of the students they serve. According to a survey conducted by LKMco and Pearson, 93% of the 1,000 teachers surveyed identified a desire to make a difference in the lives of children as their primary drive to enter teaching. If school and district leaders anchor their mindsets to the idea that teachers want what is best for their students, leaders can frame school conversations around SEL-informed teaching in a way that increases staff buy-in. School leaders should make space for candid conversation about how student engagement, discipline issues, and school culture have impacted the students in the past, and how SEL-informed teaching methods, applied systematically and universally, can improve graduation rates, classroom behavior, and academic performance. 

Several companies offer easy-to-use and powerful staff, parent, and student surveys that educational leaders can use to get a data-informed bead on the SEL needs of their schools and set a refined lens for future growth. These survey tools and data dashboards can often be purchased with state and federal funds earmarked for equity, diversity, and achievement. Collecting data on CASEL-aligned SEL outcomes for staff and students can produce a powerful story about the strengths and areas of need in your systems.

Armed with this data, leaders can share meaningful insight regarding where their schools are and where they can be in the future with strategic SEL programming. This is what “sharing the why” is all about and knowing the “why” can facilitate a stronger commitment to systematic SEL-forward programming and practices. To get help sharing the “why” for your school, use this sample presentation from The Collaborative for Academic, Emotional, and Social Learning (CASEL).

SEL-informed teaching methods, applied systematically and universally, can improve graduation rates, classroom behavior, and academic performance. 

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Level Up Staff

CASEL recommends that staff be trained in the fundamentals of SEL early in the school year to root SEL programming in school culture. Teachers often believe that school leadership prioritizes professional development at the beginning of the school year at the expense of time spent in the classroom preparing for school. Pairing this frustration at being allowed little time to prepare in the classroom with the overwhelming amount of information communicated to teachers on in-service days can be a recipe for disaster. For this reason, SEL rollout needs to be planned carefully to take the needs of staff into account.

Sharing hands-on, participatory SEL activities at staff meetings are great ice breakers that energize staff and demonstrate the potential impact of SEL-forward classroom practices. When you introduce universal SEL programming, keep it light and promise more to come. Slow and steady wins the race!

While engaging staff with fun SEL activities and opportunities for quiet reflection is important during that first in-service, leadership must set aside time to quickly circle back for a deep dive into the fundamentals of SEL. Dedicating an all-staff meeting to learning more about the benefits and foundations of SEL is critical for staff to feel secure and knowledgeable when they begin to enhance their own curriculum and instruction with universal SEL programming.

SEL rollout needs to be planned carefully to take the needs of staff into account.

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Promote SEL-Forward Instructional Strategies

Universal SEL programming does not need to be something “extra” on a teacher’s already full plate or a completely new way of doing things. Research shows that strategies as simple as allowing students five minutes of reflection prior to an assessment can improve student test scores. Furthermore, student-centered instructional practices such as allowing more space for student inquiry, collaboration, and movement also puts SEL growth front and center as students learn to collaborate with others, self-monitor, practice empathy, and manage their time. 

At this point, you may be thinking, “If improving SEL skills for students was as easy as implementing collaborative learning, we would not have the issues we have now. We already do all this.” You would be right. For SEL practices to create meaningful shifts, there needs to be a focus on metacognition. Students need to dive into why they interact in specific ways during collaborative time, consider how they prioritize their needs, and reflect on how they self-regulate. Simply giving students opportunities to practice these skills. Students need to be explicitly taught how to think, interact, and self-regulate more effectively.

While it is true that as SEL programming reaches deeper levels of application staff and students will need to engage in metacognition to develop social and emotional strategies, leaders need to focus on buy-in and a universal message to get the entire staff on board with novel programming. Suggesting easy “tweaks” to instructional practice is a great way to start. Remember, slow and steady wins the race.

Remember that starting with small changes is only part of your initial implementation plan. Leaders must follow up these early conversations with staff learning experiences that will model the metacognitive strategies needed to take SEL programming to deeper levels. Schools using SEL survey and data tools have monthly data touch points leaders can use to frame further conversations about setting a more elegant lens for SEL programming and spark staff interest in digging deeper to find space and opportunity in the curriculum for true SEL. At this point, leaders need to provide knowledge and resources to help teachers make SEL a part of classroom routines and curriculum. Check out this article from We Are Teachers to learn 21 practical, easy, and powerful ways to integrate SEL throughout the day.  There are myriad resources for SEL programming available in the educational space, free and paid, but this short article should get your team’s creativity flowing.

Leaders need to focus on buy-in and a universal message to get the entire staff on board with novel programming.

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Final Thoughts

As leaders in education, we know that integrating SEL programming and data into how we “do” school can lead to better student outcomes, stronger school culture, and higher staff satisfaction, but leaders need to be very strategic in their SEL programming roll out. Initiative fatigue, a lack of understanding of the “why” behind SEL programming, and insecurity about how to integrate SEL in the classroom can squash staff buy-in and hinder growth. By strategically using data to explain the “why”, setting aside sacred time for staff development relating to SEL, and starting small by showing staff how to incorporate painless instructional shifts to increase student SEL skills, leaders can increase staff buy-in and pave the way for deeper conversations to come.

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Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405–432.

Zins, J. E., & Elias, M. J. (2006). Social and emotional learning. In G. G. Bear & K. M. Minke (Eds.), Children’s needs III: Development prevention and intervention (pp. 1–14). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., Ben, J., & Gravesteijn, C. (2012). Effectiveness of school based universal social, emotional, and behavioral programs: Do they enhance students’ development in the area of skill, behavior, and adjustment? Psychology in the Schools, 49, 892–909. 






Author: Faith Smith

Posted: 28 Sep 2021

Estimated time to read: 7 mins

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