4 SEL success tips for elementary schools

Here are the steps one elementary school principal took to ensure both initial and long-term success of a social emotional learning curriculum for grades K-5

Five years ago, we had about 900 students in our K-5 elementary school, with roughly 40 percent of them either eligible for free or reduced lunch. Being in a geographic area that’s challenged by generational poverty and other socioeconomic issues, we needed a way to overcome some fairly steep challenges on the SEL curriculum front.

Some students, for example, were struggling with managing their emotions and their bodies. Those are tough decisions for a seven or eight year old child to deal with. In most cases, sending kids to the principal’s office was the first line of defense in these challenging situations.

I’d used SEL tools at previous districts where I worked, but when a colleague introduced me to the 7 Mindsets curriculum—and told me that it was the best foundational program she’d ever seen, and exactly what children need to be successful in life—we decided to implement it in our cohort of vertically aligned schools.

4 steps to SEL success

Working with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department, we set up funding for the curriculum (the department has been funding our use of the curriculum ever since).

Here are the four steps we took to ensure a successful implementation and long-term usage of our SEL curriculum:   

1. Put teachers at the center of the SEL conversation. Be very mindful of your teachers and your staff and help them grow through this process. The first year that we used the SEL curriculum, we introduced teachers to it and asked if they’d like to be trained on its usage over the summer. Nearly half of our teachers volunteered to participate, which shows just how interested and committed they were to teaching SEL in the classroom. We used a “train the teachers” strategy and then opened up the portal to the kids. In retrospect, I would have spent one year with our teachers—using in-person training to really connect the SEL curriculum with their lives—before opening the portal up to students.

2. Get the whole school involved. During the third year of using our SEL curriculum, we really wanted to get more teachers using it. Some just didn’t recognize the difference that it could make for kids; they didn’t have their heart and soul in it. To help, we created a schoolwide SEL theme focused on getting everyone on campus involved. We initially held it on Fridays, but later moved it to Mondays to kick off the week with a mindset that everyone could focus on and plan around. This helps to set the tone for our entire week.

3. Form a core SEL team. Get a core team of teachers together that can really get behind the effort and serve as champions for it. This is important because teachers are the strongest leaders when it comes to SEL, and the ones who are going to generalize it into the classroom all day, every day. In other words, it shouldn’t just be about creating “SEL time” or “7 Mindsets time;” it should be about creating a school culture that fosters respectful, responsible problem solvers. Start with your core team and work with your vendor partner to come up with their implementation plan. Then, create a 3-year plan and the checks and balances for ensuring broad usage on campus.

4. Use the data to improve your SEL program. Look at your data, your school improvement data, and your student health survey data, and then come up with a plan for improving those results during the upcoming year. To gauge student feedback on our SEL program and on their overall comfort levels in school, we use our state’s 32-question survey. Since we began using the SEL curriculum, the number of “I like school” responses has consistently stayed in the 80 percent range. Also, 86.3 percent of students say they enjoy Mindset lessons on Mondays; 85.9% say they think 7 Mindsets helped them become a kinder person; 75.3 percent say they think it helped them build better friendship; and 79.4 percent feel that it has helped their classmates. 

My hope is that SEL is the “chicken before the egg” on the educational front, where we all know that research shows that if students can’t make good decisions, aren’t self-aware, and if they can’t form relationships, then school’s not going to be effective for them. Knowing this, SEL clearly has to become foundational before we can teach them anything else.

eSchool Media Contributors