SEL-Related Wonderings for Educational Leaders

By Julie A. Foss

As a consultant with Advanced Learning Partnerships, I have the amazing privilege to work alongside educators in school districts across the country.

I work in every quadrant of the continental United States and I can tell you unequivocally, people are invested in Social and Emotional Learning.

Here’s what people get right.

They care about kids.
There is urgency around SEL as a priority.
People see that SEL is connected to learning.
Folks are acutely aware that SEL is not just a kid need, but an adult need too.

There are two critical shifts that are needed and toward which I see people working.

The Shift from Completion Data to Impact Data

We collect participation rates, survey completion rates, discipline and attendance numbers, etc. No question, there is great insight to be gleaned from these data and these numbers are tied to the acquisition of social and emotional skills as well as overall achievement.

But what do we know about the impact of our work on the lives of students and adults in our buildings?

What will students or adults do or say differently because of the social and emotional learning they have in their toolbox? How will their lives be different? How will their communities be different because they are a part of them?

Are they more likely to have choices in their post-secondary schooling? Do they stay in jobs longer than students who do not have a foundation in SEL? Are they more likely to have friendships that last or to feel less lonely? Do they volunteer or give back to their communities? Are communities healthier?

There is no question schools will need community partnerships to have access to these types of data. Regardless, if we were to frame the evidence we collect around impact, I wonder what would shift relative to the effectiveness of SEL in schools.

The Shift from SEL as a Topic to SEL as a Lens

There are so many school districts doing amazing things with students. There are a tremendous amount of folks embedding essential attitudes and skills within their strategic plans and as part of their mission and vision.

However, I would argue that by and large, we are focused on SEL as what we and others do, not as a vehicle through which we learn content.

For example, we teach how to name our emotions and manage our self- talk. However, it is far less common to study Revolutions or the Civil War or Cause and Effect through the lens of self or social awareness.

We teach how to be a good friend and how to navigate conflict with friends. However, it is less common to teach the Holocaust through the lens or theme of relationships.

As a result, SEL is still largely a topic- facilitated by individuals in specific standalone lessons vs. being something that is woven and tightly connected to what and how we learn.

5 SEL-Related Wonderings I have

I wonder what our conversations around impact would look like if we shifted our goals from a focus on skill proficiency to a focus on THRIVING communities?

I spoke recently to the CEO of STEAMSPACE Education, Holly Melear, which runs a Cities in SpaceR Competition each year in which students, “compete and learn from one another about building a new world beyond Earth and how to create a surviving and thriving community.”

Largely focused on building empathy, collaboration, and communication skills among students, I was struck by three things- 1) Holly’s use of the word “thriving” to describe STEAMSPACE’s mission for community impact, 2) what Holly described as a seamless weaving of space and science with social and emotional competencies as a vehicle through which students have access, and 3) the lengths Holly and her team go to ensure that this opportunity is open to everyone, with a proactive approach to including historically underrepresented participants.

It is impossible to have a discussion about SEL in schools and not address equity. We all need these skills and our communities need each and every one of us to show up equipped with them to thrive.

I wonder if it would be easier to see “impact” if we told our stories.

I was in a school recently to talk to a team of teachers and administrators about school improvement. When I met the principal the first thing she asked me was, “Will we have some time to share our story?”

I think schools are aching to tell their stories. Stories of hope…pride…trauma…frustration…heartbreak…healing…exhaustion…identity…joy…meaning…learning…loss…resilience, and perseverance.

If we started collecting and really listening to those stories, what might we learn about impact?

How might our stories change over time as a result of our work around SEL?

I wonder how SEL shows up in our celebrations and feedback.

As a former administrator, I used to spend time looking at grades. Now I wish I had spent time really analyzing feedback.

The written feedback we give students on essays, orally in classrooms, and in what and how we celebrate communicates what we value. The same is true of the feedback we give teachers both formally and informally relative to their work with students. What would we learn if we collected samples of this feedback and looked for trends?

On what do we give people feedback?

Is it aligned to what we believe is important?

Does it move the needle on social and emotional skill acquisition, validation, and reinforcement? How do we know?

I wonder what we would learn if schools received approval ratings.

I travel a lot in my work as a consultant. Every time I step into an airport I am struck by the monitors as you exit the bathrooms. They ask a singular question: “How was your restroom experience?” and on your way out one is meant to touch the green thumbs up or red thumbs down in response.

What a gobsmackingly simple way to collect data. Granted, it doesn’t tell you much initially, but it doesn’t have to in order to alert you to a problem or a celebration.

Our first job should be to identify what is going well and what isn’t. We don’t necessarily need to know why in the same data point. Make it ridiculously easy for people to answer first. When you come back for more info, you will have demonstrated two things- 1) that taking the time to give an opinion matters and 2) that you care what the person on the other end of the number has to say.

I wonder about the benefit for students and adults if we were simply more intentional about weaving SEL into our classrooms.

I spoke recently with YouthForce NOLA Program Manager Rahmel Fuller, a group who works to build a “system of education-to-prosperity pathways” for students in New Orleans with a focus on SEL and soft skills, among other things.

One of the interesting things about YouthForce NOLA’s Teacher Fellowship program is they go into schools and ask teachers to look at existing curriculum, pick SEL skills that align to what they are already teaching, and work alongside them to build capacity to weave content and skills.

No question that additional training promotes confidence and capacity. However, I wonder about the impact for students if we can all commit to simply being more intentional about connecting what and how we are teaching, to the skills students need to thrive.

Keep Learning

I am inspired every day in schools across our country. I am also acutely aware that we have miles to go…

I truly believe examining both the impact of our work and the lens through which we facilitate learning to be an important place to start.

Let’s keep striving for thriving.

Julie Foss serves as a coach and consultant, working with leaders and learning communities to navigate change and match beliefs to practice. Feel free to connect on Twitter, LinkedIn or via email:

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. Excellent article and thoughts on SEL from another point of view. This is what I think about every day…the application of SEL in the classrooms, leading to emotional intelligence skills in the workplace and improved communities.

  2. As we race towards scientific and technological advancements, we need to reflect on the advancements over time. Education of the past talked often about trial and error, 21st century learning is about exploring challenges and testing for success. As society demands evidence based practices, we need to remind ourselves that all things are not absolute and that somethings can not simply be measured in figures and statistics.

  3. What an exciting time in education- high-tech/high-touch is what we used to try to convey in healthcare. The longer term memories are formed around impactful experiences, thank you for this.

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