Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Implement Social and Emotional Learning at Your School

To implement SEL at your school, use these seven activities to help students build self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

March 24, 2016
Photo credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Editor's note: This piece is co-authored by Maurice Elias, Larry Leverett, Joan Cole Duffell, Neil Humphrey, Cesalie Stepney, and Joseph Ferrito, and adapted from Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, now available from Guilford Press.

Every school in the United States, and indeed, every school in the world, addresses the social-emotional and character development of the students who pass through its doors. It is impossible to bring adults and children together for long periods of time and not influence children's skills and the kinds of people they will become when putting those skills to use.

These processes, for many years, have been informal and haphazard. For many schools, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are disconnected and uncoordinated, and can be associated with the negative effects and fragmentation on staff morale and student engagement and learning (Elias, 2009). Ideally, however, SEL is comprehensive, coordinated, and linked to academics, parents, and community involvement (including after-school programming). In such schools, students understand that they need academic and SEL competencies to accomplish valued goals; to contribute to the greater good, as well as their own good; and to strive to be persons of sound character and health. Correspondingly, the educators in those schools understand that for students to build their SEL skills, it is necessary not only to coordinate what happens within that school, but also to connect with the efforts of other schools in the district and of parents, after-school programs, and community partners.

The cornerstone of SEL efforts is the delivery of five essential skills and competencies to students (CASEL, 2013):

  1. Self-awareness: recognizing and labeling one's feelings and accurately assessing one's strengths and limitations
  2. Self-management: regulating emotions, delaying gratification, managing stress, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving goals
  3. Social awareness: showing empathy, taking others' perspectives, and recognizing and mobilizing diverse and available supports
  4. Relationship skills: clear communication, accurate listening, cooperation, nonviolent and constructive conflict resolution, and knowing when and how to be a good team player and a leader
  5. Responsible decision making: making ethical choices based on consideration of feelings, goals, alternatives and outcomes, and planning and enacting solutions with potential obstacles anticipated

To support SEL at your school, consider starting with a series of seven interrelated activities best organized within eight-week planning cycles that will most likely require three years to bring to fruition, depending on the starting point. There is no blueprint for the order in which these activities should be carried out, which is why the seventh one -- learning from others -- is so important. Factors such as the history and present status of SEL-related programming, staff knowledge of SEL, school climate, sociodemographic factors, leadership style and history, and current mandates and priorities, as well as the school's capacities, will determine the timing and sequencing of these activities.

Activity 1: Build a school infrastructure that can support SEL.

Building infrastructure at your school can start with the creation of a committee (or team) that has responsibility for the long-term implementation of SEL. This committee should start with attainable goals, using planning cycles that identify one primary goal and an action plan to accomplish it, in successive eight-week periods of time, to structure activities, keep efforts focused, and promote accountability. Consolidating infrastructures is also helpful. One school with which we worked put its SEL, discipline, morale, and anti-bullying committees under an encompassing umbrella of a School Culture and Climate Committee.

Activity 2: Assess how well-coordinated your school's SEL programs are.

Education exists in an environment too often characterized by adding new programs and initiatives without explicit articulation with what already exists. Teachers and other educators often experience frustration with "flavor-of-the-day" changes that are rarely aligned with the school's overall goals. Ultimately, there should be harmony across the programs and approaches that a school uses, with SEL as the integrative glue.

Start small, and expect the process to take several years. Tools to assist in the process are available (Devaney, O’Brien, Resnik, Keister, & Weissberg, 2006), and it can be helpful to compare with CASEL's scope and sequence chart of SEL activities across grade levels (Elias et al., 1997, Appendix A) and comprehensive frameworks that have resulted from such an assessment process (e.g., Anchorage School District, 2013) in orienting one's efforts.

Activity 3: Assess your school's culture and climate.

There are a variety of tools that can be used for assessing a school's culture and climate, from the perspective of students, staff, and/or parents. These can include surveys, walk-throughs, focus groups, and analysis of artifacts. Reports generated from culture and climate assessment can be shared with school leaders, staff members, and student leaders, and priorities can be set for addressing school needs. Data should be presented by gender and ethnicity, as well as by grade level within the school and staff position, so that differential perceptions of the school culture and climate can be uncovered.

Activity 4: Articulate shared values, themes, and essential life habits.

Schools must stand for something. Examples of values that schools emphasize include responsibility, integrity, service, justice, respect, leadership, exploration, and organization. Often, schools have mottos or mission statements that are not enacted as part of the school's life. In our experience, articulating schoolwide focal values and bringing them into alignment so that students are learning them within and across grade levels plays an essential role in reducing fragmentation and increasing the likelihood that students will become inspired.

