Evaluating and Introducing SEL to Your Schools

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Angela Benedetto, Ph.D.

To date, there are more than 52 million Google links that are in some way associated with social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. 

Although the general public may not be familiar with SEL, the enormous number of sites available clearly indicates a profound interest in sharing or understanding the role that SEL can play among professional educators, policy makers and business.

No one knows how many school administrators or school board members are among those who have researched SEL. But no one has a greater opportunity to affect change, if not responsibility, by informing themselves deeply and widely than these leaders – who better than anyone are expected to understand  the vital role that school climate plays in the quality of learning that can be achieved by students.

Administrators Take The Lead

There is a special need for administrators and board members to step up because parents and the public are overwhelmingly ignorant of SEL programs despite the body of knowledge about their benefits. The general public doesn’t insist that SEL be included in curriculum, leaving most schools an SEL wasteland.

Only 15 states have thus far developed and authorized some measure of SEL state-wide standards for K through 12 schools, while all states have adopted standards for less bureaucratic pre-schools, a positive current. (See Scorecard.)

Setting standards doesn’t necessarily lead to uniform and successful adoption of the programs – that task falls to school administrators and boards – which need urging and support in many ways in stepping up to meet the standards.

Given the deluge of decisions administrators need to make, and the other kinds of learning programs they need to evaluate, there is a tendency to implement SEL-oriented programs for specific needs, such as bullying, and claim the school is an SEL provider.

The far less deployed counter tendency – and the one that has the most beneficial effects – is installing SEL solidly in a school’s curriculum, with specific periods devoted to teaching SEL and its practices, this combined with weaving SEL thinking and practice into each academic classroom learning no matter the subject and into all out of class activities as well.

The evidence overwhelming supports the latter approach if SEL is to be effectively sustained long-term and the benefits optimized.

Researching SEL Options

For administrators, sifting through the full curriculum SEL programs that have been evaluated through clinical trials – much less the hundreds that have not – and choosing and then implementing the program that best suits the needs of their school, can feel like a daunting task.

Several organizations (see below) assist administrators who wish to become more adept at understanding, modeling, choosing and implementing SEL that support students and staff in creating a positive learning environment.

Administrators need to evaluate the one or more SEL programs on the market that are the best fit for their schools in terms of the methodology being delivered to students and the supporting materials (books, videos, online programs, games, etc.).

The best know evaluation source is The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a non-profit based in Chicago that has made a major contribution to the SEL field by rating programs that help students deal with emotional challenges, improve communication skills, strengthen relationships, and improve behavior and achievement.

CASEL also offers suggestions, and links to programs currently used, and it has assisted a limited number of school districts in implementing SEL into curriculum and in guiding staff training programs.

CASEL’s research library and links also provide the evidence administrators need to convince themselves and others that SEL improves academic skills and performance, as well as school environments and student behavior.

Put another way: as students exposed to continued practice in SEL develop the “soft” non-cognitive skills related to their feelings, needs and ability to handle the experiences and stresses in their everyday lives, they get better grades.

Implementing SEL

The other key challenge for administrators, implementing chosen programs, includes getting buy-in from the various stakeholders (teachers, staff, students, parents).

This is a major issue given the fact that most programs are sold by small companies and institutions which offer weak or no implementation services to train staff or to prepare students and parents for their implementation.

Jeffrey Kress and Maurice Elias, authors of Rutger’s University Handbook of Child Psychology, describe the complexities of implementing SEL in schools as follows:

“For schools to successfully bring in comprehensive approaches to SEL in enduring and effective ways, they will need consultants who can negotiate a complex, inter- active, ecological-developmental process.”

Elias is director of Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab and co-director of the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools (SELinSchools.org), which trains administrators and teachers in SEL practices and implementation.

Another potential resource for finding experienced SEL implementers is the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools co-directed by Dr. Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor. The Center has recruited volunteer implementers from around the country. It also publishes valuable guides, including The Implementation Guide to Student Learning Support (Corwin Press).

