SEL in School Districts

A systemic approach aligns school district policies, resources, and actions to support SEL.

SEL should pervade every aspect of a district’s work – from the superintendent’s office, to academics and core priorities, to the classroom. It is a unifying thread to help bring together district priorities, impacting central office staff, school leaders, teachers, students, and families.

School districts play a vital role in modeling and creating the conditions for schools to prioritize and advance SEL. How? Districts can center SEL in strategic planning and in the ways the central office operates, sets policies, budgets for resources to support implementation, provides professional learning, and enacts a vision and long-term plan for implementing, integrating, and continuously improving SEL practices.

This page examines how a systemic, districtwide approach to SEL supports an equitable, high-quality education for all.

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What have we learned?

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A key learning: Systemic implementation of SEL in a school district is possible and has a positive impact. Research undertaken in a partnership with American Institutes for Research (AIR) assessed the impact of systemic SEL implementation in eight, large urban districts nationwide. This research found:

  • Improved academic performance, including improved reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), higher GPAs, improvements in standardized test scores in ELA and math achievement.
  • Improved behavioral outcomes, including an increase in attendance and students’ social-emotional competence, along with a decrease in suspensions.
  • Improved school environments, as measured by district surveys.

What contributed to these outcomes? Since 2011, these districts improved implementation across four key areas outlined in CASEL’s theory of action for districtwide implementation:

  • Build foundational support and plan. Districts establish a foundation for SEL that is carried throughout the system. Key activities include developing and communicating an SEL vision, creating a multi-year plan for implementation, fostering collaboration across central office departments to ensure alignment, communicating about the district’s commitment to SEL, and budgeting for resources and staffing to support full implementation
  • Strengthen adult SEL competencies and capacity. Supporting adults to practice, model, and implement SEL is a critical foundational step. Districts provide the resources and framework to do this by ensuring central office staff are well-versed in SEL research and best practices, and by providing professional learning and a work environment that supports adult SEL, cultural competence, and collective efficacy.
  • Promote SEL for students. District-level coordination and support of SEL is critical to ensuring rich educational experiences for all students. By partnering with families and communities to develop standards and benchmarks for SEL learning, identifying and supporting evidence-based programs for teaching SEL, and integrating SEL into all district priorities (academics, discipline, student supports such as MTSS), the district ensures all students benefit from SEL.
  • Reflect on data for continuous improvement. Implementing SEL is an ongoing process that requires committed support from top leadership. Central to this effort is a commitment to continuous improvement of SEL implementation by collecting, analyzing and acting upon SEL implementation and outcome data.

For more information, visit the District Resource Center.

How is CASEL advancing this work?

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We work closely and collaboratively with districts across the country to build the knowledge base around SEL implementation. We view these as learning partnerships through which we bring together researchers, SEL coaches, and practitioners to collaboratively build our understanding and practice of systemic SEL implementation. It also allows us to create guidance for districts nationwide.

Partnerships at the District Level

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    • In 2011, we launched a Collaborative Districts Initiative (CDI), bringing together eight large, urban districts to determine if systemic SEL implementation in a district was possible and what the outcomes would be for young people and adults as a result. We provided coaching, resources, and strategic planning support to help districts develop and achieve their goals for SEL implementation. Since then, we have expanded our efforts to partner with more than 20 districts nationwide.

      Partner Districts:

      • Anchorage, AK
      • Atlanta, GA
      • Austin, TX
      • Baltimore, MD
      • Boston, MA
      • Chicago, IL
      • Cleveland, OH
      • Dallas, TX
      • Denver, CO
      • Dupage County, IL
      • El Paso, TX
      • Guilford, NC
      • Minneapolis, MN
      • Nashville, TN
      • Oakland, CA
      • Palm Beach, FL
      • Sacramento City, CA
      • Tulsa, OK
      • Warren City, OH
      • Washoe County, NV
    • Through the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network, we join diverse educators committed to tackling the inequities in our school system. We are exploring the redesign of public school systems, including teaching and learning, and partnering authentically with families, caregivers and communities, to center the experiences of young people with evidence-based practice and resources to support lasting change.

    • CASEL and the Allstate Foundation proudly present the SEL Fellows Academy, our first-of-its-kind virtual leadership academy. The 12-month engagement is for those employed by a school district or regional office of education in the United States. Annually, a cohort of up to 50 SEL leaders will be selected to participate and deepen their SEL practice at a personal, interpersonal, and institutional level.

SEL Readiness and Engagement Analysis

To learn more about implementation successes and challenges on the ground, we offer a limited number of SEL Readiness and Engagement Analyses (SELREA) with districts. A SELREA is a fee-based consultation to provide recommendations for districts to initiate or advance their SEL work based on a collaborative site visit, interviews with stakeholders, and reviews of data.  For more information, contact selrea@casel.org.

District Resource Center

We take the learnings from our partnerships and develop and share free guidance and resources to help districts replicate quality efforts across the country. Our District Resource Center provides guidance on our field-tested district framework and sample tools and artifacts developed from our work with districts.

SEL Stories

We help document and elevate examples of district SEL efforts carried out by our partners across the country. These stories, which highlight trends in SEL implementation and Practices of Promise, provide a snapshot at how districts are navigating opportunities and challenges that arise as part of their broader efforts to systemically implement SEL.

Download our Practice of Promise Series:

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