Social and Emotional Learning

The Cornerstone of Social and Emotional Learning

You can monitor your school’s SEL progress using these 10 guidelines.
November 7, 2017
A male teacher assists several students who are smiling and working on their laptops.
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Twenty years ago, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) wrote a guide titled Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, and it was published by ASCD. Because that book gave birth to the SEL field, it’s worth reflecting on what it may tell us about future progress and which of the book’s 39 suggested guidelines have best stood the test of time.

The Background

What was known as the CASEL 5 list of SEL skills was derived originally from a comprehensive review of research in emotion, cognition, behavior, and emotional intelligence, and a content analysis of existing research-based social-competence-promotion curricula. Preliminary guidelines were then formulated from the literature regarding how to best build these competencies. The guidelines included the fit of SEL in schools, classroom approaches, addressing the wider context of skill development, promoting sustainability, and evaluating progress. Also provided was an ecological and developmental scope and sequence for SEL skill growth.

Following this, site visits were conducted to 21 schools representing 11 evidence-based, consensually recognized SEL-related approaches. (Note: The term SEL had not yet been coined, so none of these were SEL approaches—rather, they focused on the competencies and processes that were in the preliminary guidelines.)

These schools were considered flagship schools for their approaches, with sustained implementation for at least five years. All of the guidelines developed deductively were filtered through the reality of what success looked like in these schools; 39 guidelines were finalized, giving extra weight to what social and emotional learning looked like in sustained practice.

The 10 Enduring Guidelines

A review of the 39 guidelines suggests that while they have mostly remained pertinent and of value, there are 10 among them that can be considered the cornerstone of SEL work today and will certainly influence future work.

1. SEL domains. Educators at all levels need explicit plans to help students become knowledgeable, responsible, and caring. Efforts are needed to build and reinforce skills in four major domains of SEL:

  • Life skills and social competencies
  • Health-promotion and problem-prevention skills
  • Coping skills and social support for transitions and crises
  • Engaging in positive, contributory service

2. Program focus. SEL programs emphasize the promotion of prosocial attitudes and values about self, others, and work, and character, in a balanced way. (The original ASCD book has a detailed scope and sequence to guide this.)

3. Developmentally appropriate. SEL programs provide a developmentally appropriate combination of formal, curriculum-based instruction with ongoing, informal, and infused opportunities to develop social and emotional skills from preschool through high school.

4. School and classroom climate. A caring, supportive, and challenging classroom and school climate is most conducive to effective SEL teaching and learning.

5. Integration and transference. SEL programs and activities that are coordinated with and integrated into the regular curriculum, routines, and life of the classroom and school are most likely to have the desired effect on students—and are more likely to endure. In Jersey City, New Jersey, middle schools provide clear examples to guide classrooms in how to reinforce SEL messages taught in advisory periods.

6. Addresses all levels of students. Coordination between an SEL curriculum delivered to all students and other services given to students with different levels of difficulty, including counseling and special education services, creates an effective, integrated, synergistic system of service delivery. (This is the hallmark of Boston’s SEL program.)

7. Solid infrastructure. A designated program coordinator or social development facilitator should lead a social and emotional development committee. Committees typically are responsible for seeing that the various activities needed to effectively meet program goals are carried out. They monitor SEL-related efforts inside and outside the school, and understand that school-wide SEL adoption typically takes three to five years, captured by rolling three-year SEL plans. Committees also ensure that SEL is highly visible and recognized. SEL activities “act proud” and are not snuck in or carried out on unofficially borrowed time. They are integral to school/district goals and culture and climate.

8. Professional development. High-quality staff development and support is dedicated toward continuous improvement. A key factor here is that instead of being trained once, teachers have frequent, structured opportunities to help one another get better at SEL instruction.

9. Home-school connection. When home and school collaborate closely to implement SEL programs, students gain more and the effects of the SEL program are most enduring and pervasive. One simple place to start, for example, comes from the New Brunswick, New Jersey, public schools, which provided SEL materials on student SEL development to all parents in English and Spanish.

10. Evaluation and feedback. Effective SEL programs are monitored and evaluated regularly using systematic procedures and multiple indicators, including measuring school climate and having SEL on report cards. Data are used to guide positive changes in a spirit of continuous improvement.

Future Implications

The valuable lesson with SEL is how much we can learn by studying enduring success and unpacking how that success actually took place in a way that is sharable and useful to others. The site visits mentioned above added information that was instrumental in fostering the durability of the guidelines because they included context and nuance. For individual schools implementing SEL, there is no more powerful way to improve than to monitor your progress according to the 10 guidelines above and using your data to continuously improve and strive to reach all of your students.