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How Can Schools Effectively Implement SEL Programs?

Ian Faigley, Director of Outreach & Engagement

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

In the now annual rite of fall, my Facebook feed is filled with friends and family members proudly showing off their children, generally in the driveway or front yard, about to set out for their first day of the school. I can’t help but think back to when I was jittery for the first day of class, filled with excitement and questions. Will my new teacher be nice? Who will be in my homeroom and other classes? Will everyone else think my new Trapper Keeper is as cool as I think it is?

Teachers and administrators are also starting a new year, but with a different set of questions. What is the core content to emphasize? How do I make learning compelling and interesting? What cultural competencies do we need to demonstrate regularly? How will we be evaluated?

Schools recently have been asked to consider one more question, namely how to support the social and emotional learning (SEL) of their students. How this can be done effectively is the subject of a recent brief, “Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation,” by the EASEL (Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning) Lab at Harvard University. 

Several studies have shown that school-based programming in SEL is linked to a number of positive outcomes such as academic achievement and emotional well-being. But sometimes these programs don’t make as much of a difference as prior evidence would suggest. The brief by Stephanie Jones and her team at EASEL, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, posits that problems in the implementation phase can lead to less powerful results. 

Effective SEL programs start with four key elements summarized by the acronym SAFE:

  • Sequenced: Connected and coordinated activities to foster skills development.
  • Active: Active forms of learning to help students master new skills and attitudes.
  • Focused: A component that emphasizes developing personal and social skills.
  • Explicit: Targeting specific social and emotional skills.

From there, the EASEL team found through extensive research five additional common elements for successful programs. They:

  • Occur within supportive contexts.
  • Build adult competencies.
  • Partner with families and communities.
  • Target key behaviors and skills.
  • Set reasonable goals.

So given the large body of research and evidence for the key elements for an effective program, why do so many school-based efforts see lower than expected results? The EASEL team states that “the success of SEL programming relies on more than just putting in place a strong, evidence-based curriculum – the curriculum needs to be implemented well.” There are six recommendations for how to improve the chances for effective implementation.

  1. Allot the time required to implement the program sufficiently and effectively.

There is only so much time in a school day, and many competing demands for that time. Instead of allotting one small time period a week, schools should look at how to incorporate SEL into academic content and lessons.

  1. Extend SEL beyond the classroom.

SEL skills are needed in all the settings young people spend their time, not just the classroom. School leaders should look at the cafeteria, playgrounds and hallways as contexts for practicing these skills. My organization, the Forum for Youth Investment, would push further, of course, and urge educators to recognize the power of SEL development in out-of-school time settings as well.

  1. Apply SEL strategies and skills in real-time.

In dealing with a regular school day, children and young people need a range of interpersonal skills, such as cooperation, conflict resolution and stress management, to name a few. Teachers and staff should consistently be on the lookout for chances to teach these skills in real-time situations, rather than just classroom-based hypothetical situations.

  1. Ensure sufficient staff support and training.

Staff and teachers need training to build their own social and emotional competencies to increase their effectiveness in teaching young people these skills. Program leaders should look to increase training opportunities.

  1. Facilitate program ownership and buy-in.

School leaders should work to make sure that staff are included in the process of program selection to ensure that they buy in to the approach. Leaders should also focus on finding programs that are appropriate to the developmental and cultural needs of their students.

  1. Use data to inform decision making.

Schools use data for many reasons, but rarely to guide and assess SEL programming choices. Simple data collection tools such as school climate surveys can be used to measure the performance of these programs.

The new school year represents a new beginning for school leaders and staff, as well as for the students. Schools now have better access than ever before to tools and evidence-based programs and practices to build their students’ SEL skills and competencies. Starting out on the right foot is critical for a program to reach its intended results, and there’s no better time than now for schools to focus on how these programs will be implemented.