Additional Guidance

Here is some additional guidance for administrators in dealing with the challenges of adopting SEL into curriculum.

Include teachers and students in every stop of the process and keep parents informed.

Until learning and practicing SEL skills is mandated in teacher education programs, many teachers are on their own to seek out this information. Let the teachers help choose training programs for themselves and have a voice in the selection of the program(s) that will go into the curriculum.

As for students, they are more enthusiastic when they are included in the educational process in as many levels as possible, including planning. This teaches cooperative skills and other qualities of SEL that lead to positive interdependence, personal accountability, and self- evaluation.

Apart from keeping parents informed, at the point at which SEL is launched in your schools, it is helpful to share with parents links to and information about home-based parenting SEL programs available to the public, free and otherwise, so they can maintain the SEL climate and culture at home. Parents should also be encouraged to participate in in-school programs as applicable. (See our partial list.)

There are merits to choosing a program that includes Mindfulness training, or to deploying a separate Mindfulness training to accompany the SEL program you choose.

Thirty years of research into the value of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) in reducing stress, chronic illness and pain management, as well as in developing skills in self-regulation and self-awareness, have led a number of schools across the country to include meditation/mindfulness practice in their offerings to students.

This has been backed by solid research from institutions such as the MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical school, by pioneers in the field such as Jon Kabbatt Zinn (MBSR Clinic) and Linda Lantieri (Inner Resilience), and by reporting by CASEL and other groups.

The results have led to an exploration of MBSR across disciplines, including behavioral and cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Educators and administrators interested in introducing SEL into their schools should understand that SEL and Mindfulness programs are both offered to schools. Similar outcomes include increased academic achievement and well-being, less risky behavior, and better relationships with peers and teachers. Both SEL and mindfulness ideally would replace punitive discipline in your schools.

However, the approaches and intentions differ. SEL is an instructional program, a policy and a school-wide everyday practice focusing on attitude and behavioral changes and the skills training in dealing with self and others needed to accomplish both.

Mindfulness is a practice drawing from one’s inner resources and the “premise that each person has the innate capacity for relationship-building qualities such as empathy and kindness,” as founder of the Inner Resilience Program (and one of the original co-founders of CASEL) Linda Lantieri explains.

“Fortunately,” she adds, “it’s not necessary to choose one over the other, since SEL works from the outside in, and mindfulness works form the inside out.”

Practicing mindfulness, she notes, helps students (and staff) “become aware of and then embody the connection between their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Students are better able to regulate their emotions, which then impacts things such as their behavior, stress levels, relationships, and ability to focus.”

In short, mindfulness practices connect students’ inner and outer experiences and help them see the congruence between the two. Mindfulness gives students the opportunity to slow down and become more self-aware and less reactive; also to become more responsive, particularly when stress levels are high.

Accordingly, they both support SEL skills training, which is why many of the packaged SEL programs include mindfulness practices.

For their parts, educators who practice mindfulness meditation can expect to become better equipped to deal with disruptive behavior and more connected to students’ feelings and needs as well as their own.

Consider practicing Servant Leadership, which is in accord with SEL practices, and learn how administrators can benefit from personal SEL training if you haven’t already had it.

At the risk of preaching to the converted, the heart of highly effective strategic leadership is relationships: Relationship with oneself, relationship with associates, cohorts and partners on all levels of an organization, including with internal and external stakeholders; relationship with the community, as well as relationship with the world and the greater good.

At the heart of relationship is effective communication in empathetic, non-violent ways. In addition, effective leaders are effective followers and effective followers are effective leaders.

In instituting SEL practices, it’s useful to remember that a primary responsibility of institutional leadership is to create a safe work environment where people are respected, honored and valued, not viewed as commodities or pawns on a chessboard to be moved at will.

Social and emotional authenticity moves us beyond the old power-over paradigm to where heart and mind function as a unified whole.

