Is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) a District-Wide Concern?

Broadening the Scope of SEL Implementation

How can districts shape the SEL conversation?

Although social and emotional learning (SEL) as a concept is as old as humanity itself, the movement to make SEL a defined necessary element of our educational experience has only really been around for about two decades.

SEL happens

Social and emotional learning is happening in every classroom and on every playground in every school district, no matter what the leaders in those districts are doing, or not doing. This is because, according to a commonly held definition, SEL is “the process of learning to integrate thinking, feeling and behaving in order to become aware of the self and of others, make responsible decisions and manage behaviors.”

“Schools should look behind classroom doors and determine the factors that contribute to the kinds of interactions between teachers and students that promote student achievement,” Nobel Prize-winning economist and famed childhood development researcher James Heckman said in a statement about SEL.

Teachers are not the only ones imparting SEL lessons to students — classmates, parents and potentially anyone who has any social interaction with a child, even through the media, communicates SEL knowledge, too.

Since SEL in some form happens everywhere, there are now efforts to not compartmentalize SEL as another school subject but to make it a school district-wide objective.

A whole district approach

Anyone who attended class in the U.S. education system will tell you that schools are social spaces — a large fraction of pop-culture creations from the past century is based around social interactions at institutions of learning.   

Now more than ever, educators are wondering how school leadership can take an active role in shaping the social discourse at schools to add what children are learning at home and from their peers.

Why is SEL important? Because our social and emotional capabilities, or lack thereof, will leave defining marks on our entire lives.

“Cognitive and character skills work together as dynamic complements; they are inseparable,” Heckman said. “Skills beget skills. More motivated children learn more. Those who are more informed usually make wiser decisions. Self-control, openness, the ability to engage with others, to plan and to persist — these are the attributes that get people in the door and on the job, and lead to productive lives.”

Although creating a cognitive through-line from a kindergarten SEL activity to the superintendent’s office requires large-scale cohesion, conversation and change, some districts believe this is the ideal way to educate the total child and foster healthy communities.

“Systemic whole school implementation of SEL encourages safe, supportive school communities in which all young people are valued,” according to an implementation document from the New York State Education Department. “When a school’s culture is based on students’ strengths, providing tiered supports as needed, all students in the school community benefit.”

The challenges

Since SEL is a relatively new discipline that is difficult to quantify, there has been a lot of experimentation. Some of these attempts have worked better than others, and some have been headline-grabbing and traumatizing.

Some findings suggest that successful SEL programs include SEL training for teachers and faculty, too. This concept is echoed in a report released earlier this year from the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) that looked at how districts in different states take on SEL programs.

“Implementing classroom SEL initiatives can be challenging, especially when stresses associated with a lack of classroom support, poor working conditions and inadequate pay and compensation greatly diminish teachers’ capacity to cultivate and model SEL themselves,” the NASBE researchers said. “School leaders that prioritize educators’ well-being and help them advance professionally can improve students’ SEL skills and promote higher student achievement.”

As the public becomes more aware of the focus on SEL, comprehensive approaches to it have become controversial.

Some of the pushback comes from the fact that SEL programs mean that schools are teaching social skills that were traditionally taught in the home. While there is no way to completely defuse this fear, some districts are emphasizing ways to bring families and whole communities into their SEL implementation practices.

“SEL starts at home,” the New York State Board of Education report states. “Families are essential in helping their children develop social-emotional skills. Their support of SEL, as well as their ability to model the core competencies, helps foster their children’s social-emotional growth. Building a collaborative relationship between families and school personnel is crucial to providing all students with a safe and supportive learning environment. Such collaboration involves family and school support for all facets of a student’s school life.”

While superintendents are finding out that seeking a whole district approach to SEL is useful for developing a healthy overall culture as well as an effective SEL education, it makes sense to slow down and fully understand the district’s goals. An intentional and careful approach can help ensure that an SEL program works for students, teachers, faculty, parents and the community at-large.

At the AASA National Conference on Education 2020, AASA SEL Cohort, will host workshops and seminars around SEL, where you can hear first-hand from superintendents already navigating this challenging pathway. In addition, two general session speakers, David Brooks, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and Mawi Asgedom, Founder, Mawi Learning and Strategic Advisor for ACT, Social and Emotional Learning, will address the topic in detail.

For more information and to register for the 2020 National Conference on Education, February 13 to 15, visit