Educators want all students to achieve. They know that behind every test score is a student that is a developing person. Each student brings with them to school a story of their interests, their home life, their hopes, and their fears. And the healthy development of the student is a significant driver for how each learner is able to show their innate capacity in the classroom. Research has shown that the quality of the teacher matters, the quality of instructional materials matter, a well-organized and well-resourced school environment matters; but, the effectiveness of these factors is built on the foundation of the student’s readiness and ability to focus on learning. Educators know that student presence and engagement precedes achievement.

Ensuring this healthy development of students has become a standard part of conversations in today’s educational dialogue. Social-emotional learning (SEL) fills a significant amount of discussion time at school board meetings, is a regular session topic at educational conferences, and encompasses a growing sector of educational vendor products. Academic research, practitioner experience, and popular consensus agree that schools should organize themselves to ensure healthy, happy, and engaged students.

But, despite this growing attention, there has been an absence of clarity on best implementation practices for navigating the complexities of this endeavor.  Schools struggle to clearly define the current baseline, desired future state, and the concrete steps of collaboration needed to ensure that schools are effectively addressing the healthy development of students. Schools have been doing the best they can to figure out the next, or even initial step, in the absence of an exemplar design and planning tool or standard.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading voice on the social-emotional health of students for over two decades, has recently published a comprehensive framework and toolset to help bring clarity on, and provide actionable steps for, how to proceed in this daunting, yet fundamentally important challenge. The CASEL Guide to Schoolwide SEL gives pragmatic and thoughtful guidance on how schools–principals, teachers, and staff–can create environments and cultures that simultaneously prioritize students’ emotional development, social maturity, and academic achievement.

CASEL Guide to Schoolwide SEL

This free, online, interactive tool walks school stakeholders through CASEL’s schoolwide implementation process, which has been used, field-tested, and refined for over a decade. The online Guide was informed by input from leading school districts that make up CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative.

The Guide takes a comprehensive and practical approach to the process of implementing SEL at the school level. It addresses the challenges, constraints, and calendars of school staffing, budgeting, scheduling, data analysis, improvement planning, parent engagement, and other real-world challenges. It provides frameworks for when and how to conduct collaborations with and among teachers, students, parents, and community organizations. It speaks to how and when to consider changes to school rituals, discipline policies, pedagogy, curriculum and so much more.  And given the reality that many school leaders feel overwhelmed by the enormity and the complexity of realizing their ambition to have a healthier school culture through implementing an SEL program, it begins by responding to the question, “Where to Start?”   This Guide provides a practical, high-quality response to this question and the series of subsequent questions that need to be addressed to have a sustainable, resourced, and responsive SEL culture in any school.

Where to Start?

The “Where to Start” section provides multiple on-ramps for school leaders that take into account where the school is in terms of current SEL awareness and implementation.  From those just curious about SEL implementation to those who have already undertaken steps to promote SEL at a school site, the Guide gives tangible steps for moving forward.  Once started, the Guide walks through three stages to move from ambition to sustainability: Organize, Implement, Improve. Throughout each section, the Guide provides explicit information for school leaders and administrators on action steps to promote SEL implementation across these areas.

Organize

Build a Foundational Support and Plan: For those in the very beginning stages, the Guide walks school leaders through the steps of committing to SEL implementation, making a plan, and getting school stakeholders on board so they have ownership in the process. It advises leaders to create a diverse SEL team, ensure that all understand the importance of SEL learning to student success, and collaboratively develop a shared vision for schoolwide SEL that is effectively communicated to the entire school community. The Guide then walks school leaders through the steps of creating their plan for implementation. Schools must take an account of their needs and resources and develop a plan with “clear goals, action steps, and assigned ownership” for moving forward. For those further along in the implementation process, the Guide provides an interactive rubric to take stock of current practices and provide guidance on how to strengthen that implementation. Wherever schools are in the process, the Guide reminds that it is integral to “‘lead from the center rather than the top’”–so that the vision truly is shared by the community and more likely to take hold.

