Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

During the most recent school year, as your district implemented Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), which of the following was MOST beneficial in building adult capacity to implement it?

This blogpost is the second 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.  (See the first post here.)

Key activities for strengthening adult SEL competencies and capacity

To create conditions for students to engage in SEL, adults need to feel empowered, supported, and valued. This calls on schools and districts to foster a supportive staff community that promotes adults’ own SEL.

Below, we provide an overview of four key actions that schools and districts can take to strengthen staff expertise and skills to lead SEL initiatives, as well as cultivate adults’ social, emotional and cultural competencies. We also highlight examples of how districts have taken these actions in the Austin Independent School District, El Paso Independent School District, and Oakland Unified School District.

1. Deepen district central office expertise around SEL research and practice

Ideally, deepening SEL expertise among a district’s central office is one of the first steps for districtwide adoption of SEL and continues throughout implementation. When district leaders understand the practices and benefits of SEL, they can more effectively plan, advocate, and budget for SEL in classrooms, schools, and districtwide. This ensures that SEL is not siloed into a single department or viewed as a stand-alone initiative but integrated into all of the district’s work.

As a first step, districts can help central office leaders and staff understand their role in integrating SEL into their work and speak clearly about the value of SEL by creating opportunities for them to build their knowledge of:

Example: The Austin Independent School District’s professional learning plan for building staff expertise in SEL (requires creation of a free account).

2. Design and implement an effective SEL professional learning program for schools

High-quality professional learning for school-based staff is critical to the rollout and scale up of districtwide SEL. An effective SEL professional learning program provides ongoing, scaffolded, and comprehensive support that helps school leaders and staff develop the skills, mindsets, and capacity necessary for implementation. This goes beyond teachers accessing SEL strategies in the classroom; it means ensuring principals, support staff, and other school staff all understand their role in SEL and are supported throughout implementation.

To create a robust professional learning program for SEL, CASEL recommends that districts:

  • Provide staff at all levels across all schools with access to high-quality professional learning on SEL targeted to their roles and skill level.
  • Create regular opportunities for school leaders and teams to learn from each other about SEL implementation.
  • Embed SEL practices and content throughout other professional learning programs in the district (e.g., core content).
  • Regularly collect data on the quality of SEL sessions and uses these data for continuous improvement.

Example: El Paso Independent School District’s yearlong professional learning calendar for their schoolwide SEL cohort.

3. Cultivate staff social, emotional, and cultural competence

Implementing SEL districtwide requires adults not only understand the research and practices behind SEL, but also that they work collaboratively and model SEL in their own interactions. Through the Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI), CASEL has learned that districts are more effective at systemic implementation when they intentionally cultivate social and emotional competencies in adults.

Cultural competence is an important part of social and emotional competence. For example, high levels of social awareness involve being able to take the perspectives of those of different backgrounds and cultures and to empathize and feel compassion (Jagers, 2018). Socially, emotionally, and culturally competent adults effectively apply skills to interact and build relationships with diverse groups in the workplace, in the community, and in their personal relationships.

Districts can cultivate adult social, emotional, and cultural competencies by:

  • Providing opportunities for staff to reflect on their own social and emotional competencies, identities, and biases.
  • Providing opportunities for staff to build their knowledge and appreciation of diverse cultures, values, social norms, and identities.
  • Embedding practices that model these competencies into district- and school-level staff meetings, such as beginning staff meetings with a brief community-building activity.
  • Weaving these competencies through all resources and tools that guide staff in interactions with students, families, and community members.

Example: Tool some districts have used to embed SEL into staff meetings and daily interactions: CASEL’s 3 Signature SEL Practices.

4. Promote trust, community, and collective efficacy among staff

Trust, community, and collective efficacy (a.k.a. belief in their own abilities) among staff are strong predictors of how well schools can carry out improvement initiatives, and ultimately impact student achievement (Read more in this Chicago study of schools and social trust and this study about the impact of efficacy on achievement).

Similarly, the staff relationships and organizational culture within a district team, within a school, and between schools and the district’s central office will all impact SEL implementation. When leaders become aware of existing relational dynamics, they can implement practices to strengthen relationships that will result in more meaningful collaboration and engagement with SEL.

Districts can promote trust, community, and collective efficacy among staff by:

  • Providing frequent opportunities for staff to build supportive professional relationships and a sense of shared purpose and efficacy.
  • Establishing norms or shared agreements between staff that guide respectful interactions, effective collaboration, and inclusive district culture.  
  • Providing staff with dedicated time to engage in collaborative reflection and problem-solving, sharing ideas, and community-building.
  • Actively involving staff in the design, implementation, and evaluation of schoolwide SEL programming.
  • Ensuring regular collection of data on staff perceptions of their work climate that is used for continuous improvement.  

Example: Oakland Unified School District develops working agreements among staff.


This blog was authored by Justina Schlund, Ruth Cross, and Roger Weissberg from NCSSLE partner CASEL.

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