Amidst all of the topics that climbed up the priority list for professional educators as a result of the pandemic’s impact, social-emotional learning or SEL has stayed front-of-mind for teachers, administrators, and the communities they serve. For educators who have seen the positive outcomes of deliberate SEL efforts in the lives of their students, they understand why. Though SEL isn’t a new concept, it is now widespread and in some places where understanding is lacking, a controversial phrase. As such, it has a multitude of interpretations in circulation. Regardless of more recently produced or updated programs, software solutions, books, frameworks and other resources, SEL at its core is quite simple and universal by nature—SEL focuses on the complementary skills that young people develop with guidance while interacting and collaborating with their peers and teachers. Benefits include holistic development, improved academic performance, positive peer relationships and emotional well-being—all translating to being better prepared for the future.
Scholars have proven such skills aren’t discrete but intertwined (Schenck, Anctil, & Smith, 2010). These typically-unmeasured skills can be directly connected to instructional activities that develop measured academic skills, but don’t have to be. The purpose of being deliberate with recognizing, assessing, and intervening to further develop SEL is to serve the holistic needs of all members of a learning community: students first, but also staff, and where able, even families and school partners.
Therefore, what does successful SEL implementation look like and how does a school or district leader empower a cultural shift towards SEL learning environments for all students? The guide attempts to provide some proven waypoints along with resources and demonstrate just how integral SEL is to a school culture that is and always will be future ready. Firstly, a succinct look back at the formal origins of what we now know as SEL is in order.
SEL Expertise in the Field
Since 1994, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been providing evidence-based guidance and strategies for educators to implement SEL into their instruction. Likewise, they have been investigating the impact of non-academic skill development upon the local, state, and national academic standards and staying current with cultural vectors across the changing landscape. CASEL’s “SELect Program” designation encourages solution providers to align their product roadmap with the tenets of SEL.
Harmony Academy is one high-quality example of a tool districts are using to intentionally implement SEL. Harmony Academy is freely available to use immediately with Pre-K through 6th grade students to help nurture healthy self-image and interpersonal communication. Serving the top 10 largest school districts in the US, their solution and resources have been field-tested and proven effective. In some locations, secondary grades have adapted some of their resources and strategies to support older learners as well.
More than any role, the school counselor has become the beacon and bridge forward for educators that make a transition to an SEL school culture. For the past 20 years, The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) has supported the evolution of this role through the ASCA National Model. Complete with professional standards that cover the school counseling gamut, one domain in particular, the ASCA Student Standards: Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success, corroborate the work of CASEL and empower school counselors to to help students develop across three domains: Learning Strategies, Self-Management Skills, and Social Skills.
Given the specific traumas that have been encountered, another worthy mention in addition to CASEL and the ASCA resources come from Turnaround for Children and their whole-child teaching philosophy approach and framework, seen below:
Dr. Pamela Cantor founded Turnaround after studying the effects of trauma on developing children and researching medical and psychological solutions for helping young people overcome events that caused turmoil and set them back in their learning and development.
With many collaborative experts and organizations distilling the research into actionable ideas, there is an entry point for each and every school to improve how they formally support growth. SEL has crystallized from a need to address the rapidly changing context in which a child learns and grows from the evergreen mission of a teacher to support a child’s academic growth and development as a citizen. From kindergarten through graduation, skills like self- and social awareness, self-regulation, and relationship building are not wholly separate from a learner’s ability to excel in a specific academic content area or career interest. Modern technological breakthroughs and changes on the homefront have exposed this need for more intentional efforts and school leaders have felt the vocational call to address this growth in addition to the standards to which they align their instruction.
The Needs Are Real
The pandemic acted like a crucible, forging disparate issues affecting students into alloys that made learning recovery a daunting task for educators. Various reports have shown how learning from home and separation from peers (and teachers) were having deleterious effects, both academically and socially, upon students of all ages and backgrounds, but especially those from low-socioeconomic households.
Even here at FRS, education leaders were convening to build effective interventions to stem the losses caused by such a disruption. This attention has led to policy changes from federal, state, and local education agencies that are explicit in providing support for students to have access to intentional, high-quality SEL programming and supports. Yet this increase of scope is often another burden to already-overburdened educators. School leaders and counselors can show the way by building efficacious SEL literacy for staff—as well as students— empowering teachers to intentionally infuse instructional activities with adjustments that nurture such vital life skills.