When done properly, this is far more than slogans or posters on walls, or brief lessons covering core values. Successful schools focus on a core set of beliefs and actions (Berkowitz, 2011):

  • The best way to make a more just and caring world is to make more just and caring people.
  • Schools shouldn't be limited to academics; they must also encompass the moral and civic development of students.
  • School leaders must understand, prioritize, and have the leadership skills to nurture social and emotional learning in their schools.
  • Schools must promote healthy relationships among all school community members, help adults be role models for students, and let students and faculty be partners in the school.

Activity 5: Provide consistent and ongoing opportunities for students to practice SEL skills.

When SEL programs are presented to children without coherent articulation, the impact is likely to be more confusing than illuminating, with the learning less likely to find its way into children's minds, hearts, and actions. This leads to students' uncertainty about how to solve real-life problems, especially when under stress. Also, many times these steps are simply presented to students but not actually taught and practiced with continued, reinforced use. Bringing these various steps and processes into alignment allows students to learn a common method within and across grade levels.

Activity 6: Improve faculty readiness to teach SEL.

To be fully effective, the responsibilities and expectations that faculty already have should be aligned with SEL approaches. This only happens when there is a deep understanding of the theory, literature, and pedagogy of SEL, with an inspiring vision and a strong sense of staff investment, and with students as true partners in creating and maintaining change (Hargreaves, 2009). There cannot be rote implementation of a manual. The key to implementing sustained SEL is the capacity to integrate it into whatever standards, rubrics, and mandates come along. Hence, for successful SEL readiness, more time might be spent on conceptual understanding than on "training," since competent educators and school support staff should have the basic skill set to implement SEL approaches well if they are clearly and fully understood. While challenging, it is possible for schools and districts to successfully align SEL with Common Core Curriculum Standards, teacher evaluations, and other programs (Elias, 2014; Elias & Leverett, 2011).

Activity 7: Connect to those who are walking the walk.

The difficulties that any school or district encounters in implementation will have been confronted and overcome by many other schools farther along down the road of SEL. While compilations of these obstacles and solutions exist (Elias, 2010; Elias et al., 1997), the greatest success comes from direct consultative mentoring (Kress & Elias, 2013). National organizations that might have locally available resources, or the capacity to triage to local resources, include CASEL and the National Association of School Psychologists. Other excellent sources of support can be the central headquarters of SEL programs such as Second Step, Lions Quest International, Northeast Foundation for Children, Open Circle, SDM/SPS, and PATHS (see also CASEL, 2003, 2012). The NSOC and State Schools of Character networks administered by the Character Education Partnership are particularly sensitive to schoolwide implementation issues, and those implementing these approaches locally can become allies even if their own setting is not implementing an identical approach.

For more information about the latest advances in SEL research, practice, and policy, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning website.


  • Anchorage School District. (2013). ASD | CIS | Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Retrieved February 24, 2016.
  • Berkowitz, M.W. (2011). "Leading schools of character." In A.M. Blankstein & P.D. Houston (Eds.), Leadership for social justice and democracy in our schools, pp.93-121. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2003). Safe and sound: An educational leader's guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. Chicago: Author.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2012). 2013 CASEL guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs--Preschool and elementary school edition. Available online.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2013). CASEL | Success in school: Skills for life. Retrieved February 24, 2016.
  • Devaney, E., O'Brien, M.U., Resnik, H., Keister, S., & Weissberg, R.P. (2006). Sustainable Schoolwide Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Implementation Guide and Toolkit. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
  • Elias, M.J. (2009). "Social-emotional and character development and academics as a dual focus of educational policy." Educational Policy, 23(6), pp.831-846.
  • Elias, M.J. (2010). "Sustainability of social-emotional learning and related programs: Lessons from a field study." International Journal of Emotional Education, 2(1), pp.17-33.
  • Elias, M.J. (2014). "Let's put caring in the Common Core: Promoting social-emotional competence is the first step toward mastery." NJEA Review, 87(6), pp.10-13.
  • Elias, M.J., Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R.P., Frey, K.S., Greenberg, M.T., Haynes, N.M., et al. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
  • Elias, M.J. & Leverett, L. (2011). "Consultation to Urban Schools for Improvements in Academics and Behavior: No Alibis. No Excuses. No Exceptions." Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 21(1), pp.28-45.
  • Hargreaves, A. (2009). "The fourth way of change." In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp.11-43). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
  • Kress, J.S. & Elias, M.J. (2013). "Consultation to support sustainability of social and emotional learning initiatives in schools." Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65(2), pp.149-163.

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