George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Key Elements of SEL Implementation

A social and emotional learning program should involve the whole school and be guided by a team of stakeholders dedicated to its success.

June 14, 2021
AJ_Watt / iStock

As school leaders begin to plan how to welcome students, families, and educators into the 2021–22 school year, many will position social and emotional learning (SEL) as foundational to emerging priorities like engaging students who’ve had long absences, fostering equitable and rich learning environments, promoting mental health, and more.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), where we both work, seeks to advance evidence-based SEL through systemic implementation. As a result, school leaders often come to us with two questions:

1. What does it look like to make SEL a schoolwide approach?

2. How do I get started?

A schoolwide approach infuses SEL into every aspect of students’ learning—across all classrooms, during all parts of the school day (and after school), among administrators and staff, and in partnership with families and communities. When fully implemented, schoolwide SEL creates a foundation for all other educational goals.

10 Key Elements for SEL in Schools

CASEL has developed a list of 10 indicators—interconnected structures and practices you’d expect to see in a school that has focused on high-quality, systemic SEL implementation:

1. Explicit instruction: Dedicated time for learning and practicing social and emotional competencies.

2. Integration with academic instruction: Students practice SEL while learning academic content.

3. Youth voice and engagement: Students engage as leaders, problem-solvers, and decision-makers.

4. Supportive school and classroom climates: All students feel a sense of belonging and affirmed in their identities.

5. Focus on adult SEL: Adults also cultivate their own social, emotional, and cultural competence.

6. Supportive discipline: Response to behaviors is instructive, restorative, and equitable.

7. A continuum of integrated supports: SEL is integrated throughout student support services.

8. Authentic family partnerships: Families understand, support, and shape the school’s approach to SEL.

9. Community partnerships: School staff and community partners align on strategies and communication around SEL-related efforts.

10. Systems for continuous improvement: The school collects and reflects on SEL-related data to improve practice.

Start by Setting Up an SEL Team

Once you can envision the full picture of schoolwide SEL, the next logical question is: Where do you start? After more than a decade of working closely with districts across the country, we would advise you to begin by creating a strong, sustainable SEL team that includes five to 10 members from the various groups of stakeholders: school administrators, teachers representing different grade bands and subject areas, non-instructional staff, out-of-school-time partners, students, and parents and caregivers. A strong team reflects the broader school community and incorporates many points of view.

No matter what your priorities, which SEL program or curriculum you are considering, or what the school district has provided, having a team of people focused on this work is essential to successful implementation and sustainability.

An SEL team helps prevent lack of buy-in later on: One of the most common challenges we hear is a concern that certain groups haven’t committed to SEL. Rather than ask why people weren’t excited for an SEL plan that was rolled out without their input, start by asking who needs to be at the table from the beginning. The fact that your SEL team includes members from different parts of the school community helps, but you need input from people who aren’t on the team as well.

Without a team, you risk making hasty decisions and delivering a ready-made SEL plan to the members of your school community, who may or may not understand why SEL matters and how it can fit into their overloaded day. Early on, we recommend that your team capture input from families and caregivers, students, educators, and community partners to understand their core goals for SEL. This level of engagement leads to inclusive SEL plans that align to the school’s goals and the community’s hopes and needs.

An SEL team turns excitement into action: Schoolwide SEL efforts often launch with a lot of excitement and hope during professional development week in the fall. When this excitement fizzles, implementation can lag when people are unclear about their roles and don’t have the right support to take action. Without a team, a heavy load often falls on the shoulders of a few people who likely have many other responsibilities at the school.

You can avoid this by planning ahead. Begin by scheduling dedicated team meeting times and developing an SEL action plan that clarifies what roles team members and staff will play. The SEL team can follow up with staff, students, and their families to learn how the implementation is going and what support is needed over time.

An SEL team turns action into outcomes: SEL really takes root when the school community starts to see results. Highly successful SEL teams routinely look at data to determine whether the school is making progress toward the outcomes they are aiming for, whether their goals relate to school climate improvements, student engagement, or growth in social and emotional competencies.

The SEL team takes on the responsibility of figuring out what data to collect to monitor progress, and then inviting in other voices to help reflect on that data, including examining and addressing any inequities that are illuminated. The team also gathers the rest of the school community to celebrate successes, determine any areas that need adjustment, and make a plan to continually improve outcomes.

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