From our vantage point at FRS, components from CASEL, ASCA, and Turnaround’s framework aligns with Future Ready’s Framework and aligns with several different gears:
CASEL’s SEL FRAMEWORK: Five Core Competencies
Collaborative Leadership, Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Community Partnerships, Use of Space & Time.
When viewed through this particular lens, it’s invigorating to think that the field knows from learning science and counseling research what priorities deserve the most focus in caring for our children—that effective SEL is a vital part and parcel to a healthy learning community. Though criticisms and questions about SEL exist, everyone can agree that if we can help young people develop into empathetic, mindful, well-rounded citizens, their potential for success increases. The goal of this FRS Emerging Practices Guide is to provide clear guidance for how SEL factors into a truly Future Ready School and more broadly, the entire learning community.
Key Components of Effective Strategies
From the collective work of the learning organizations cited above, synchronized, we can plot a course of action for education leaders to empower their staff. First we look at what these aligned priorities are in the form of key components.
1: Develop a Plan
- Clear Vision and Leadership: Establish a clear and shared vision for SEL within the school community. Strong leadership from administrators, teachers, and staff is essential to drive the implementation process, allocate resources, and foster a culture that values the benefits of SEL.
- Comprehensive and Infused Curriculum: Integrate SEL into existing and evolving curriculum that outlines learning objectives, activities, and assessments. Ensure that the curriculum is age-appropriate and aligns with the developmental needs of students.
- Parent and Community Engagement: Involve parents, guardians, and the broader community in the SEL implementation process. Transparency, regular communication and workshops can help parents develop SEL literacy and comfort with SEL and the importance of its impact on student success extending beyond graduation, and how they can best support it at home.
- Collaborative Partnerships: Collaborate with external organizations, experts, and mental health professionals to enhance the effectiveness of SEL implementation. These partnerships—spanning local to global—can provide additional resources and expertise.
- Long-Term Sustainability: Plan for the sustainability of the SEL program by integrating it into the school’s long-term goals and strategic plans, reflected in the annual budget as well as continuous professional learning plans for all staff members. Develop a plan for training new staff during onboarding and ensure continuity over time.
2: SEL Literacy
- Teacher Training and Professional Learning: Provide ongoing training and professional learning opportunities for teachers to effectively integrate SEL into their teaching practices. Teachers should have a deep understanding of SEL concepts and strategies, enabling them to model and teach these skills to students.
- Culturally Responsive Practices: Tailor SEL approaches to accommodate the cultural and linguistic diversity of the student body. Recognize and respect cultural norms and values when implementing SEL initiatives and in turn, use findings to nurture diversity within the learning community overall.
- Flexible Implementation: Recognize that SEL is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Allow flexibility to adapt approaches based on the unique needs and characteristics of your school community, identified student groups, and even personalizing SEL interventions and offerings for individual students.
3: The Continuum of Care
- Explicit Instruction: Provide explicit instruction on SEL skills, including self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Teach students the vocabulary and strategies they need to understand and practice these skills.
- Inclusive Learning Environment: Foster an inclusive and safe school environment where all students feel valued and respected. Create opportunities for student input and involvement in SEL initiatives, and consider diverse cultural perspectives in curriculum design.
- Positive Behavior Support: Link SEL to positive behavior support systems. Acknowledge and reinforce desired social and emotional behaviors through recognition programs, incentives, and rewards.
4: Taking Advantage of Support
- Assessment and Progress Monitoring: Implement methods and documentation via common feedback loops to assess and monitor students’ social and emotional growth. This can include self-assessment tools, surveys, and qualitative observations. Regular assessment helps track progress and informs adjustments to the SEL program.
- Integration Across Subjects: Embed SEL into various subjects and activities throughout the school day. Integrating SEL into academic lessons, sports, arts, and extracurricular activities helps students see the relevance of these skills in various contexts applied to the outcomes of any relationships, endeavors, interests during their school careers.
- Data-Driven Approach: Use SEL-relevant data to inform decision-making. Regularly analyze assessment results, student feedback, and other relevant data to identify areas for improvement and collectively make informed adjustments to the SEL program.
By addressing these four key components, schools can create a comprehensive and effective SEL program that benefits both students’ social and emotional development and their overall academic success. Listed below we highlight examples from the three strata of SEL that include policy, essentials and frameworks, and resources that can be immediately employed or adapted to specific use cases.
