The Journey of Systemic SEL implementation Using Continuous Improvement as a Guide

By: Ally Skoog-Hoffman and Rob Jagers

At CASEL, we think about continuous improvement (CI) as a roadmap that allows school-, district-, and/or state-level SEL teams to first think about the destination of their systemic SEL implementation journey, and then from there to map the “route” in reaching their proximal and longer-term goals. SEL teams start with the end in mind and cycle back to it – the “destination” is both the starting point for planning the journey and the place a team comes back to in each cycle of continuous improvement. We encourage educators to ask a set of essential questions when embedding continuous improvement into systemic implementation efforts:

  1. Where do we want to go? Where are we now and where have we been?
  2. How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be?
  3. Are we moving in the right direction? What are we learning on our journey?

CASEL believes continuous improvement is the bedrock to a multi-year plan to implement high-quality systemic SEL. Toward this end, we “Organize,” then “Implement,” and “Improve” all our efforts to reach our annual benchmarks, long-term goals, and ultimate vision for student success.

The CI process serves as a tool for any strong research-practice partnership model. CASEL is currently using this process actively as the foundation for our consulting and technical assistance work with individual districts.  The partnership empowers practitioners and gives them actionable data-informed strategies. Additionally, we have found when educators partner with research & evaluation departments, assessment and research are a part of the ongoing planning and refinement of all educational practice.

This process calls on SEL teams to continuously iterate throughout the academic year, using both formative data to track progress, and annual summative data to demonstrate possible influences and impacts, and to inform future strategic planning. Continuous improvement provides a deliberate and structured process that addresses real-time problems of practice, allows SEL teams to make evidence-based decisions to course correct during the year and evaluate SEL initiative impact, and ultimately improve student outcomes. Engaging in this process allows SEL teams to know if we are moving the needle for our students and staff. 

Figure 1. CASEL’s Expanded Continuous Improvement Cycle

In this first of a series of five blog posts, we introduce the overall approach to continuous improvement and the three essential questions that drive it. Over the next 4 weeks, our CASEL team and district partners will be sharing what this process looks like in the field. Each week, CASEL consultants and their district partner will highlight how they are engaging in a specific stage of the CASEL CI cycle. Next week, our team in Guilford County Schools will discuss how they have approached continuous improvement in the “Organize” stage when strategic planning.

Where do we want to go? Where are we now and where have we been?    

In the CASEL District Theory of Action, Focus Area 1: Build Foundational Support and Plan includes the important task of strategic planning for systemic SEL and answering our 1st guiding question, ‘Where do we want to go?’ using the district vision as our “north star” on this journey.

We intentionally begin with the question “where do we want to go?”. In answering this, we start with visioning and long-term goal setting so that the SEL team’s goals connect to broader district vision. Districts believe in SEL, not just for the sake of engaging in another initiative but for the sake of supporting students’ educational experience and readiness. We have found that starting with the end in mind helps districts that are new to SEL figure out where to start and helps give those who are refining SEL implementation with clear direction for their continuous improvement efforts.

A shared SEL vision clarifies what a team is striving toward and reflects what a district values as critical to students’ education. It’s also important to note that SEL implementation begins with ensuring that social and emotional learning is seen as integral to a district’s overall vision. The SEL vision and strategic plan outline how a district will achieve its short- and long-term SEL goals, which are in service of and deeply intertwined with a state or district’s overall vision of the types of educational experiences that support shared notions of student success. Connecting the SEL vision and its goals to the district’s broader vision and goals is critical to systemic implementation efforts. Including diverse stakeholders like cross-departmental representatives, teachers, families, and students in the vision-setting creates a shared understanding for the ultimate goals of the work.

Once a SEL vision and a shared understanding of what the district has currently prioritized, SEL teams answer the question, “where are we now?” by using CASEL’s Districtwide SEL Implementation Rubric to gauge the current level of systemic SEL implementation. This rubric informs a team’s goalsetting and planning

When thinking about where a SEL team is currently in their implementation journey, it’s important to also answer the question, “where have we been?” by assessing district’s needs and resources. This is often done by conducting a district inventory of current and past programs. Intentionally thinking with a SEL team about initiatives that have been successful, those that have faltered, and how SEL programming can fit into existing district priorities and structures (as opposed to “tacking on” another support) allows the team to plan strategically as to where SEL programming can be leveraged. By assessing where we have been (inventory) and where we are we now (rubric) in relation to where we want to go (vision and long-term goals), the team can develop a roadmap and action plan to answer the next question “how do we get from where we are now to where we want to be?”

