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Effectively Embedding SEL into Instruction: How School and District Leaders Can Make it Happen

By Dr. JuDonn DeShields and Jill Nyhus

As education leaders across the country can attest, the pandemic has continued to create serious, long-term gaps both in student wellness and academic progress. 

It’s clear from decades of research that for students to experience positive academic outcomes, they need learning environments that support social emotional learning (SEL). These environments are where they feel a sense of belonging, have opportunities to grow their curiosity, and engage regularly in practices that help them regulate their emotions.

However, it’s also clear that teachers are feeling overwhelmed and burdened with all that is on their plates—especially as any new SEL programming can feel like “one more thing.” In a recent survey, educators shared that, “helping students catch up academically leaves limited bandwidth for SEL.” On top of that, in another survey, nearly two-thirds of teachers called out that weaving academics and SEL is simply challenging. 

This situation poses a critical challenge: how do leaders create and sustain an ecosystem that addresses the needs of both their students and educators? From our work with schools and districts across the country, here are a few considerations we’ve gleaned at both the school and district level that may be helpful in navigating this challenge.

The School Level

In 2021-22, PowerMyLearning partnered with Jeanne R. Meadows Elementary School, a Title I elementary school in San Jose, California. Like other principals across the country, Principal Magdelena Moore had become deeply concerned about her students’ ability to adapt to being back in the classroom—especially with the trauma that many of them had recently undergone and the lack of structure they had experienced with remote learning. She knew she needed to provide job-embedded, non-burdensome support for her teachers that would restore a productive learning environment.

She and her team chose PowerMyLearning’s Nurture Student Growth Through Social Emotional Learning program, which included a mix of evidence-based workshops and 1:1 coaching. The program supported educators to embed  SEL within instruction and also provided support to families in developing the tools they need to manage their emotions and develop positive relationships with others. Rather than becoming “one more thing” that teachers had to teach as a standalone lesson, the program integrated SEL directly into the context of learning.

And they saw remarkable progress, including increased scores on both reading and math state assessments, improved student behavior and SEL skills, and strengthened relationships with families.

Consider a few of the best practices Principal Moore put in place to make this happen.

1. Create flexible PD structures. The first step in building teacher capacity and autonomy is aligning professional learning opportunities to school and district priorities, as well as individual teachers’ identified areas of growth. After each bit-size 60-minute workshop, teachers had access to 1:1 or small-group coaching where they identified and reflected upon specific practices they wanted to try to build on—avoiding traditional day-long PD sessions with little time for implementation.

2. Build relationship-centered classroom environments. At a time when students had been isolated from their peers and teachers for months, Principal Moore and her team prioritized developing intentional practices to foster students’ sense of belonging. Teachers were trained on how to model the restoration of interpersonal relationships, and had regular opportunities and encouragement to do so. At the same time, Meadows provided its students multiple, ongoing opportunities to exercise agency over their own learning. 

3. Prioritize learning and activities to build trust between teachers and families. The return to in-person learning was marked by a surge of parents demanding more involvement in their children’s education. Meadows responded by creating multiple channels in which teachers and school leaders could listen attentively to families’ concerns. To make sure that those listening sessions had an impact in the classroom, the school provided ongoing PD to help teachers engage families in ways that were linked to student learning. Principal Moore and her team also created dedicated spaces where families could share and learn from one another, further strengthening Meadows’ sense of community. 

While this work is still ongoing, Principal Moore and the dedicated teachers at Meadows are justifiably proud of how their integration of instruction, SEL, and community-building brought the school together during difficult times—and helped students find academic success.

The District Level  

An integrated approach to SEL can’t meaningfully take hold at the school level absent the appropriate signals and support from district leaders. Here are a few considerations to start to make SEL a priority district-wide.

  1. Embed SEL into strategic plans.  Doing so presents a number of opportunities, but most notably it allows for stakeholders to see SEL as an enduring commitment and not one more thing. Making it a strategic priority also creates fertile ground for accountability measures to be attached to it, as well as the allocation of resources necessary for schools to do the work effectively. 
  2. Create opportunities for alignment within a central office.  At its best, SEL represents deep cross-collaborative efforts between the offices of teaching and learning, culture and climate, and student supports—to name a few. In the design of an integrated approach to SEL at scale, leaders from each office need to be involved in co-creating the vision for inputs and outputs.  In other words, collaboratively answering:
    • What will the impact of an integrated approach to SEL be on students, staff, and the broader community?  
    • What are the resources needed to ensure that schools build the initial and enduring capacity to execute this work?  
  3. Have cross-collaborative teams set commitments and goals representative of their ownership of the work that lies ahead. This stands in contrast to an approach many districts take: creating an office of social-emotional learning that exclusively shoulders the burden of casting and executing the vision for integrating SEL in schools. While both can be impactful, we believe that a shared and collaborative approach to SEL integration increases buy-in, accountability, and urgency, which will increase the likelihood that schools adopt and sustain enduring commitments and subsequent practices around SEL.

Dr. JuDonn DeShields is Chief Program and Strategy Officer at PowerMyLearning. He can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Jill Nyhus is Chief Growth Officer at PowerMyLearning. She can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.