Deep Dives

3 Strategies to Engage Families in SEL

April 12, 2023
Rebecca Bauer
Rebecca Bauer Consulting
3 Strategies to Engage Families in SEL

Despite what you may have heard, the truth is that social and emotional learning (SEL) isn’t that controversial among families. I’ve facilitated focus groups for families around the country, and one thing has been constant across parents of all backgrounds: Families want their children to be happy and healthy, and they recognize that kids need to be able to communicate effectively and build strong relationships with peers to achieve these goals.

From teacher shortages and budget cuts to book bans and restrictions on curriculum, education systems are at a breaking point. Simultaneously, our communities are trying to recover from COVID-19, and our children need strong support systems now. There isn’t a single solution when it comes to addressing the problems we face in education, but SEL is the best place to start. Unfortunately, as political battles about what should be taught in schools persist, SEL is under attack—but meaningful family engagement can help educators push past this opposition.

These findings aren’t just anecdotal. Recent research released by Committee for Children indicated that 81 percent of parents with children in schools that teach SEL would like the schools to continue doing so as much or more than they currently are. Of the parents whose children don’t participate in SEL, 86 percent would somewhat or strongly support the schools incorporating SEL into the curriculum.

But there are still opponents to SEL out there, families who believe that it is their job to instill the core values and life skills their children need to thrive. And the thing is, they’re right, too! Supporting our children’s social, emotional, and academic development is the responsibility of schools and families, so let’s invite them to be a part of this important work.

1. Build Strong Relationships With Families From the Start

Partnering with families around SEL requires trust, and the way that educators introduce themselves at the beginning of the year leaves a lasting impression. Parent Teacher Home Visits (PTHV) are a best practice in family engagement ripe with opportunities to embed SEL. 

Sometimes there can be hesitation around SEL when a teacher’s race, background, or culture differs from that of the student population. This stems from the simple question: “Are the values you’re teaching the same as my values?” Home visits can ease some of this tension as educators learn more about and demonstrate respect for their students’ home lives and cultures. Mapp et al.’s Everyone Wins! (2022) highlights how transformative PTHV is through an anecdote where the visiting educator asks, “What are your hopes and dreams for your child?” In that moment, the parent understood that their child’s teacher truly cared and was ready to partner to support their whole child. 

Since PTHV requires significant time and coordination, educators may opt for a lower lift option, like sending a welcome letter to students or sharing a video introducing themselves. These approaches also provide a great opportunity for educators to share what core values they cultivate in their classrooms or which SEL skills they’ll be working on as students acclimate back to school.

2. Embed SEL Language Into Communications With Families

A strong start with families matters, but family engagement needs to happen year-round. SEL can easily be incorporated into the family engagement strategies that educators are already implementing. Educators can include SEL in their weekly emails home to families; this might be a story they read to illustrate a specific skill, a lesson the class is working on learning (i.e., keeping our hands to ourselves is self-management) or information about the school’s SEL curriculum. 

Parent-teacher conferences are also an ideal format for talking about social and emotional skills. Educators often discuss children’s behavior in addition to academics but can take this to the next level by proactively talking about social and emotional skills—both the areas in which children are thriving and the areas where they can improve. 

Lastly, report cards are an important source of information for families. Many districts include nonacademic elements on a report card particularly in the younger grades (i.e., works collaboratively, manages time effectively, etc.). Schools and districts can build on this by more proactively aligning the standards on report cards with the district’s SEL program.

3. Invite Families to Join in on SEL Activities

Including families in your approach to SEL can help to get them on board. For skeptics, participating can help dispel any fears that SEL is indoctrination. For supporters, participation can help families align their own approach at home so that kids are hearing consistent vocabulary. 

Schools may opt to do an SEL night (or multiple throughout the year) to help families understand the schools’ approach. Consider having the school counselor or social worker on hand to answer families’ questions about SEL. Parent education is also another opportunity to help families understand what SEL looks like. Invite a guest speaker to talk with the community about an issue they care about that intersects with SEL, like social media, managing friendships, or transitioning to middle or high school. Often an invitation for families to join their children in the classroom can be most powerful. Consider inviting families to observe an SEL-focused read aloud or participate in an activity.

Final Thoughts

Decades of research have shown that family engagement has a positive impact on student success and well-being. Strong partnerships with families lead to better attendance rates, better grades, better test scores and fewer disciplinary issues (Mapp et al., 2022). 

As we work to embed SEL into school life to support children’s holistic development, partnering with families around the development of life skills is crucial. Children are sponges who learn from what the adults in their lives model for them. SEL is happening at home and at school whether or not we acknowledge it, so let’s work to ensure families and schools are on the same team, intentionally driving home the messages SEL will help our children thrive. 

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Rebecca Bauer is the principal consultant at Rebecca Bauer Consulting, where she focuses on supporting nonprofits in advancing family-school partnerships and SEL.

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