In rounding out this first stage of CI, we include the development of an evaluation plan as a component of strategic planning. Strong SEL evaluation plans are developed in collaboration with district research and evaluation staff and/or an evaluation partner (if district capacity is limited). Incorporating research and evaluation when in the strategic planning phase of implementation sets the infrastructure for ongoing measurement and learning.

How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be?

Once a SEL team has a shared understanding of their vision, goals and strategy, they are ready to move on to the “Implement” stage of our CI model. In order to ultimately gauge learning and successes, the district must consistently document their SEL implementation efforts, including ongoing successes and challenges they encounter throughout the year, and monitor the implementation process to address challenges that arise. In this formative data tracking stage of continuous improvement, we develop a long-term roadmap and annual action plan with clear benchmarks, action steps, roles, and timelines.

When implementing SEL strategies and practices for adults and students, it is best practice to engage in ongoing data collection practices in order to track progress. We always want to ask ourselves, “how are we strengthening adult social emotional competence while simultaneously giving students opportunities for SEL?” and “how do we know our strengths and areas for growth?” while in the “Implement” stage of the work. What are the specific strategies that we’re going to enact to get us to those ultimate goals and outcomes we laid out in the “Organize phase of the work?

A key feature within this stage is that of rapid learning cycles. When the SEL team (partnered with their R&E department) collects interim data (i.e. climate surveys, professional learning feedback surveys, SEL team coaching logs, student perception data) they engage with the data to make data-driven decisions “in the moment” and potentially course-correct or reprioritize workstreams instead of waiting until the end of the year to reflect. CASEL offers formative data collection tools such as the Schoolwide Indicators of SEL Walkthrough Tool, and the Staff Implementation Survey as additional resources when engaging in data reflection cycles.  The walkthrough tool is designed to help SEL teams and/or observers look for indicators of schoolwide SEL to support the continuous improvement of implementation quality, while the staff implementation survey measures implementation of SEL activities and staff perceptions of SEL at the school level.

We recommend that SEL teams meet with their partnered R&E team member at least quarterly to engage in a data reflection, investigating how current data is speaking to implementation efforts and use these insights to improve practice on the way to achieving the team’s short-term goals.

Are we moving in the right direction?  What are we learning on our journey?

We always want to be intentional in our implementation. It’s important to carve out time at the end of each academic year to reflect on the questions, “what are we learning about our implementation efforts?” and “are we moving in the right direction for our staff and students?” 

As part of the “Improve” stage of continuous improvement, teams should supplement I the regular formative assessments with a review of summative data at the end of the school year.   We at CASEL advocate for the inclusion of teaching and learning, research & evaluation, teachers, families, and students in this stage. This requires the team to reflect on and evaluate what impact was made during the year, assess if annual goals were met, and understand what was successful and not, to inform next year’s planning. We advocate that SEL teams, along with their R&E lead evaluate their annual efforts. Having developed an evaluation plan in the first stage of the cycle will help your team track progress, adjust, and keep on track to your goals. This will help answer the question “Are we moving in the right direction?” This data reflection as an end-of-year meeting involves comparing the outcomes that were achieved to what was expected to occur when plans were made during the “Organize” phase, as well as reflecting on successes and challenges that were encountered during implementation.

Next week, CASEL Implementation Specialist Jessica Bernstein and Lisa Brenner, Director of SEL and Character Education in Guilford County Schools, will share their strategic planning process within the “Organize” stage when they launched their social emotional learning initiative in North Carolina as our newest collaborating district.

  1. If implementing a continuous improvement model, what does your team include in the organizing and strategic planning phase of the process?
  2. What are some of the assumptions that need to be considered when employing a continuous improvement strategy?

Ally Skoog-Hoffman ( is the Director of Research-Practice Partnerships, and Rob Jagers ( is the Vice President of Research at CASEL. CASEL supports educators and policy leaders and enhances the experiences and outcomes for all PreK-12 students through social emotional learning.

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One Comment

  1. Hi, I really love your work and resources. If you have any upcoming trainings or online conversations on supporting SEL with students in this abrupt transition into this difficult historic moment and e-learning I would love to attend. I’m sure there would be interest from many on learning from CASEL on these subjects. Thank you!

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