Effective communication and listening, with an emphasis on listening, combined with a practice of mindfulness, self-reflection and SEL skills, requires a commitment to personal growth for the benefit of the leader and the organization in which they are serving.

Servant Leaders recognize that their unique role is to be in service to the organization and its members.

This also requires a level of humility, and foresight, which comes with SEL training. Servant Leaders see “followers” as individuals equal in worth or value who play a different, not lesser, role than theirs.

Leaders who make it a practice to express gratitude towards individuals with whom they partner, will find that there is less fear of unknown outcomes and resistance to change.

Leaders and followers who practice humility offer the organization the opportunity to grow as they take full responsibility for their projects, assignments, creative endeavors as well the respective roles they play within the organization.

Relative to SEL, your school’s teachers will have their own motivation to implement the program. Individual differences in creativity or drive will impact the degree to which the program is successfully installed.

Each individual involved will be going through her/his own ecology of change as SEL rolls out and as he or she gains skills and higher awareness. Accordingly, it is important for school leaders to seek buy-in to an overall rollout plan that states the needs, intention and goals, and to evaluate progress regularly.

Work on the macro and micro level for the future.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley suggests a three-pronged approach to integrating SEL:

1) Pre-service teachers need SEL content: what it is, the science behind it, and how to use it to structure lessons, effectively implement SEL programs and create positive learning environments. Therefore, encourage colleges that maintain education programs to teach SEL to their education-major students, and hire new teachers who have experienced SEL training.

2) If you have student teachers at your school, mentor them in SEL while there.

3) Continue mentoring new teachers for at least the first two years of in-service teaching.

Research-based Training Programs for Administrators and Educators

Here’s a sample list of research-based training programs for Administrators and Educators interested in becoming well versed in SEL.

America Institute for Research (AIR)  Conducts “research and evaluation activities and provides technical assistance, consultation, and communication activities regarding the mental health of children and youth, and the social and emotional conditions for learning. AIR staff work closely with district and school staff to create the conditions—vision, leadership, engagement, skills, measurement, and coaching and support—required to promote the skills students need to master academic content and enhance their well-being….SEL Solutions supports district and school staff to embed and integrate SEL with work currently underway within the district and school, creating a coordinated and purposeful SEL and school climate effort.

AIR partners include National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) and the  Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center).

More Specific Trainings:

For more information on effective practices in implementing social and emotional learning visit:

http://www.gtlcenter.org – The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders has a fabulous model for an SEL school.

http://www.edutopia.org – Which is the product of the George Lucas Education Foundation and an overall superb resource for elevating school performance, including notably with SEL programs.

Some helpful tips can also be found at InspirED.fb, which is Facebook‘s own resource for promoting emotional intelligence.


How to Implement Social and Emotional Learning at Your School By Maurice J. Elias. March 24, 2016, George Lucas Educational Foundation (Edutopia.org)

How SEL and Mindfulness Can Work Together by Linda Lantieri, Vicki Zakrzewski | April 7, 2015. The Greater Good Science Center University of California, Berkley.

How to Close the Social-Emotional Gap in Teacher Training by Kim Schonert-Reichl, Vicki Zakrzewski. January 8, 2014. Greater Good Science Center University of California, Berkley.

Intentional Practicesto Support Social & Emotional Learning by Dale Blyth, Brandi Olson & Kate Walker. February, 2015. University of Minnesota Extension Youth Development Brief.

Rethinking How Students Succeed by Lija Farnham, Gihani Fernando, Mike Perigo, & Colleen Brosman, with Paul Tough. Feb. 17, 2015, Stanford Social Innovation Review.

School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs by Jeffrey S Kress and Maurice J Elias, 2015. Handbook for Child Psychology Chapter 15, p 592-597.

Teaching the Whole Child: Instructional Practices That Support Social-Emotional Learning in Three Teacher Evaluation Frameworks by Nicholas Yoder, Ph.D. January, 2014, Center on Great Teachers & Leaders at American Institutes for Research, (Research to Practice Brief).

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