Social-Emotional Learning: Ways for School Leaders to Support Students
While the need for social-emotional learning (SEL) among K-12 students was evident prior to COVID-19, the pandemic further cemented how vital SEL is when it comes to student success and well-being. For instance, many educators witnessed the incredible resilience of their students as they worked through new school routines, separation from friends, and a myriad of new situations.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Being able to foster this resilience is critical not only for students’ academic performance but how they navigate other elements of their school experience. The practice of self-determination and managing feelings go hand-in-hand when a student is working through a tough math problem. Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is important when students meet a new classmate who just moved into the district and might be nervous about making new friends.
School leaders play a critical role in fostering positive school cultures, and ensuring opportunities for social-emotional learning is part of that work. With a new school year on the way, we’re offering a few insights on some actions school leaders can take to continue to foster empathy, curiosity, resiliency, and acceptance among their students.
School leaders play a critical role in fostering positive school cultures, and ensuring opportunities for social-emotional learning is part of that work.
Revisit your school’s shared vision through a social-emotional lens
Great schools stand for something more than academics. They know it’s important to have a shared vision: an ideal future state for students, teachers, parents, and their entire school community. A shared vision answers the important, strategic questions of what schools want their students to believe about themselves and their potential—and the values the school community should model to help students reach their goals.
Of course, we know that retooling your school’s strategic priorities and core beliefs is a huge undertaking, one that requires gathering a group of stakeholders and a fair amount of discussion and effort. However, if your school’s mission and vision aren’t matching up with the life skills students are learning—cultivating curiosity, becoming good citizens and members of their communities, and practicing empathy—it might be worth taking a look at your language to ensure alignment.
Integrate SEL into your existing instructional leadership team
Instructional leadership teams (ILTs) are potent vehicles for accelerating school change. They provide a systemic way to practice distributed leadership, a shared approach to leadership where decision-making is spread from one person—usually a school leader—to a collective group. These groups are tasked with addressing schoolwide instructional quality and are typically comprised of the school principal, assistant principal, grade-level team leaders, and content-area department heads.
Academics and social-emotional learning go hand-in-hand. For example, school counselors are serving on ILTs to ensure that schools are keeping this learning top of mind in tandem with curriculum and instruction. With the right people around the table, ILTs can strengthen schoolwide SEL instruction by ensuring it’s always front and center in their work to develop teacher capacity and improve school climate.
This kind of team, with the diverse perspectives it brings, is critical to driving a coordinated approach to SEL implementation. They can set goals, set communication methods with school stakeholders, identify partnerships and resources that might be needed, and determine how to collect data to measure SEL efforts.
If your school’s mission and vision aren’t matching up with the life skills students are learning—cultivating curiosity, becoming good citizens and members of their communities, and practicing empathy—it might be worth taking a look at your language to ensure alignment.
Use data to measure and improve your efforts
Continuously measuring your efforts is the way you’ll know if the SEL programming at your school is working. To begin, you’ll need to establish a baseline. One of the first tasks of the ILT can be to perform a schoolwide SEL needs assessment, where the team collects feedback on what’s working, what’s not, and any gaps that are uncovered.
This Hanover Research article details some of the points you’ll want to collect as part of your SEL efforts, including:
- Observational data from your teachers as they observe behaviors among students,
- Academic indicators, such as outcomes on formative and summative assessments,
- Behavioral data, such as attendance and behavioral disruptions,
- Self-perceptions of how students see their own SEL competence, and
- Teacher and staff-specific data on their comprehension of SEL and whether they have the tools and strategies needed to integrate it into their daily classroom practices.
Having this data is not only critical for improving SEL as a whole, but it’s also useful for helping your broader school community understand what SEL is, why it’s needed, and what the positive outcomes are.
For all the discussion about the importance of social-emotional learning for children, there’s a clear need to support the same learning for educators.
Create social-emotional supports and development for teachers and staff
For all the discussion about the importance of social-emotional learning for children, there’s a clear need to support professional learning for educators. Teachers and school staff who further develop their SEL skills not only improve their own well-being but the well-being and success of their students.
There are plenty of ways, both big and small, to create these social emotional supports:
- At the individual level, this might look like developing peer mentorship programs or other opportunities that allow teachers and staff to establish supportive relationships at school or offer self-care and wellness programs.
- At the building level, consider surveying educators at the beginning of the school year to determine which SEL supports and programs would be most helpful for them—and conduct regular check-ins to ensure those programs are working.
- At the professional development level, provide educators with ongoing SEL skill development through professional learning, specifically learning focused on transferring the skills they learn to their students.
Uplevel your own social-emotional learning
Consider all of your responsibilities as a school leader: seeing to your students’ academic and social-emotional success; fostering strong relationships with staff, parents, students, and the broader school community; building trust with stakeholders and balancing a demanding profession while also having a life outside of school. School leaders practice SEL every day, and it’s important that you continue to build on those skills—for your own well-being.
Keep an eye out for professional development opportunities that specifically cater to support adult social-emotional learning—workshops, programs, and cohorts that help you manage stress, practice mindfulness, build better relationships with the groups within your school community, and rediscover the joy that’s part of your daily work.
SEL-focused professional development not only helps you better understand the outcomes you’re driving toward for your students and educators, but it also ensures you’re prioritizing your own self-care—increasing your effectiveness and desire to stay in a role where you’re so needed.
Building a solid SEL foundation
Focusing on the bigger picture—ensuring that SEL is able to be implemented, measured, and taught schoolwide—is the best way to support these efforts for your students. Investing upfront by building a solid foundation is the best way to set your educators and students up for collective success.