3 Mistakes Schools Make Implementing SEL


In honor of SEL Day, I wanted to share a little about what is Social Emotional Learning and 3 mistakes I see schools make in their implementation of SEL.

SEL is the process through which students and adults develop the skills for fundamental life effectiveness. These are the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships and our work effectively and ethically (definition adapted from Oakland Unified School District).

Students need SEL skills to succeed in school, work and life. A focus on SEL makes schools a better place to be for students and adults. The research overwhelmingly shows the linkages among SEL, student outcomes and school performance. There is improved classroom behavior, more ability to manage stress and more positive attitudes about themselves, others and school when SEL programs are in place compared to peers where SEL programs are not in place. Adoption of an SEL program  also improves rates of teacher attrition (Durlak, 2011). Through self-reflection and social awareness, SEL helps teach skills needed to connect across race, class, culture, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, learning needs and age. 

But all too often, SEL can be adopted in a way that is ineffective or even harmful, if the focus is on compliance and behavior management, instead of the growth of the skills for students to recognize their feelings and express themselves. There are three ways that I see that schools get their implementation of SEL wrong that I want to cover today: 

  1. SEL as a curriculum. One question I regularly get asked by schools that are exploring the idea of SEL is “what curriculum should we use?” It is an important question, but all too often it becomes the focus of the work without an understanding of the broader work that should accompany adoption of a SEL curriculum. Let me be clear–SEL is not a curriculum! While you may be using a curriculum to provide a common language and a developmental approach to building skills, the power of teaching SEL is the opportunity to bring those same skills to interactions in the classroom, to content areas and to relationships. Only discussing SEL during your direct instruction time is liking looking at a piece of music, but never actually playing the song. Good to know but without meaning if you aren’t able to use it.
  2. SEL happens in 30 minute blocks. Many schools implement SEL with a schedule like they would with art or music; where it is a 30 minute block once or twice a week. But we aren’t social and emotional beings in 30 minute blocks (neither are we artistic or musical beings for just 30 minutes, but that is a different conversation), instead our need for social interactions and emotional regulation exist throughout our day and present opportunities for learning and relationship. 
  3. SEL is what the counselor teaches. While counselors may have training and expertise in SEL that teachers do not, an opportunity is missed to have SEL integrated throughout the school day when direct instruction on SEL is led by the counselor. The best opportunity for widespread adoption of SEL is when it is integrated into the classroom and the direct instruction on SEL is provided by the classroom teacher. Cultivating SEL skills is the role of all. SEL should be embedded throughout the curriculum, pedagogy and the culture of a school. For more information on this, check out this guide from Transforming Education.

Social Emotional Learning is being widely praised and adopted throughout K-12 education in the United States and creates an opportunity to raise a generation of students that have stronger skills in the areas of emotional recognition, communication and problem-solving skills, but we must make sure that we are developing models that are effective.

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