George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Choose an SEL Program for Your School

A few pointers for school and district leaders seeking a social and emotional learning program that is a good fit for their students and staff.

October 5, 2021
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy

As we enter a third school year impacted by the pandemic, there’s been increasing attention to and demand for social and emotional learning (SEL). By helping students and adults better understand themselves, relate to others, and work toward their goals, SEL can help teachers support students in the face of one of our most pressing concerns—the social and emotional impact of the past year and a half of relative isolation.

But determining how to implement SEL can be overwhelming. A simple Google search turns up lots of options—worksheets, tips, practices, even entire lesson plans. The urgent need to support students combined with this overwhelming number of options leaves many educators scrambling, uncertain where to start.

To cut through the confusion, schools and districts should take the time to focus on selecting and adopting an evidence-based SEL program that matches their particular needs and goals. This effort requires time, thought, and research, but as we’ve seen in our work at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), it’s time well spent.

Evidence-Based SEL Programs

Let’s clarify what we mean by an “evidence-based SEL program.” With evidence-based SEL programs, you get more than a single worksheet, practice, or lesson. Instead, you get an intentional, fully integrated and sequenced, and robust approach to SEL backed by research.

These programs take many forms. Some focus on helping students explore specific skills, like identifying and naming how they feel or speaking up for themselves. Others help educators weave SEL competencies into core academics—for example, by focusing on perspective-taking in literature or history classes or creating cooperative groups in math. Still others prepare teachers to set up their classrooms in ways that support students’ SEL in other ways.

Why adopt an evidence-based SEL program, given the work entailed in finding one that seems right for your school?

These programs are effective: SEL programs that are backed by scientific studies demonstrate positive outcomes with a range of students in different contexts.

These programs help students learn what they need, when they need it: Look for evidence-based SEL programs that are designed with child development in mind. Students in different grade levels will demonstrate social and emotional competencies in different ways. The most effective evidence-based programs build on what students learn throughout the years.

These programs help create rich learning environments for all students: Evidence-based programs offer a range of strategies to help educators create supportive communities at the classroom and school levels. For example, programs may provide guidance on creating student leadership opportunities, incorporating SEL into academics, or elevating student voice.

Finding the Right SEL Program

With so many programs available, it can be overwhelming to identify the right one for your community. All too often, there’s pressure to choose quickly—when a new school year is looming, or there are funds that need to be spent in the current budget. But we recommend taking some time to identify what your unique community needs and what you want to achieve, and then carefully review your options among evidence-based programs to find the best fit.

Seek a wide range of perspectives: Include staff from your school or district as well as students, their families, and your community partners. Listen to these perspectives to identify your community’s unique hopes and challenges.

Define your priorities: The right SEL program should support your existing priorities. Are you focused on improving climate and culture? Increasing academic performance? Upending discipline disparities? Providing opportunities for student leadership? All of these goals, and more, can be supported through SEL.

Keep a continuous improvement mindset: You won’t be able to build in all the implementation supports you’d like right away, but by continuously reviewing what is working and where change is needed using different types of data, you will be able to implement powerful changes over time.

Look for programs that are backed by science and meet the diverse needs of all of your students: As a baseline, focus on finding programs that are well-designed and have undergone program evaluation(s). In addition, you’ll want to ensure the program you select matches your needs in terms of its approach (that is, whether it’s based in lessons, teaching practices, academic integration, a school’s organizational structure, etc.), the evaluation outcomes, and the school and student characteristics the program best serves. To help you do this, CASEL offers a free Program Guide.

As you strive to meet the needs of all of your students, choosing an evidence-based program is a critical first step in ensuring they have the skills and learning environments they need to thrive, now and in the future.

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