George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Leadership: Implementing SEL at the District Level

District leaders find ways to build social and emotional learning capacity through strategies focused on equity and buy-in.

November 21, 2019
Elementary school students playing outside together
FatCamera / iStock

Social and emotional learning happens in the classroom, but strategies implemented at the district level can drive SEL practices. In Education Dive’s “4 key practices for successful district-wide SEL integration,” reporter Naaz Modan recapped lessons learned from the Fall 2019 meeting of the School Superintendents Association Social and Emotional Learning Cohort. 

Embrace Cultural Sensitivity

When a student told Ithaca City Superintendent Luvelle Brown that he did not know heroes could be black, Brown took a look around the schools in his district and “discovered the only African American role models on the walls were athletes from the 1970s.” He looked for ways to display images of a more diverse set of leaders. “Missing from the walls and the library shelves were culturally relevant figures and texts,” the article concludes, so you should “Walk through your spaces and look at the posters and see what messages they’re sending,” according to Brown.  

Report Growth

Remember equity if you’re going to provide assessments of SEL skills, Modan wrote. “How one student engages in disagreement can be very different from how another student engages in disagreement,” advised Illinois’ Naperville District 203 student services director Lisa Xagas. “In order to get rid of inequity in reporting SEL skills, don’t report deficits, but report relative growth and contextualize.” 

Get Buy In From Teachers and the Community

Start with the teachers, since “addressing teachers’ SEL capacities before students’ is a game-changer,” which means getting teachers to understand that their own self-care is the foundation for building the students’ self-care. Once teachers start to see that social and emotional development has real, tangible benefits in their own lives, they’ll be staunch defenders of the program for kids.

More broadly, communities may also be skeptical of social-emotional goals or may dismiss the practices as frivolous or unnecessary, Modan wrote. Convincing parents, families, and community members of the brain science behind SEL practices can foster buy-in. “It took us a while to draw connections to make them realize that SEL was not just something else on their plate, that it was their plate on which everything else rested,” Xagas said. 

Change the Language

The language used to describe SEL integration is critical. “Framing SEL for both students and teachers as strength-based and formative instead of deficit-based can influence how well it is received,” Modan reported. It is especially important for “communities of color, particularly with black boys and young men” to have a strong focus on trauma-informed practices: When educators understand trauma-informed strategies, they are able to teach young men of color that they already possess the SEL skills to persevere, said Eric Gallien, superintendent of Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin.

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  • Social and Emotional Learning
  • School Leadership