Transformative SEL

CASEL is committed to advancing equity and excellence in education through social and emotional learning (SEL).

SEL is founded on the premise that every child can receive an education that fully supports their learning and development so they can achieve their goals and contribute to their communities. 

Unfortunately, some students are not currently experiencing opportunities and environments that maximize their learning potential. Patterns across all types of educational data show differences in students’ learning experiences and outcomes based on students’ socioeconomic status, race, zip code, home language, disability status, and other factors. 

Given these gaps, CASEL has been working with educators, families, and researchers to identify and study innovative SEL strategies that better support every students’ strengths and aspirations; deepen partnerships among families, schools, and communities; and help close long-standing gaps in educational opportunities and outcomes. We describe these efforts as “transformative SEL.” 

CASEL does not prescribe any specific form of SEL but encourages schools, families, and communities to work together to decide how best to implement, teach, and assess SEL based on the priorities, strengths, and needs of their local schools and communities. We describe various forms of SEL implementation to help communities make these informed decisions: 

  • Personally responsible SEL focuses on developing skills for risk prevention, individual success, and personal well-being.
  • Participatory SEL focuses on both skills for individual success and well-being, as well as for interpersonal relations and community-building.
  • Transformative SEL focuses on skills for individual success, interpersonal relations, and community-building, as well as skills needed to ensure democratic, fair, and inclusive communities.   

Because the majority of current SEL programs and practices promote personally responsible and participatory SEL, our research-practice partnerships focus on meeting the growing demand in many local communities for innovation and transformative SEL.

What is transformative SEL?

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“Transformative SEL” is a form of SEL implementation where young people and adults build strong, respectful, and lasting relationships to engage in co-learning. It facilitates critical examination of individual and contextual factors that contribute to inequities and collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community, and societal well-being. 

Through tSEL, students and adults develop social and emotional skills needed for school and community engagement, with a focus on rights and responsibilities for creating learning environments that are caring and just. This includes a focus on: 

  • Identity, a core part of self-awareness, which refers to how students (and adults) view themselves as individuals and as part of the world around them. Having a healthy sense of identity buffers against negative or traumatic experiences and contributes to positive academic, social, and emotional outcomes.
  • Agency, part of self-management, or feeling empowered to make choices and take actions that produce a positive difference. Agency helps young people make choices about learning and career goals, overcome personal challenges, and shape the course of their lives.
  • Belonging, part of social awareness, the experience of acceptance, respect, and inclusion within a group or community. Having a sense of belonging is critical to well-being, motivation, and achievement.
  • Collaborative Problem-Solving, part of relationship skills, the ability to build shared understanding and work together to come to solutions by pooling knowledge, skills, and efforts.
  • Curiosity, part of responsible decision-making, which leads to the pursuit of knowledge and different perspectives and contributes to attention, engagement, and learning.

What does transformative SEL look like in practice?

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Transformative SEL grew out of developmental science and research on student’s engagement, well-being, academic achievement, and long-term success. But, in practice, there are currently limited options for evidence-based programs and implementation models for transformative SEL.

To address this need, CASEL is leading collaborative efforts with partner organizations to learn alongside students, families, schools, and districts how specific practices, policies, and processes can best be implemented to achieve the goals of transformative SEL.  

Practices that we are learning about include:

  • Opportunities for adults and young people to practice curiosity by teaching and learning from one another. 
  • Instruction that honors and makes connections to students’ lived experiences and identities and scaffolds learning to build an understanding of others’ lived experiences.
  • Culturally responsive education and youth-guided approaches, such as  project-based learning and youth participatory action research.
  • Developmentally appropriate learning opportunities that engage students and adults in examining current and historical events; social norms; prejudices and biases; and how issues of race, class, and culture impact our society.
  • Opportunities for youth to use their voice and skills to examine inequities and create solutions for social change.
  • Authentic partnering among families, schools, and communities to share power and decision-making.  
  • Individual and collective analysis, reflection, and sense-making around relevant data.
  • Professional learning and collaboration opportunities that prioritize adult well-being and build capacity to partner and co-create with students, caregivers, and colleagues.
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