Challenges and Opportunities
As alluded to above, in some regions there has been an outsized backlash and politicization of SEL. Educators know implicitly they are no replacement for parental guardians, no matter the age or background of the student. And while efforts have been made to negate SEL efforts for encroaching upon those boundaries, education leaders can assuage fears using the very tools of SEL in their own interactions and messages to concerned parents.
Bolstering SEL literacy and dispelling misgivings and misinformation is in the wheelhouse of any educator and is an important aspect of any implementation. Clarifying claims and sources of information may be necessary, but it is not the starting point. Empathy. Relationship-building. Listening without judgment. Even teaching the staff as they, too, may be confronted with challenges to their approaches is essential.
Implementing an SEL program in schools can be highly beneficial for students’ overall development, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. Here are some challenges, combined with opportunities, that school administrators may face when trying to implement an SEL program:
Whether financial or human, resource management for even the most promising of approaches and implementations is often a significant challenge for school leaders.
While dedicating resources to any new program can be difficult. SEL programs may require training for teachers, materials, curriculum development, and ongoing support, all of which can strain a school’s resources. However, research is bearing out data that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in terms of student well-being, academic performance, and thus school culture. Resources dedicated to effective and seamlessly blended SEL into existing curriculum translate to reduced expenditures in other interventions, whether behavioral or academic.
Schools have tight schedules, and finding dedicated time for SEL activities can be challenging, especially when academic subjects are already competing for time. Prioritizing time can be a challenge.
Integrating SEL seamlessly into the existing curriculum requires careful planning and coordination—and solution providers understand this and provide guidance to save educators time. When done well, time can be saved in not having to deal with as many issues that take away from instructional time. Overall, students perform better and are developing life schools when the time is invested.
Getting teachers, support staff, and guardians on board and ensuring they are enthusiastic about the program is crucial. If teachers are not fully invested or do not understand the value of SEL, the program’s effectiveness may be compromised.
Given tension surrounding SEL for some, demystifying and defining SEL is a chance for education leaders to demonstrate their commitment to developing the whole child in an increasingly challenging world. By focusing on the contents of SEL more so than the acronym, and offering listening sessions, town halls, and accessible communication options for the entire learning community, administrators can offer culturally-sensitive entry points for staff and families, overcome resistance and fear of change, and build consensus for components leading to whole SEL programs.
SEL programs of any magnitude are an investment beyond the necessary resources to be successful and require deliberate management to be useful, sustainable and secure.
Evaluating and choosing secure, high-quality, effective assessment methods that track students’ progress in areas like emotional regulation, social skills, and self-awareness can be complex. However, there are many reputable solution providers that make data gathering and analysis intuitive while protecting student data, further ensuring the sustainability of the program’s impact for all learners over time. Overcoming these challenges requires careful planning, effective communication, ongoing training and support, and a commitment to the holistic development of students.
- Harmony Academy
- Leading with SEL Toolkit (CASEL)
- Core SEL Competencies | SEL In Action (CASEL)
- What Does Evidence-Based Instruction in Social and Emotional Learning Actually Look Like in Practice? (CASEL)
- SEL as a Lever for Equity (CASEL)
- Funding for SEL
- Turnaround USA
- 5 Quick Ways to Integrate SEL into the Middle School Classroom (Edutopia)
- 4 (SEL) Elementary School Strategies that Work in High School (Edutopia)
- Tried & True Resources to Teach Teens About Empathy (Edutopia)
- Incorporating SEL as a New Teacher (Edutopia)
- Stories of Well-Being, Connection, and Equity in Schools (West Ed)
- SEL in Digital Life (Common Sense Education)
- Resources for Social-Emotional Learning (Common Sense Education)
- Social and Emotional Learning for Educators MOOC (Friday Institute)
- Why We Can’t Afford Whitewash Social-Emotional Learning (ASCD)
- Social Emotional Learning: A Teacher’s Eye View (Education First)
- 25 Resources for Social-Emotional Learning (TeachThought)
- SEL: The Magic of Circle Talk (Concordia University)
- Engaging Families in Social Emotional Learning (Concordia University)
- 4 Simple SEL Strategies for Beginning (or Ending) Any Lesson (Cornerstone for Teachers)
- Latinx SEL Work in Region 1 of Texas (ACT)
To find more of our Emerging Practice Guides, click here!
Developed with support from National University.