Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. SEL can be more than a 30-minute weekly classroom lesson: It’s about how teaching and learning happen, as well as what you teach and where you learn. High-quality SEL implementation supports better instruction, improved school climate, and enhanced student social-emotional competence, positive behavior, academic progress, increased graduation rates, and more.
Since 2011, CASEL has partnered with districts and schools nationwide to develop a Theory of Action for Systemic SEL Implementation, which aims to infuse SEL into everything that affects students’ educational experiences—from the district’s central office, to schools and classrooms, to partnerships with families and communities. This post is the first of a series that will explore the four focus areas of CASEL’s process for systemic districtwide SEL implementation: 1) Building foundational support; 2) Strengthening adult SEL competencies and capacity; 3) Promoting SEL for students; and 4) Practicing continuous improvement.
Key activities for building foundational support for SEL
Establishing a strong foundation for systemic implementation helps districts sustain and improve their efforts long-term to reach their goals.
Below, we provide an overview of four key actions that districts can take to build foundational support for high-quality SEL implementation. We also highlight examples of how districts have taken these actions in Baltimore City Schools, Atlanta Public Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Austin Independent School District, Chicago Public Schools, Washoe (NV) County School District, and Wheaton-Warrenville Community School District.
1. Develop a shared vision and plan that establishes SEL as a core part of students’ education.
A shared vision helps create a common understanding of SEL as integral to students’ success and aligns strategies, programs, practices, and policies. A robust plan actualizes this vision by outlining how the district will achieve clear short- and long-term goals.
Indicators of a strong shared vision and an effective SEL strategic plan include:
- SEL is established as essential to the district’s mission and aligned to district values.
- Shared language around is articulated and used throughout the district.
- The vision and plan are informed by and shared with all key stakeholders (e.g., students, district and school staff, parents, and community partners).
- The plan is based on a needs and resources assessment of existing SEL programs/practices and gaps to be addressed.
- The plan connects to an aligned evaluation plan that measures short- and long-term outcomes around equitable learning environments and students’ social, emotional, and academic progress.
- The vision and plan are revisited at least every two years and updated as needed.
Example: Baltimore City Schools’ vision communicates how schools will create supportive learning climates that promote SEL.
2. Regularly communicate about SEL as a district priority.
Clear, ongoing communication with key audiences—including district leaders, school administrators, teachers and staff, students, families, community members, and funders—helps districts influence key decision-makers to promote SEL, engage teachers and staff, build enthusiasm among families and students, and convince funders to invest in SEL.
A strong communication plan for SEL:
- Highlights the importance of SEL for all students and helps key district leaders regularly communicate this message.
- Provides consistent, targeted messaging to key stakeholder groups in appropriate languages and formats.
- Provides clear timelines and expectations around roles and responsibilities.
Example: Austin Independent School District's SEL communication plan outlines how they will keep stakeholders informed about the district’s SEL priorities. (Create free account to access.)
3. Organize the district to promote alignment and coherence around efforts related to universal SEL programming, academics, and equity.
SEL can be a powerful lever for advancing academic excellence and high-quality educational experiences for all students. It can also help districts cultivate adult and student practices that close opportunity gaps and create more inclusive school communities.
When efforts are siloed, however, SEL can be viewed as a competing priority or just another district initiative that will come and go. It’s critically important that school and district leaders are able to see the connections among universal SEL programming, academics, and equity and reflect this connection in their work. By aligning these efforts, districts can more effectively advance life opportunities and outcomes for all students.
Indicators that SEL efforts are well-aligned with district priorities around academics and equity include:
- The district SEL team/lead has influence with the superintendent and senior administrators.
- The SEL team is housed in a department focused on academics, equity, and/or other critical district priorities for all students.
- The district establishes structures that promote cross-department collaboration, with the SEL team partnering with key departments to develop common goals and aligned strategies.
- SEL is embedded into frameworks for equity, academics, and school improvement.
Example: Metro Nashville Public Schools has positioned SEL to improve academics and address opportunity gaps.
4. Align financial and human resources to support SEL implementation.
Sustained, systemic SEL implementation requires long-term dedicated resources, including funding and staffing. Through a continued investment at the school, classroom, and community levels, districts can support the professional learning and programming needed to sustain and continuously improve implementation.
When resources for SEL are well-aligned:
- A strong long-term budget and plan for equitable SEL funding meet the needs of all schools.
- Funding comes from diverse sources as part of a budget to adequately staff, support, and sustain ongoing SEL implementation for all students.
- District human resources practices embed SEL considerations into candidate screening, hiring, evaluation, and employment policies at the district and school levels.
- Attention is paid to the diversity of background in candidates and hires.
Example: Financial case studies of Austin Independent School District, Chicago Public Schools, Washoe (NV) County School District, and Wheaton-Warrenville Community School District to sustain SEL implementation.
This blog was authored by Justina Schlund, Ruth Cross, and Roger Weissberg from NCSSLE partner CASEL.