Implement

Strengthening Adult SEL: Oftentimes, conversations around SEL implementation in schools center solely on students. This Guide draws on research findings and experiences from the field that show that it is “critically important that schoolwide SEL implementation intentionally nurtures a work environment in which staff feels supported, empowered, able to collaborate effectively and build relational trust, and also able to develop their social and emotional skills.”  And, this includes all staff members–from administrators to teachers to support staff to any adult in a school who interacts with kids. Therefore, a key piece of the implementation plan is to create an environment that provides school staff with opportunities for professional development and reflection on social-emotional learning; fosters collaboration among staff to develop and refine strategies for promoting schoolwide SEL; and encourages staff to model SEL skills and mindsets in interactions with one another, students, families, and the broader community.

Promote SEL for Students: The central goal of schoolwide SEL implementation is the healthy social and emotional development of students. And, a student’s learning and development are affected by the many different interactions they have throughout a day. Therefore, the Guide notes that SEL implementation must span all the different settings from a student’s life, and include strategies that address schools, classrooms, homes, and the broader community.  The document includes guidance on how to address SEL implementation across these different contexts:

  • School: “Align school climate, programs, and practices to promote SEL for students.”
  • Classrooms: “Foster supportive classroom environments that provide opportunities for both explicit SEL skill instruction as well as integration of SEL throughout all instruction.”
  • Homes: ”Create meaningful partnership opportunities and two-way communication that invite families to understand, experience, inform, and support the social and emotional development of their students.”
  • Community: “Develop and leverage strategic and aligned community partnerships that ensure students receive consistent SEL supports, increase access to a broad range of community services, and expand the professional learning opportunities for SEL.”

The Guide explains that these efforts to extend the social, emotional, and academic learning from the school to a student’s extracurricular and home environments tremendously improve the overall development and practice of these skills and competencies. And, the practice at home and outside of school can serve to be mutually reinforcing to the work happening in the school. Encouraging SEL development across a students’ support networks greatly improves the prospects of successful schoolwide SEL implementation.

Improve

Practice Continuous Improvement: The Guide notes that the implementation of schoolwide SEL is not a linear process; rather, an iterative cycle of reflection and adjustment is essential. The Guide recommends schools embark on two areas of work to ensure “a structured, ongoing process to collect, reflect on, and use implementation and outcome data to inform school-level decisions and drive improvements to SEL implementation”:

  • Continuous improvement: a deliberate process of responding to problems and using that response and data to inform improvements and future decisions.
  • Testing out innovative practices: short continuous improvement cycles aimed to keep staff energized about the SEL programming.

This approach to SEL builds into the implementation plan a process for responding to needs and concerns that arise from the community. The Guide also includes additional tools and resources that allow schools to track progress, delve deeper into any of the steps in the Guide, and provide further guidance on questions and concerns surrounding this process that may emerge.

A Roadmap for Educating the Whole Child

Implementing schoolwide SEL can feel overwhelming for even the most well-intentioned educators, especially in a context where so much energy and attention is focused on standards-based instruction and high-stakes testing. This CASEL Guide to Schoolwide SEL acknowledges this burden and meets educators where they are. It provides tangible action steps to take what schools already do well and integrate deeper practices to move toward full SEL implementation. This Guide lifts a fog of uncertainty and reveals a roadmap for the journey.

In providing this tool, CASEL has continued its track record of making significant contributions to the challenges inherent in having schools nurture healthy development as a precursor to academic achievement. And this work naturally connects with the societal expectation that a high school diploma should indicate a broad definition of college and career readiness.  A school culture that has a strong SEL foundation can realize the ambitions of rigor, relevance and relationships which schools strive to deliver. Questions of equity, diversity, disparity, and inclusion can be addressed by communities that have the social and emotional skills to engage in critical conversations. Educators have begun to see SEL as a way to re-align–by taking what many current practices are already accomplishing -and to create new connective practices to make sure they are seeing and addressing the entire picture of student development.

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