The Power of Social and Emotional Learning is in the Whole Community

By Claire Schu

Supporting the healthy social, emotional, and academic development of students has long been a priority, yet the past two years have created an even greater focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. A recent survey by Tyton partners reports that 70%-80% of school and district-based respondents believe COVID-19 has accelerated interest in SEL at their school or district. With that growing interest comes a need to ensure inclusive SEL approaches that reflect diverse strengths and needs, cultivate equitable learning opportunities, and foster responsive relationships for all students.

For schools, this is the time to seize the heightened interest and invite the broader community into discussion about what SEL is, and how it connects to the purpose of school and the conditions that help all students learn and develop. Whether a school community is exploring SEL for the first time or has been building on an approach for years, this moment opens up the opportunity to bring more voices into reflection, planning, and decision-making, and to create authentic partnerships that help the school implement SEL in a way that is equitable and matches up with what students, families, and staff hold as essential.

Rather than assume what makes teachers, families, administrators, and students in your school feel welcomed and successful, ask them:

These types of questions can guide schools in developing a shared vision for SEL with students, families, staff, out-of-school time providers, and community partners. Designing an equitable approach to SEL requires that we center the experiences of young people and those who know them best and include them from the outset as co-designers. In CASEL’s work with schools and districts across the country, we’ve seen just how important it is to begin SEL implementation by bringing people together around a shared vision.

When SEL implementation is launched without first engaging the broader community, it can lead to ongoing struggles for support and lead to decisions that are driven by what is readily available rather than what the community wants to achieve and what will best support all students. To avoid this, keep equity of voice at the forefront by personally inviting contributions from those who tend to be left out of decision-making and those who have not been well-served in the past. Include student, family, and community representatives on any team that makes final decisions about SEL, designs an SEL action plan, or reflects on data for continuous improvement. To gather input from a broader range of stakeholders, schools might consider sending out a survey, using social media, or hosting listening sessions.

The intentional process of co-developing a vision helps foster a sense of shared ownership over SEL, and serves as a foundation for all the goals, action steps, and decisions that drive implementation.

Consider an example. After a series of separate stakeholder meetings with students, families and caregivers, staff, and community partners, a school SEL team synthesized themes and keywords to write this vision statement:

Our school empowers all students to achieve their potential, becoming lifelong learners and compassionate, respectful citizens who contribute to positive change within their local community and global society.

This may sound like what would come from listening to your community. Or it might sound really different, and that’s okay — a shared vision must be truly shared so your community can see their views reflected in the statement.

The statement can then be broken down to identify SEL priorities for your school. For example:

Priorities can then drive goals and action steps that will lead to SEL implementation that is anchored in what is most important and inspiring to your community.

Including more voices in the schoolwide SEL process leads to more informed and equitable decisions and forges a shared commitment to SEL. At a time of unprecedented funding and resources for education, a shared commitment can advance a successful initiative and ensure long-term sustainability.

Claire Schu serves as Manager of Implementation Support at CASEL. She works to capture essential learning about SEL implementation from the field to develop practical tools, support models, and professional learning. Claire supports the continuous improvement of the CASEL Guide to Schoolwide SEL and the District Resource Center by cataloging exemplary resources and practices from collaborating districts and tuning into areas of need.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) envisions all children and adults as self-aware, caring, responsible, engaged, and lifelong learners who work together to achieve their goals and create a more inclusive, just world. CASEL formed a community — spanning classrooms to statehouses — to make social and emotional learning (SEL) part of a high-quality and equitable education for all. Visit CASEL.org to learn more.

We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students. belenetwork.org