SEL in the School

A systemic approach integrates SEL across all key settings where students live and learn.

In partnership with families and communities, schools play a central role in supporting young people’s social and emotional development. All parts of the school, from the cafeteria to the hallway to the playground, offer students opportunities to practice and reinforce social and emotional learning (SEL). Their learning experiences and instruction shape how they develop and use social, emotional, and academic competencies.

SEL efforts both contribute to and depend upon a supportive school environment with strong and positive relationships. How students feel in school—whether they feel connected to their teachers, other adults in the school, or each other—is a powerful contributor to their personal and academic success. Adults in the school help shape this environment by practicing and modeling their own SEL, while working together to continuously improve students’ learning and experiences.

The result? Schools that put SEL at the center are better positioned to create an environment where all adults can offer their best selves and where students have ample opportunities to practice the skills that support their learning and development.

This page examines how SEL appears in the school—both in terms of creating positive learning environments and offering opportunities inside and outside the classroom to practice SEL.

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The first thing that I would suggest to any district is if you care about outcomes. you need to care about SEL. It is the pathway to get the outcomes that we all desire.
Assistant Superintendent

What have we learned?

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SEL implementation at the school level focuses on four main areas of activity: Build foundational support and plan, strengthen adult SEL competencies and capacity, promote SEL for students, and reflect on data for continuous improvement.

Within those, there are ten indicators that offer a clearer picture of what schoolwide SEL looks like. These indicators capture what you see when schoolwide SEL is fully implemented. For example, you’d see explicit SEL instruction using an evidence-based program, opportunities to encourage and listen to youth voice, supportive and equity-focused forms of discipline that center on restorative approaches rather than punishment and exclusion, and all the other activities shown here:

An infographic displaying the different indicators of schoolwide SEL.
Fig.1: Indicators of Schoolwide SEL

In full implementation of schoolwide SEL, you see evidence of all these indicators, working together to create a supportive, engaging learning environment where all students have frequent opportunities to learn and practice social and emotional competencies.

Everyone has a role to play in schoolwide SEL implementation. From the principal’s office to the classroom to the cafeteria and school bus, SEL is everyone’s responsibility.

  • The principal leads commitment to and support for SEL implementation and communicates that SEL is prioritized.
  • Other members of the leadership team ensure that academic instruction, discipline, student supports, and other areas align with SEL.
  • Teachers offer consistent SEL learning opportunities by employing evidence-based SEL practices and programs, incorporating SEL into all academic instruction, and fostering a supportive, caring classroom environment where students feel cared for, valued and affirmed in their identity.
  • Support staff (e.g. counselors, nurses, front office clerks, cafeteria staff, etc.) extend opportunities to practice SEL through supportive relationships.
  • Families and community partners can ensure all segments of students’ lives support social and emotional development.

And beyond these responsibilities, everyone in the school can look for opportunities to continue to build and strengthen relationships with students and each other to help build a school culture where every student feels like they belong.

How is CASEL advancing this work?

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We offer quality guidance and tools to support schools nationwide in pursuing a systemic approach to SEL implementation. Our work has developed out of decades of research and two-way, collaborative partnerships with schools and school districts to build our knowledge about what works and the resources that can support the use of best practices. Our efforts include:

A Process for Schoolwide SEL

Working closely with schools and districts, we created a free online resource that outlines a step-by-step process for creating a caring, participatory, and equitable learning environment that promotes SEL for all students. Organized according to CASEL’s school framework, the Guide to Schoolwide SEL includes guidance and resources on:

  • Building foundational support for SEL implementation
  • Creating an implementation plan
  • Strengthening adult SEL
  • Promoting SEL for students
  • Continuously improving SEL implementation

In support of our commitment to continuous improvement, the process was first documented more than 15 years ago and continues to be updated as more is learned about what it takes to support high-quality SEL in schools. A randomized control trial study was conducted in Chicago Public Schools where 14 schools implemented an evidence-based SEL program, and another 14 implemented the same SEL program plus the 2014 version of the School Guide. It was found that teams that used the School Guide demonstrated substantial improvement over the two year implementation process on all of the key activities in CASEL’s schoolwide model, and staff in schools showed greater improvement on their perceptions of long-term planning for SEL, use of data, and staff involvement.

Workshops Series to Support School-Level Implementation

We offer the Learning Together SEL Workshops, a four-part series on schoolwide SEL. The workshops support school teams in coming together to learn about SEL and bring those learnings back to their schools. The series is offered two ways: With a live group virtually twice a year and on-demand for a self-paced version.

“This workshop has been instrumental in being able to introduce SEL to my school in a way that is attainable and connects to all staff levels.” – Past Participant

Research-Practice Partnerships at the School Level

Through collaborative work with practitioners in the field, we are testing and refining approaches to schoolwide SEL implementation. In this process, we are exploring specific problems of practices that our partner school communities have identified, such as how SEL can be integrated into mathematics instruction or how strategies used to implement SEL in service of equitable learning environments can align with the continuous improvement components of CASEL’s district-level theory of action. At the conclusion of each partnership, we share our learnings broadly in a series of research partnership briefs. Download the PDFs.

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