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Implementing Schoolwide Social-Emotional Learning: A Guide

Why do we do what we do? What’s the purpose of education? Is it to prepare students to perform well in school and become effective workers or is it to develop good people who will make a positive difference in the world? Of course, the answer is both–and yet, schools and curricula have been designed to achieve the former goal and ignore the latter. That’s understandable because federal, state, and local mandates have prized academic achievement to the exclusion of other areas of growth. That’s a mistake because mastering the 3 Rs is important, but it’s not sufficient. To prepare students for success in life, we need a wider focus than scholastics.

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness that we need to do more than simply prepare students to succeed in school. As Angela Duckworth, James Heckman, Paul Tough, and Daniel Goleman have shown, students with stronger Social Emotional Learning do better in life–and also in school. It’s clear that we educators need to intentionally develop students’ SEL. We need to focus on human literacy.

But this isn’t easy. Teachers already have too much to do and principals’ schedules often don’t include time for lunch. How can we do this in a school day that is already jammed with academics and the arts? The solution is to take a schoolwide approach to SEL and integrate it throughout the school’s culture.

Our school’s culture is around us; it’s what we feel and see. Culture frames our perceptions and our actions–even if we aren’t aware that this is happening. A staff handbook explains what we should do; our school’s culture determines what we really do, and that culture is framed by administrators and teachers. Principals have the official platform so they have a powerful impact on culture, but teachers set the norm and often determine how their colleagues will act and react.

By considering the components of culture–vision/mission/values, practices, people, narrative, and place–we can find ways to integrate teaching SEL. Beginning with vision/mission/values, we should ask ourselves if our lofty goals (which likely include aspects of SEL) are reflected in what is reported to students’ parents. Our report cards should include categories such as I identified in The Formative Five (ASCD, 2016): empathy, integrity, self-control, embracing of diversity, and grit. How progress is measured and shared should be determined and created by each school’s faculty, and the impact of these assessments would be greatly increased if students were involved in their development.

What practices support SEL? When we discuss literature or review history, we should make a point of going beyond asking who, what, and when questions, and also ask “Why?” We can teach empathy and diversity by looking at motivation and perspective. Focusing on one of the formative five for a month or semester enables teachers and students to dig deeply into meaning and action. What if, as part of a unit on language, speech, or persuasion, students worked in teams to create a three-minute commercial for SEL or one of the formative five success skills? Regular assemblies at which students’ successes with the formative five are featured are a great way to applaud students’ efforts.

People, to be sure, are the key factor in teaching any curricula, especially SEL. If we are to develop students’ SEL, staff members’ SEL must also be developed. Time should be set aside at staff meetings to enable all of the adults–not just certificated folks–to learn how colleagues are teaching SEL and to engage in some of the same practices. Helping our students learn to embrace diversity–to go beyond accepting and appreciating others who are different–begins with the adults in the building discussing the same readings and engaging in the same role-plays. Similarly, the highest level of teaching empathy is “actionable empathy,” reaching out to and helping others. Our students learn by doing this and we should be working next to them. We cannot teach students human literacy by ignoring or leapfrogging over staff; all of us need to be aware of and working to improve our SEL. Indeed, on the New York State Education Department website, Chancellor Betty A. Rosa says: “Social Emotional Learning tools are not just for our students; they help parents, teachers and children acquire the knowledge and skills they need to understand and manage their emotions.”

Narrative is a powerful determiner of meaning; words matter! So, words that describe SEL should be intentionally used often. Every child from kindergarten through grade 12 should be comfortable using “empathy” and know how it differs from “sympathy.” And words need not be spoken: How can slogans on staff t-shirts and on hallway banners shout the importance of SEL? How often is SEL a topic at parent education evenings and Back to School nights? How prominently is SEL featured on the school’s website?

Place is often an underutilized tool to teach SEL. What messages can we send and reinforce, for example, by displaying student work and efforts? Too often halls and walls only feature the top twenty percent of students; every student should find his/her efforts posted. We need to figure out how to highlight student progress and positive trajectory, not limiting displays to students who have succeed. Determining how this might be done, similar to how progress could be shared with parents, would be a great way to focus on teaching SEL and develop faculty collegiality. And how might empathy be displayed? How and where could we show what students have learned about empathy and how they are reaching out to make a difference?

Thinking about school culture as a tool to achieve schoolwide SEL gives us a range of directions and opportunities to learn and grow, for our students and ourselves.

Thomas HoerrThomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri, St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis. Hoerr has written five books— most recently, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide: The Formative Five Success Skills for Students and Staff (ASCD, 2019), in addition to Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School (2000), The Art of School Leadership (2005), School Leadership for the Future (2009), Fostering Grit (2013), and The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs (2017)—and more than 150 articles, including “The Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership.