5 principles for an equitable SEL initiative

COVID's impact on education emphasizes the need for curated, vetted SEL resources that can support the whole child

According to a recent report, fewer than one in four teachers say social-emotional learning (SEL) is implemented in their school on a programmatic, schoolwide basis.

More than two decades of research proves that SEL yields positive results for students, adults, and school communities. The pandemic and its impact on education emphasizes the need for curated, vetted SEL resources that educators can use to support the whole child–regardless of the learning environment.

Initiatives like the Social-Emotional Learning Coalition–which is created in partnership between Discovery Education, The Allstate Foundation, The National Afterschool Association, and Responsibility.org–are working to address the needs of students and educators by improving access to resources that support the integration of SEL into core instruction. To achieve this, the Coalition follows five guiding principles, which schools and district leaders can also follow to create an SEL framework that’s both equitable and impactful. Those principles are:

Equitable access is critical.

If we want students and educators to reap the benefits of SEL, we must ensure that they’re able to access the right tools, resources, and support. According to guidance compiled by one of the leaders in the SEL space, when SEL is leveraged to promote equity, it is:

  • Relevant for all students in all schools and affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds
  • A strategy for systemic improvement, not just an intervention for at-risk students
  • Uplifts student voice and promotes agency and civic engagement
  • Supports adults in strengthening practices that promote equity
  • Engages students, families, and communities as authentic partners in social and emotional development

Common barriers to equitable SEL include poverty, exclusionary disciplinary practices, implicit bias, a lack of trauma-informed school practices, and educator burnout.

Rose Jackson Buckley, Ph.D., assistant director of technical assistance for the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center, describes five evidence-based classroom practices that districts and schools can use to promote equitable SEL:

  1. Safe, healing spaces: Create safe healing spaces to promote collective well-being as a supplement to trauma-informed practices, which focus primarily on individuals.
  2. Critical consciousness: Model self-awareness to recognize the impact of personal identities and biases, and the role of group identity on power, privilege, and norms.
  3. Cultural responsiveness: Focus SEL on students’ identities, cultures, and lived experiences; highlight diverse cultures and histories; and discuss issues of social oppression and justice.
  4. Communal values: Promote communal values, such as interdependence, social responsibility, conflict resolution, and inclusive and mutually supportive processes and structures.
  5. School and community engagement: Provide opportunities for school and community social justice activities and partner with diverse community members to extend SEL programming.

SEL must be infused across all content areas and practiced in the classroom and beyond.

To fully embrace SEL, it must be adopted beyond the classroom and woven throughout learning environments–including students’ homes. When schools extend SEL lessons beyond the classroom, students’ academic skills and classroom behaviors improve, explains an article from Edutopia.

SEL techniques have been especially relevant during the pandemic, where we’ve all faced new challenges, uncertainties and stressors. Inviting students and their families to practice SEL techniques at home is an important step toward shaping a positive, supportive school culture.

Districts can strategize to foster SEL champions—staff members who recognize the importance of fostering social and emotional wellbeing for students and educators. To achieve this, administrators and principals can model SEL strategies and encourage other staff members to do the same.

High-quality, vetted, up-to-date and actionable SEL resources are key.

Prior to investing in an SEL program, district and school leaders should research available options and garner feedback from stakeholders—including teachers. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education provides a list of variables to consider when vetting different programs.

Schools are also encouraged to take advantage of resources like the Social-Emotional Learning Center, where educators, students and families can access no-cost SEL activities, lesson plans, and professional learning opportunities.

Commit to impact.

All effective SEL initiatives are committed to measuring their reach and impact. Here are resources districts can leverage to assess the quality of SEL implementation:

  • Tools to Assess Social and Emotional Learning in Schools. This guide from Edutopia outlines how to assess SEL programs using well-defined goals, benchmarks and tools for universal and targeted screening and progress monitoring.
  • Encouraging Social and Emotional Learning: Next Steps for States. Developed in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute, this brief is designed specifically for state policymakers. It provides actionable steps for states looking to measure and promote SEL, including recommendations for how to begin to monitor SEL.
  • Compendium of Preschool Through Elementary School SEL and Associated Assessment Measures. The report provides descriptions and ratings of multiple widely available SEL assessment measures. Use this if you want to know about specific SEL assessment tools for preschool or elementary school.
  • The SEL Assessment Guide. The digital guide from the Assessment Work Group, provides several resources for leaders and implementation teams in PreK-12th grade settings who are making decisions about selecting and using measures of student SEL. This includes guidance on how to select an assessment and use student SEL competency data.

Foster an engaged coalition of public, private, and philanthropic partners to scale SEL efforts.

Once a district has a well-rounded SEL initiative in place, they can propel it forward by building external partnerships. For example, districts can partner with local organizations that support students in one way or another and invite those organizations to play an active role in their SEL plan.

Now more than ever, organizations have a responsibility to support students and educators through personal and collective empowerment. By working together, we can elevate the conversation around SEL–extending its impact and benefits to every community.

eSchool Media Contributors