Ready to Lead: A Principal’s Reflection on a Decade of SEL Reform

By: Jennifer Scarpati, Ph.D.

Ready to Lead:  A 2019 update of principals’ perspectives on how social and emotional learning can prepare children and transform schools, A report for CASEL by Civic with Hart Research Associates, by Matthew N. Atwell & John M. Bridgeland

As the school leader, the principal is often the person driving the implementation process of social emotional learning.  The recent report for CASEL, Ready to Lead:  A 2019 update of principals’ perspectives on how social and emotional learning can prepare children and transform schools (Atwell, M.N. & Bridgeland, J.M., 2019), reflects strong support from principals for social emotional learning (SEL) in schools.  In fact, their report shows that 99% of principals believe SEL skills can be taught in the school setting, and 93% feel that a great or fair amount of emphasis should be placed on teaching SEL skills in school.   In fact, 62% of principals reported that they believed teaching SEL skills would have a very major benefit to academic achievement. 

Having served as an elementary school administrator for over 13 years, these statistics are not surprising.  As principals, we are on the front lines of SEL work each day.  We carry with us the stories that our families and students share with us about their struggles and losses.  We see first hand the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma on students’ mental health, attendance, behavior, and academic achievement.  To not have the drive to improve students’ social emotional health would be tantamount to educational neglect.

My experience serving as a principal at a high poverty urban elementary school reflects many of the insights reflected in the CASEL report.  I have found that improving SEL skills across a school is achievable when SEL is prioritized and funded at the school and district level.  My school was one to receive extensive funding through a federal mental health grant initiated by district leaders to support our school.  During the four years of the grant (and beyond) social-emotional learning was one of our top school goals each year and this was supported by district-level administration.  When the grant ended, we were able to continue funding of key initiatives through Title One funds and partnership with a community health organization.

Like the 70% of principals surveyed for the CASEL report, I found that having a formal SEL curriculum is critical.  Through our grant, we implemented Franklin Covey’s Leader in Me curriculum.  Whichever curriculum is chosen, we found the critical aspects to be a focus on building adult capacity, explicit teaching of skills embedded in the academic program, staff training and provision of materials, and parent engagement.

I have found social emotional skills to be teachable, and like the 75% of principals surveyed for the CASEL report, universally assessable when done as part of a broader SEL program.  The report references that 83% of principals use some form of SEL assessment, but only 40% use a universal screener.  We found a universal screener to be a critical component for identifying students who need tier two SEL supports, such as check-ins or social skills groups.

The CASEL report indicates that 62% of principals believe that teaching SEL skills will significantly impact academic achievement.  In my work, I have found that a focus on SEL can improve academic achievement and school culture.  Over the course of our SEL goal, we moved from 19% to 61% proficiency in math, and from 36% to 54% proficiency in reading.  Furthermore, our discipline referrals decreased by 28%, resulting in an overall improvement in the learning environment and school culture.

Recently, I have seen the impact of shifting district and school leadership and support for SEL initiatives over time.  Leadership changes can quickly dismantle school progress.  When district-level support and sustainable funding streams change, progress can be lost.  Over the past three years, the district in which I worked saw a transition of all top level administration.  The new staff initiated a pilot of a new free online SEL curriculum for the district.  This past year, I have left the school to transition to a new district.  These changes, in combination with decreased Title One funding this year, has led to the abandonment of the school SEL curriculum and underlying support structures.  The SEL leadership committee has been disbanded and all Leader in Me materials have been given away.  My hope is that the staff’s capacity and training in supporting the social-emotional learning of the students has been strong enough to sustain progress at the school.  It was a sobering experience to see how a seemingly deeply-rooted system can be so fragile.

As I have transitioned into the principalship at a new school this year, I’m observing other challenges identified in the CASEL report.  Their survey showed that 61% of teachers report not having time to teach SEL skills due to a heavy focus on academics.  My new school is just transitioning off of a state turnaround plan due to low state test scores.  They have experienced heavy pressure to improve academic instruction over the past two years.  Teachers report seeing the value and need to teach SEL skills, but struggle to carve out time in the day or week to do it effectively.  This year, we have established an SEL goal as one of our three school goals.  We are including some professional development to build adult capacity to do the work, establishing expectations for what all teachers will provide for SEL skill development, and carving time out in the day to do the work. 

Systematic implementation of a comprehensive SEL program is an important component of closing the achievement gap between high and low income schools.  My experience shows that it is possible, yet fragile.  Clear district plans for SEL development that include sustainable funding streams and staff training are critical for this work.  This work takes time and full implementation doesn’t happen overnight – as we build the capacity of our staff and families, we start to see the results we desire.  I encourage all principals to take on this challenge for your school.  As principals, we are in the privileged position to see the struggles of all of our students and to be able to advocate for what they need.  We must take up that charge and be ready to lead this work.

Comments?  Email Dr. Scarpati at jennoates@gmail.com.

“As the school leader, the principal is often the person driving the implementation process of social emotional learning.  The recent report for CASEL, Ready to Lead,  reflects strong support from principals for social emotional learning in schools.  To not have the drive to improve students’ social emotional health would be tantamount to educational neglect.”



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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