Getting Your Principal to Support SEL

Last week, I got a message from an elementary school teacher in New Jersey. Maria integrates Social Emotional Learning in her 2nd grade class and has observed significant changes in her students’ ability to express emotions and solve conflicts independently. In her message, she expressed some frustration because the principal, although supportive of her work, doesn’t want to allocate any resources to implement SEL across classrooms.

This situation is common… but it doesn’t need to be a dead end. There are many resources available today to help educators like Maria “make the case” for SEL, from research showing how these skills improve student achievement to financial resources that schools can use to fund these initiatives. But before we start exploring which resources Maria could bring to her school administration, we need to think about the situation from the principal’s perspective.

Why is the principal reluctant to allocate resources for SEL?

In this case, showing empathy for the school administrator might help us understand the specific concerns and then, find the resources to address them. These are a few examples from my work with schools. Talk to your principal and actively listen, then make your own list!

  • Teachers will get off their standards-based scope and sequence.
  • Teachers will resist implementing a new curriculum.
  • We already teach these skills in other ways.
  • I don’t have money in my budget for this.
  • I need to know that these skills will increase student achievement.
  • It will take too much time to implement, our priority is _____ this year not SEL.

In an earlier post, I discussed three different levels of resistance: Level 1 is based on information (I don’t get it), Level 2 is based on emotions like fear (I don’t like it), and Level 3 is based on a lack of trust with the change maker (I don’t like you). Now, look at the list of concerns you wrote. What type of resistance do you identify? Is it mostly based on lack of information? Emotions? Or maybe a lack of trust? Understanding where resistance comes from is the key to help us see the situation from the other person’s point of view and address the underlying reasons. Here are a few resources for each type of resistance. In some cases, you might need to use a combination of strategies from the three different levels!

Level 1 – If your principal needs more information:

Level 1 – If your principal needs examples of implementation:

  • There are several districts successfully implementing SEL across schools. You can read how Austin Independent School District integrates SEL with academic learning or how Chicago Public Schools uses SEL to improve school culture and climate.
  • Need something visual? Show these videos where teachers describe concrete ways to teach social and emotional skills, from the Oakland Unified School District.

Level 2 – If your principal shows an emotional reaction to change:

  • Acknowledge her feelings and listen with an open mind. Think about how you can move her from frustration to excitement, or from fear to courage to take on this work. Become her ally and thought partner, not her enemy!
  • Invite your principal to your classroom when you are teaching SEL. Have students share with her what they are learning and how it is helping them.
  • Share this video showing students’ perspectives on SEL.

Level 3 – If your principal has concerns about you as a change maker (ouch!):

  • Focus on building the relationship. What can you do to earn her trust?
  • Find other teachers who want to do this work at your school, build alliances with parents. Show that there is interest and commitment from other people.
  • Model the social and emotional skills you want students to develop! Although you might be upset or feel helpless, change takes time and sometimes it requires starting with very small steps. Be confident and persevere!


Resistance to implement SEL programs in schools is common, but there are several things teachers can do to “make the case” for SEL. If your principal is showing resistance, use your empathy skills to understand where this resistance is coming from (lack of information, emotional response or lack of trust) and then, consult this list to find the appropriate resources. Good luck! And keep me posted. I’d love to know how things are going.

By |Published On: November 3rd, 2016|Categories: School Improvement, SEL|Tags: , , , , |

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