Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using a School Walk-Through to Assess SEL and Character Development

Touring the halls and other spaces can reveal a lot about your school’s climate and culture.

March 7, 2024
DGLimages / Alamy

Have you ever entered a school and immediately noticed a positive climate with students and educators who value social-emotional and character development (SECD)? Relatedly, have you had the experience of walking into a school that distinctly did not feel that way? I think it’s safe to say that all of us in education have had both sets of experiences.

What did you experience that yielded these impressions? If we can identify the sources of our views, we can see what’s missing and what’s present, and strengthen what seems to be working well, whether in our school or others’.

Some educators use walk-throughs to identify the extent and depth of presence of SECD in a school building. They focus on artifacts and behaviors that specifically evidence a concentration on social-emotional and character development and its connection to school climate. Information should primarily be obtained by what you can sense as you walk through the school. You may need to look at newsletters, meeting minutes, and other documentation that is not likely to be on display. And of course, you also should go beyond just observation and talk to adults on staff and to students. 

Based on the work of the Developing Safe and Civil Schools project and the input of Larry Leverett, Janet Patti, and Marcia Knoll, I have compiled more than 50 points of observation for school/SECD leaders to look into when doing a walk-through, covering nine areas:  

  • Physical appearance 
  • Building tone   
  • Schoolwide SECD 
  • Classroom management and instruction   
  • Adult relationships   
  • Adult-student relationships    
  • Student-to-student relationships  
  • Lunchroom/recess 
  • Justice, equity, diversity, inclusion (JEDI)   

Key Walk-Through Points of Observation

The building (physical appearance and tone): Let’s start with how the building looks. Is it cared for? Is it clean? Is there obvious disrepair? This contributes to the tone of the building—what is the predominant mood as you walk around? Are people happy? Anxious? Engaged in their tasks? Courteous and caring? How are you greeted? 

Schoolwide and classroom SECD: Next is the extent to which you can clearly see and hear SECD instruction in action. You know what’s supposed to be happening in SECD—can you see it? Is there evidence that the appropriate SECD-related lessons have been carried out? Is SECD-related terminology being used? 

If you ask students about what they should have been learning about SECD or the class/school core values, can they tell you? A favorite tactic of a mentor and colleague, Larry Leverett, as superintendent was to sit in the back of classrooms and ask students about the SECD they were supposed to have received recently. 

Classroom management and instruction: The next area refers to the nature of classroom instruction. How are questions asked? What is the process for classroom management? Are students learning and being prompted to use specific self-management skills and mindfulness, as per curriculum guidelines? How much is student voice encouraged? 

Relationships (including lunchroom and recess activity): The next three areas are about relationships, so essential to establishing a climate to promote learning. How people treat one another must model the SECD competencies being spoken about and instructed. Are staff mutually supportive? Welcoming to parents and other outsiders? Do they relate to students respectfully, with a growth mindset, and without bias? 

Are there clear expectations that all students will treat one another with kindness, care, respect, and support, and can this be seen in their interactions during all parts of the school day? These considerations are not suspended in the last area, lunchroom/recess. Kindness (and not yelling) on the part of adults and welcome acceptance by students of peers should be the norm that’s observed.

Support for the JEDI: Of tremendous importance is the extent to which the school aligns itself with the JEDI—justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. The idea of a walk-through is not to elicit statements about the JEDI but to see the JEDI in action… to feel the Force, not just hear about it. To what extent do you get a sense of social justice, inclusion, cultural responsiveness, and equity during the school day? 

One area you will be looking for is equal opportunity and treatment of all students, in terms of posing higher-order thinking questions, posting of work, opportunities to respond or lead, availability of help, and diversity in small working groups. Be sure to ask about discipline data, disaggregated by gender, ethnic/racial group, and other relevant student categories that have been documented. 

You also should see evidence that cultures and traditions represented by students and their families, as well as all staff, are recognized. In some cases, you will have to ask about cultural diversity to get a full picture, as not everything will be in evidence during a given walk-through.

School routines: One area is not part of the enclosed checklist because it’s less open to walk-through observation: the extent to which SECD is infused into school routines. Make specific inquiries about how SECD is exemplified in the following:

  • Morning announcements  
  • School and district newsletters 
  • Parent organization newsletters 
  • School and district websites 
  • Minutes of faculty, grade-level, administrative, cabinet, and faculty council meetings

You should also look to see if you can find SECD-related events on school calendars.

A walk-through is not only informative, it’s aerobic. The more you walk, the healthier you will be… and your schools will be. A thoughtful, no-fault review of the findings with school leadership and staff can then yield priorities for improvement with benchmarks that can be monitored in various ways, including another walk-through.

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