Deep Dives

We’ve Implemented SEL for 12 Years. Here’s My Advice to Districts That Are Getting Started Now.

September 8, 2023
Trish Shaffer
Washoe County School District
We’ve Implemented SEL for 12 Years. Here’s My Advice to Districts That Are Getting Started Now.

A gift the school year calendar provides is the built-in opportunity for closure, reflection, and renewal. As educators, we naturally engage in continuous improvement. We pause to acknowledge what worked and identify areas of need, and we create a plan to improve.

The pandemic highlighted the need for human-centered schools and workplaces that support well-being within a connected community. With reflection and renewal comes the opportunity to plan how to accomplish essential goals: increase the sense of well-being and connectedness; lower rates of stress, burnout, and hopelessness; and address absenteeism for both students and staff. We also need to lower rates of behavioral incidents and improve academic outcomes. To accomplish these lofty goals, schools and districts globally are creating a plan to implement social and emotional learning (SEL).

As the district administrator over SEL in an urban district, I have had the privilege to be part of a leadership team committed to implementing systemwide SEL since late fall 2011. My “team” includes talented humans from our school district, SEL leads from other districts in the Collaborating Districts Initiative, professionals from universities and nonprofits, and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). 

Over the past 12 years, we’ve experienced some successes and learned some hard lessons, and I am often asked to share those experiences with others. So, this spring when I received several calls from districts beginning the implementation process, here is what I shared.

Begin With Adults

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The journey of implementing SEL must begin with adults. For educators, this is a counterintuitive but necessary first step. In my opinion, it is critical to spend at least one year, if not more, with just adults. The adults must first understand what SEL is, why the school or district is prioritizing SEL, and how it will make a difference. They must Learn, Collaborate, and Model SEL. But this can feel overwhelming at the start, so below are some concrete places to begin.

SEL is a journey—whether you are 2 or 92, everyone is still practicing and learning the competencies and constructs.

A Few Foundational Pieces

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  • Think “self-to-site.” This is a little phrase I started using years ago to help principals and other leaders think through the process of leading adult SEL. Before you can lead the work, you must do it yourself and be vulnerable enough to share with your staff that you are also engaging on this journey. SEL is a journey—whether you are 2 or 92, everyone is still practicing and learning the competencies and constructs. Then, push the work “self-to-site.” You can do this work once a month for 10 minutes at a staff meeting; it’s an ongoing practice.
  • Be transparent with staff about why and how you are going to implement SEL. Like students, adult learners do best when they understand the purpose behind the action. Plus, the more transparent you are about the why and when of doing the work, the better staff will be when implementing SEL in their workspaces.
  • Be consistent. The calendar provides a gift of pause, reflection, and renewal. But it can also create a cycle of a lot of good intentions in the first semester that dissipate with the demands of spring testing and graduation. Whatever you plan to do, be sure you can commit to doing it consistently throughout the year.

Take Action

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  • To get the ‘biggest bang for your buck,’ implement SEL 3 Signature Practices. These practices include an opener to connect participants to the learning and each other, engaging practices for digestion of information, and a closing activity to encourage reflection. In my experience, these practices are one of the easiest ways to intentionally and explicitly help students and adults strengthen social and emotional competence consistently. Consider implementing these practices the first quarter during staff meetings and midway through sharing about the practices and intentionality behind them. Second quarter, begin to encourage staff to plan and lead SEL activities/practices during staff or grade/department-level meetings. Eventually, you’ll see the natural progression of the practices into classrooms.
  • Incorporate SEL into performance evaluation meetings or coaching sessions to elevate and model SEL. Ask employees or mentees to share their “passion project” for the school year. I like to preface it with, “What is that one thing about your work that makes your soul light up?” Even if these things aren’t part of their day-to-day duties, helping staff identify and nurture activities that create efficacy, joy, and satisfaction is a powerful way to bring adult SEL into the workplace.
  • Ask staff to imagine their best educator/staff self thriving at work. Help your staff get granular about what that would look like, sound like, feel like. Once they have an initial vision, help them create a multi-step, concrete plan of what is needed to achieve their goal and identify how you can support them. For both examples, helping staff identify previous successes and the skills/strengths that made their achievements possible is a powerful way to support them while strengthening their self-efficacy.

Modeling for Staff

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Part of the “self-to-site” work includes modeling social and emotional competence. Share more openly about your strategies to maintain balance and well-being and/or how you are feeling. Go beyond, “I’m fine, you?” I am not suggesting revealing your deepest feelings or answering to the level that may take an hour, but I am suggesting normalizing feelings and emotions in conversations. 

It is okay to feel. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to be jubilant. Model the range of feelings that can be experienced and increase the emotional vocabulary of yourself and those around you. Create an environment where people can show up as their whole selves and begin to better identify the range of feelings they may be feeling. Why do this? It will build connections while supporting mental health and well-being. 

Remember: “If you can name it, you can claim it.” Feelings are powerful sources of information and drive almost all, if not all, our actions. However, if we cannot properly identify those feelings, then we can become lost.

Lastly, SEL champions in your school community will emerge. Harness their energy and fuel their desire to learn more through communities of practitioners, book clubs, online courses, etc. Cultivate their enthusiasm and energy, share how you are learning, and seize the opportunity to learn with them.

There are so many wonderful resources and opportunities to support the journey of whole-human focused systems. Lean in, lean on each other, and thrive.

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

Trish Shaffer is a passionate educational leader who believes all children and adults are capable, relational, and worthy—a guiding philosophy for her career. Currently, she oversees a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), Social Emotional Learning (SEL), Restorative Practices, and Behavioral Health and Management for Washoe County School District (WCSD), a large district in Northern Nevada. Trish has been an invited TED Talk speaker, an educator for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (UNESCO APCEIU), and a published author in her field.  Additionally, Trish was the 2013 recipient of the Mary Utne O’Brien Award for Excellence in Expanding the Evidence-Based Practice of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

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