Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Creating Buy-In for SEL at Your School

Seven suggestions for getting others at your school on board with social and emotional learning.

October 10, 2017

For social and emotional learning to become widespread in schools, those already dedicated have to bring in their hesitant colleagues. Award-winning journalist Steve Adubato has studied the process of getting buy-in in his book Lessons in Leadership (Rutgers University Press, 2016).

Seven Tips for Bringing People Around

Although Adubato’s book doesn’t focus specifically on education, I’d like to highlight some of his key ideas about buy-in and relate those to getting folks on board with social and emotional learning at your school. (All quotes are from his book, pp. 136-138.)

1. “Accentuate the positives, but don’t act as if there won’t be challenges,” Adubato advises. Remember, even if a change is challenging or difficult, many school staff and faculty members will accept it if they believe in you as a leader. Establish credibility and trust by recognizing the obstacles and challenges present, while communicating confidence that those hurdles can be overcome. Communicate that you’re not asking your colleagues to do something brand new. Other educators like them and in schools like theirs have implemented SEL successfully despite facing many of the same initial concerns, such as finding the time for lessons or worries about how to evaluate SEL progress.

2. Explain clearly how the status quo can actually be more dangerous and risky than the change. Change is difficult, so it will often seem easier to continue to do what we’ve been doing. As many of us know from our experiences in schools, overwhelmed educators are often operating in survival mode and resist change, taking the stance of “don’t rock the boat.” But as Adubato explains, “Really good leaders make it crystal clear that the risks of not changing present concrete and serious problems; make it clear what the payoff or tangible benefits of implementing this change will be.” So when a school doesn’t adopt social and emotional learning and restorative practices, it may continue to face discipline problems that affect student safety and morale and take up precious instructional time. So SEL leaders must provide evidence and a convincing argument to show how the boat is, in fact, sinking or how some folks below deck are drowning. It has to become apparent why curriculum and class procedures and systems must change.

3. Change is personal, not virtual. “Too many organizations try to sell the change through detailed standard-operating procedure manuals or highly detailed descriptions of the steps needed to implement the changes,” explains Adubato. Extensive online resources, though valuable and well intended, are more likely to be daunting than helpful at the beginning of a change process. This happens in education as well (web searching “best practices in implementing SEL in schools” yields 3.8 million results). Before passing out any curricular materials or resources, an SEL leader must begin with a clear conversation about what the vision is, how things will look and feel once the changes have taken place, and why those changes will be beneficial to all—students and teachers. Buy-in never happens through “compliance, command, and control.” It happens through understanding. Then the details can be better grappled with.

4. Take the position that making progress on SEL is not negotiable but that you’re open to feedback and suggestions about exactly what happens and how it happens. Change cannot be rushed. Buy-in is like a layaway plan: Ownership comes over time. Adubato says, “Create an environment conducive to an honest dialogue, even if the feedback is difficult to hear.” When implementing a new system or program at their school, administrators must remember this: Don’t allow yourself to think that your way is the only way. Doubts exist, whether you think they’re justified or not. Open dialogue can be created in feedback forums, faculty meetings, emails, or a one-on-one with SEL leadership.

5. Those who are implementing SEL, or related curriculum changes, see things differently from those who are championing those changes. There are no magic or silver bullets in the change business. Successful change agents understand that they must understand and empathize with the position of their colleagues and act accordingly. One thing to be especially aware of is “change fatigue,” which is common in schools as a reaction when several programs are implemented simultaneously or even one program in a short time period. Even well-intentioned and necessary interventions have to be scaled down when they’re coming into a school, especially a school that has experienced a lot of programming changes and leadership or teacher turnover.

6. “Celebrate and recognize any success or accomplishment associated with the change effort, no matter how small,” says Adubato. “People want to be part of a winning team.” Know that major change and victories are not likely to happen quickly. Adubato says it’s important for leaders to remember that “real change about real problems and issues is a marathon, not a sprint.” Modeling patience, process, and progress will help foster SEL buy-in, especially in schools that link so much staff morale and worth to standardized test scores.

7. Don’t shy away from seeing yourself, and your like-minded colleagues, as leaders. Creating buy-in is a leadership activity, even if you’re doing it among your peers. You exercise leadership through your vision, passion, and commitment to students’ social and emotional learning and what it means for their future success in school, college, careers, community, and life. In public schools in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for instance, SEL implementation teams are led not by administrators but by teachers, social workers, and school counselors.

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