What If the Doors of Every Schoolhouse Opened to Social-Emotional Learning Tomorrow?

By Maurice Elias, Ph.D., SEL4NJ

If the doors of every schoolhouse were opened tomorrow to SEL, if every state adopted some kind of SEL competency standards and was serious about their implementation, how would this demand be met? It’s a question worth asking because there is a significant current “push” for SEL and while we are far from every state being committed, there are growing demands in schools to “do” SEL.

We Must Coordinate Around SEL-Related Work Already Happening in Schools

There are some difficult realities that we must acknowledge. First, a number of these interested schools already have some form of SEL program or effort. Some schools have Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS, or its School-Wide form); some have an SEL or character curriculum. Others have adopted mindfulness, growth mindset, restorative practices, or the increasing popular “kernels” interventions designed to build SEL with high efficiency. A number of schools will tell you, “We already do that”; and others will have focused on improving the overall school culture and climate, perhaps focusing on the morale and engagement of the adults, or the students, or both, and not SEL skill-building. Often, these efforts are done sporadically within a school and/or co-exist in a school, forming a jumble of well-meaning but fragmented programs or efforts in schools through which students pass like pinballs in a pinball machine.

The point is that schools must both determine and then unjumble their current inventory of SEL and related programs and organize them to create synergy and continuity. So, even with an SEL epiphany, there must be a clear reckoning of present practices and decisions made about changing existing practices and structures. We also know that the process of bringing SEL into schools in a meaningful way is likely to take 3-5 years, depending on background, existing school resources, of school climate and culture, and ongoing implementation supports.

What Happens After SEL Gets Established?

Of course, getting SEL established in a school is not the end point. We have to be concerned with sustainability. While there are many more considerations than can be addressed here (see Elias, 2019, for a more complete discussion of the question posed at the outset), here are two main recommendations, both of which make the case for SEL4US, to be discussed:

  • Recognize there are not enough experts available to assist in this process; use those you have access to, use the abundant materials available, but above all, invest in your staff learning about SEL, its rootedness in our biology, its basic role in accomplishing everything humans try to accomplish, and what we know about best practices. Look for cohort-based, ongoing, networked professional development experiences that provide continuous support.
  • Reach out to others and form professional learning communities, particularly around shared contexts of implementation. Look realistically at your starting point and include in your networks those who are a bit farther down the road, to anticipate obstacles and avoid reinventing the wheel. Similarly, those who have overcome hurdles should be prepared to “give back” to those on the same road, as improving any schools contributes to the greater good. Organizing at the local, regional, state, and national level is a strategy of choice.

Networked improvement communities are now viewed as essential for generating and sharing context-based practices and creating better tailored starting points for interventions and more precise inputs to guide modifications when assessments suggest that effects are not occurring as desired for a given intervention domain, setting, or subpopulation. This capacity is essential for schools, because there often are no evidence-based interventions to promote social competence or prevent problem behaviors that have been tested in settings closely similar to one’s own. This is particularly the case for low-income urban settings. Therefore, it is essential to begin with “best practice” and then study its application in one’s own context and make the necessary refinements so that its effectiveness is optimized and it reaches as many relevant subgroups of the population as possible. Yet, we also know that conditions change in schools, and those working to improve students’ social-emotional and character competence and school culture and climate must be prepared to make contextual adaptations.

SEL4US Provides Networking Around SEL for School Professionals

At present, the Social Emotional Alliance for the United States (SEL4US) is the only existing structure that provides ongoing networking of school-based professionals implementing SEL “on the ground.” SEL4US consists of individual state level alliances (e.g., SEL4MA, SEL4NJ, SEL4CA, SEL4WA, SEL4TX, SEL4IL, each with its own web site using the SEL4US formula) that create networks within their states to promote awareness of SEL and related fields and support high-quality, effective SEL in schools and communities.

Leaders of SEL4US state member organizations currently participate in monthly online meetings and an ongoing online discussion forum to learn best practices, exchange ideas, and share updates on their goals, plans and progress. This flexible networking approach becomes even more important as a new research study suggests that districts and schools vary in “absorptive capacity”—the ability to incorporate expert information coming from outside of an organization. To enhance this capacity, networks must focus first on knowledge about SEL and relevant interventions in context and ensure that networks within and outside the organization (whether school or district) are connected to sources of that knowledge in ongoing ways.

Indeed, if the education department in every state—or any state—wanted to intentionally and systematically bring SEL into their schools efficiently and effectively, it would support the creation of SEL4 organizations in their states and SEL4US as a networking mechanism across state networks. Funders interested in SEL should consider supporting this approach. And those implementing SEL should join or establish implementation support networks to give themselves the greatest chance of successfully bringing social-emotional and character competencies to their students in schools with a culture and climate in which all adults and children feel welcomed, supported, and safe. Those are the conditions under which SEL learning—and all learning—ultimately thrives best.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University, Co-Director of the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools, and a Leadership Team member of SEL4US and SEL4NJ.

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