Starting SEL From the Ground Up

January 3, 2024
Sarah Wood
SEL/T.R.A.C. Teacher
Encinitas Union School District, California
Starting SEL From the Ground Up

In many districts, SEL implementation is a top-down effort. The district launches an SEL initiative, which the central office develops, leads, and supports. The school is on the receiving end. But what happens when families and teachers lead the way? Can one school spark a priority around SEL across the district? 

This was the situation in my school, Park Dale Lane Elementary, in Encinitas Union School District (EUSD). My school recognized a desire and need for SEL, but we knew the district wasn’t in a place yet to support it. So we did what educators do when they see what students need: We found a way to deliver by starting from the ground up to create an approach to SEL that would later go districtwide. 

6th grade team-building: Positive affirmation garden stones for the school community

Grassroots Beginnings

In my school, the call for SEL began with families. The parents and caregivers of students in special education were asking for a framework for SEL inclusion for our school community. As a teacher and a parent of students who attended Park Dale Lane, they came to me. With a background in SEL, I was honored to develop a framework of supports and practices for our whole school population.

What we were developing was needed by all students. Indeed, the vast majority of families wanted SEL for their children. So I gave a presentation about prioritizing SEL for the entire student population, sharing the what, why and how of SEL.The enthusiasm was so strong that we had a parent volunteer provide funding to cover the cost of getting started. We were on our way!

That’s when my work really started. We called our initiative T.R.A.C., which stands for Team-building, Regulation, Awareness, and Community. To ensure it was high-quality, I made sure that all of the CASEL 5 SEL competencies were at the core of the content and we worked to ensure that it followed CASEL’s guidance on leveraging the SAFE model: 

  • Sequenced: Connected and coordinated activities to foster skills development.
  • Active: Employing active forms of learning to help students master new skills and attitudes.
  • Focused: Dedicated time and attention to developing personal and social skills.
  • Explicit: Targeting specific social and emotional skills. 

The initiative was built to be sustainable for use throughout the entire school, and to be responsive to local and varying needs. We did this by making the content flexible, so that the school could decide how much time to spend on some activities within each area, depending on their students’ particular needs. 

For example, while T.R.A.C. started with a unit on self-awareness, there was flexibility about how much emphasis to put on any area within that competency, so the school could spend more time on naming feelings, if that’s what they felt their students needed.

Students dive deep into learning what causes their feelings and what those feelings feel like internally to build self awareness and self management skills

Going Wide

Soon enough, our work got the attention of the district. I was asked to support a rollout of our local approach to other schools. Within six months, we piloted it at another school, and within a year and a half, it was in all schools. We took what we learned from each campus rollout to inform what we did at the next school, and we leveraged our success to help get other staff on board. 

At each school, we designated an SEL leader to support classroom teachers and model how SEL can be woven into all instruction. This innovative and dynamic approach allowed for a common SEL language across sites, which supported our students’ academic and emotional growth.

The T.R.A.C. initiative has proven to be successful both implicitly and explicitly in our school district. Almost immediately, we saw the number of behavior referrals dramatically decrease within months of implementation. Students felt that their feelings and needs were being validated by adults on campus, so they did not need to act out to get that attention. 

We also began to see the culture of the school shift to a more positive, connected, and supportive atmosphere. A common language around feelings, awareness, conflict resolution, empathy, and coping skills was quickly built with staff, students, and parents. Students and staff were able to positively and calmly navigate problems that arose, which led to a more caring and kind climate. This has allowed everyone to feel understood and a sense of belonging, and feel that they are a valued member of the community. Years later, this positive culture has only grown, and we see a bright future for our students who have gained these critical life skills.

Four steps to solving problems peacefully builds conflict-resolution skills


If there’s one thing I learned from this work, it’s that you need to start with your stakeholders and keep listening to them. In my school, the call for SEL came from families. We developed an approach that went districtwide but never lost touch with the original request. This was reflected in giving schools the freedom to implement it in a way that meets the local needs of their students and their community. We didn’t just build a box and fill it with a certain lesson for every grade every year. We listened to what was needed from our community—and we still do.

And my advice? If you’re a small district or a single school looking to start this work or move it forward, be willing to take chances and experiment. Come up with some ideas, then sit back and imagine if they’ll work. There are a lot of great ideas out there, so make sure what you’re going to do will meet the needs of your staff and community.

Students build one-on-one connections with each other with whole-class connection chains

Sarah Wood is a classroom teacher with a master’s degree in social emotional learning. She has a passion for supporting children and families to build core inter- and intrapersonal skills. She grew up in Oakland, California, and attended the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University. Currently, she lives in Encinitas, California, with her husband, four children, and two dogs.

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


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