Implementing and Sustaining SEL with Adults

By Meaghan Ruddy, The Wright Center


Our interpersonal habits run so deep they often go unnoticed until there is a problem. Even then, the challenge is often misdiagnosed as a professionalism issue. SEL can be used to redirect conversations about interpersonal dynamics and make working with others more effective.


As the SEL movement matures into a more integrated part of the fabric of education, there is a developing realization of, as the CDI Insights report puts it, “Adult SEL matters, too.” This revelation is being attested to as the need for targeted reflection in the work of individual teachers as well. This is likely not news to you as education is a means of knowledge transfer from those who have it to those who do not. Still, there is a difference in kind between passing along grammar and maths and passing along how to effectively engage with other human beings. It is more than an increase in knowledge fund; it is a transformation of the premises we use to define how to be with and for other people.


As mentioned in a recent CASEL blog post, relationships are key to long-term SEL transformation or the lack thereof. All the best intentions in the world can fail to make lasting change if they are not bolstered by systemic buy-in followed by action yet this type of systematic engagement can be stymied by any number of things: individual personalities, historical institutional narratives, departmental agendas, funding challenges, et al. Most of these issues boil down to interpersonal habits of trust which in turn are based in biological threat assessment: is the person or idea in front of me right now in alignment with my goals or not? Break through problems of trust and bigger breakthroughs await.


Here, SEL practices might take some lessons from coaching. Executive coach Judith E Glaser makes an argument for an additional intelligence in her book Conversational Intelligence: How great leaders build trust and get extraordinary results. Conversational intelligence (C-IQ) as Glaser describes it is a deep understanding of how the ways we converse with one another impact us at the level of our biology. Knowing how this works can inform us about how to use conversations to help ourselves and others flourish. C-IQ activities require facilitation over time but lend themselves nicely to engaging adult learners in SEL and can be done in groups or one-on-one.


Some examples of activities we can do with adult learners are:


  • Begin each and every training session and meeting with the creation of guidelines for engagement. Ask participants how they would like everyone to engage with one another and with the content, and ask for explanations when the suggestions are loaded. For example, if someone says “pay attention,” ask them to describe what that looks like I order to break it down to observable behaviors. (Glaser calls this “double-clicking.”) These can be captured with free tools such as Polleverywhere or simply on a whiteboard and should be reviewed each time the group reconvenes.
  • Use a Kahoot or other style of game with data capture to take the emotional temperature of the room. Glaser’s tool, the Conversational Dashboard, is a great visual for this type of activity. People can refer to points on the dashboard that correspond to how they are feeling about a given topic. Doing so allows everyone to name and claim their emotional state, providing the space to hold the emotion as object and inspect it rather than just be subject to it.


In the same way that we might use equity as a frame for SEL with students, we can use equity for professional development in conjunction with C-IQ activities and build the trust needed to permanently break down the barriers to becoming authentic SEL communities. Best as a longitudinal series, facilitators can engage adult learners in activities that explore professional identifies, organizational cultural inheritances and demands, positional biases and background beliefs, stresses, building trust and effective interpersonal dynamics through ongoing conversations about these challenging topics in a space of psychological safety. This type of deliberate practice is how we can embed SEL so deeply in organizational culture that passing it on to subsequent generations will become second nature.


Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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  1. There is a wealth of research on this topic, both in education and other sectors. Joe Murphy and I have synthesized it in our forthcoming book (April): Positive School Leadership: Building Capacity and Strengthening Relationships. New York: Teachers College Press.

    • Karen, love your work! Looking forward to the new book. This is exactly what we need as we work to transform our system into one that is attentive to the social-emotional needs of our students AND staff!

  2. Consider the free resource, Compassion Resilience Toolkit for Schools. This is a culture change tool for 12 key “conversations” to roll out with staff teams over 2 years.

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