What are the reasons SEL is important to implement on a schoolwide basis?

Although social-emotional learning (SEL) is considered one of the hottest topics in education, there is still a need for educators to understand why it is important. In a world where uncertainty and trauma are increasing, many students come to school weighed down by concerns that render them mentally and emotionally unprepared for learning.  Preoccupied with the dangers they face in their everyday lives, or those that loom over the world at large, more and more students are in a constant state of “fight or flight.” As caring adults who are a consistent presence in their lives, our job is to assure them that they are safe and they belong in our classrooms. When the basic human needs for safety and belonging are met, children can turn their attention to learning.  

Despite this logical and compassionate approach to the classroom, there are some educators who are unsure how SEL fits into the scope of their job description.  They may be overly focused on academics due to the pressures of raising test scores, or they may feel that addressing the social and emotional needs of students is beyond their expertise.  However, as Durlak (2011) notes, time spent on SEL, which includes culture, climate, and relationships, improves achievement.  Therefore, in order for SEL implementation to be successful, it must be schoolwide and comprehensive.

Schoolwide means that it needs to be adopted by all stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, students, and families.  Comprehensive means that it must be an integrated and intentional approach to the way school is done.

How do administrators set positive examples of SEL leadership for teachers to follow?

The job of the administrator is to lead his or her team and champion new initiatives.  As Leman and Pentak (2004) point out, a good leader is like a shepherd who “leads people in a manner that makes them want to follow” (112).  Being a leader who others want to follow means investing in relationships.

In the demanding world of education, we must remember that people are more important than our never-ending to-do list.  When administrators invest time to get to know people and what is happening in their lives, both at work and beyond, then the staff wants to follow.  The old saying is true, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

How can you as an administrator demonstrate care and concern for your staff?  Do you celebrate the small wins? Do you publicly acknowledge individual accomplishments?  Do you give thanks to your team in words and actions? Once this culture of honor and appreciation is established, then teachers are more likely to follow.   

What must administrators say and do to gain teachers’ buy-in for SEL initiatives?

Not only must a solid foundation of strong and healthy relationships among administration and staff be created, but there must also be clear communication about the vision and mission of the school.  The vision is the big picture – what we want to become. The mission is the work – what we do, who we serve, and how we serve. Articulating the vision and mission of the organization provides a focus for everyone on the team.  The first step to creating buy-in for SEL is to include it in the vision and mission statements.

The second step for gaining and increasing buy-in for SEL is follow-through.  Once there is understanding and agreement about incorporating SEL into the teaching and learning, then there must be actions to support that intention.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Continuous professional development about integrating SEL with academics
  • Ongoing coaching sessions on SEL practice
  • Schoolwide SEL curriculum adoption
  • Scheduled time for intentional SEL instruction, such as during the morning meeting or advisory period
  • Revision of disciplinary practices from punitive to restorative

After SEL implementation is initiated, it must be sustained.  Since SEL requires time and emotional energy, teachers need to be reminded that it is a priority.  They need to hear regularly that teaching children is more important than teaching material. Additionally, teachers must be encouraged to attend to their own self-care, knowing that they can only give what they have.

Likewise, students and families need clear communication about the school’s focus on SEL.  Utilizing a common language for SEL competencies sets behavior expectations for students and creates stronger family-school partnerships.  

Three things every administrator must know how to explain about SEL

Education is the business of helping people grow.  SEL empowers people ― students, teachers and families ― to identify what is going on in their heads and their hearts, so they can use their hands to build up and not tear down.  Therefore, we must attend to the needs of the whole child – academically, physically, emotionally, and socially. In many areas, the school is the center of community life. School leadership, including administrators and teachers, is responsible for advocating for the needs of children and families.  

Administrators must understand the following about SEL:

  1. Focusing on SEL will impact the culture – the what we do — and climate – the how it feels — of the school.
  2. Attention to SEL requires a paradigm shift in the way we do school.  People do not serve data; data serves people.
  3. Change takes time.  Successful SEL implementation requires a long-term commitment.  

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