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The Secret Sauce for SEL

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which students, teachers and families learn and practice the skills of emotional intelligence. As a process, implementation of SEL might look differently in different schools with unique needs and students. Although there are certain key ingredients to create an evidence-based, sustainable SEL program, the way in which schools, teachers and students make these ingredients come together will vary. Teachers’ readiness, leadership support, students’ social and emotional needs and existing resources, among other factors, will influence how schools go about making SEL “work” in their communities. This is both a challenge and an opportunity.

The Challenge: You could follow a scope and sequence from another school in your district, use the same SEL curriculum and attend the same training, and the outcomes for students could vary significantly. As we have discussed in prior posts, SEL is more than teaching a curriculum. It is a paradigm shift that requires schools to place social and emotional competencies at the core of what they do and how they do it, with the purpose of supporting students’ success in academics, but also in living healthy, happy and more fulfilling lives. Designing and implementing an SEL program is like building a puzzle, one piece at a time. If it fits, keep going! If it doesn’t, find another piece.

The Opportunity: One of the most creative times in my teaching career was when my school decided to move from a pull out model (where students always went outside of their regular classroom to work on their individual goals) to a push in model (where students received support from the teacher in their regular classrooms) to serve students with special needs. This paradigm shift required teachers and specialists to come together and figure out best ways to serve individual students’ needs. It also meant that general and special education teachers could learn from each other and share best practices. This kind of collaboration and shared responsibility, along with a push for creativity, is also needed when implementing SEL. The opportunity is in figuring out how to best teach SEL and offer opportunities to practice these skills given the unique needs of your school, your colleagues and your students. It requires all stakeholders in the community to come together and create a vision for great learning.

The good news is that you don’t have to do this alone. There are several organizations that support and provide guidelines to help schools and districts design and implement great SEL programs. For example, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was formed in 1994 with the goal of helping to make high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs and practices an integral part of schools. They recently released (March 2017) a report sharing what has been learned after 6 years of supporting systemic SEL implementation in large urban districts in the United States. With 10 districts and 900,000 students a year, this is one of the most comprehensive school district improvement initiatives ever taken. Here’s a summary of their main findings. You can access the full report here.

  1. Systemic SEL is possible even when leadership changes and relatively small budgets. This was possible with a broad stakeholder commitment to SEL and many people committed to deepen their expertise on the topic. Districts effectively integrated SEL across district departments, embedding SEL as a pillar in their strategic plans.
  2. SEL ideally is integrated into every aspect of the district’s work, from the strategic plan and budgets to human resources and operations. This is a big one. If you are having a hard time convincing your school about the importance of SEL, you might be wondering how you even approach the district. Don’t get discouraged! Sometimes it is a matter of finding who will be more responsive to your pitch: Special Education department, Student Services, Instructional Coaches. Find people at the district office that might be open to hear what you are doing. This might be an opportunity for you to learn how they think about SEL. You might be surprised!
  3. SEL ideally is integrated into every aspect of the school, from classroom instruction to school climate and culture to community-family partnerships. This is an essential piece of SEL implementation. We know that students need opportunities to learn and also practice these skills in order to internalize them. At the same time, teachers can become more effective when they teach with an SEL lens, considering the social and emotional skills students have (or don’t have) AND the skills that are needed to master academic content. If you are in the classroom, teach these competencies explicitly and infuse them in your teaching. Use your classroom as a model for others to learn and get them inspired to do the same!
  4. Successful implementation can follow multiple pathways, based on each district’s unique need and strengths. Regardless of the approach, the engagement and commitment of both school and district leadership is essential. It is important to get your principal on board (a few tips here) and to find other allies that can help you push this process forward. Think about who has influence at your school. Lead teachers, district coaches, maybe the school psychologist? Build alliances with those than can support you!
  5. Adult SEL matters, too. This is something I have discussed in the past. Teachers model, consciously or not, social and emotional skills for their students. Therefore, teachers need time and space to reflect, develop and practice their own social and emotional skills. If you need a refresher, read this article published in Edutopia.
  6. Data for continuous improvement are essential. From students’ assessments of social and emotional skills to school climate surveys, there are several tools currently available and many are free. Do you remember the study with middle school students? It was done using the Educational Vital Signs, the school climate assessment from Six Seconds. If you are interested in learning more about assessment, please get in touch.
  7. Districts benefit from collaborating with each other. This is a no-brainer! One of the common questions that I receive when working with schools is “how do other schools do it?”. There is great value in sharing and learning from other teachers and schools that are trying to do the same. Don’t be shy! If you know schools working on SEL in your area: reach out, ask to visit, make new friends!

Implementation of SEL programs and practices is a multi-year process that requires several key ingredients and the commitment of all stakeholders. CASEL has shared 7 insights from working with 10 of the largest urban districts in the United States. No matter your role (teacher, parent, administrator or student), there is something that you can do within each one of these lessons to move SEL forward in your school community. Keep pushing! And get in touch if you need support or encouragement. I’d love to hear from you.

Are You Listening?

When I was a kid, I became fascinated with the story of Momo by Michael Ende. Have you read it? Momo is a little girl of mysterious origin with an extraordinary ability to listen – really listen. I remember reading the book and wondering, how does she do it? Can I really listen that way too?

She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of inspiration. It wasn’t that she actually said anything or asked questions that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with the upmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never suspected. Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or down-hearted people felt happy and hopeful.

You may know someone who can listen this way, or you might even BE someone who can listen with this level of radical attention. We know that listening skills are important for effective communication and also to establish positive relationships with others. Unfortunately, listening is not a top priority in today’s world. In his 2013 book Focus, Daniel Goleman observes that poor listening has become endemic. The increased pace of work and life in general, and the never ending lists of texts and emails that demand our attention, impoverish our ability to pay attention and fully listen.

We tend to think of attention as a switch that’s on or off — we’re focused or we’re distracted. According to Goleman, that’s a misperception. Attention comes in many varieties. Its extreme forms tend to be the most limiting. When we’re too attentive, we fall victim to tunnel vision. The mind narrows. When attention is absent, we lose control of our thoughts. We turn into scatterbrains. Goleman explains that open awareness lies in a particularly fertile area between those two poles. Have you observed these two extreme forms of attention in yourself and your students? What about this open awareness that Goleman describes? When are you and your students better able to pay attention?

I am listening!

Back to our story, we can say that Momo listened in a radical way, with an open awareness. That is to say, she focused her full attention on the speaker’s words and had an acute sense of the environment and the context. When I first read the book, I didn’t know that listening was an acquired skill. Now I know that I can be more like Momo, and you can too! We can all become better listeners.

The Center for Teaching Excellence defines Radical Listening as:

“Listening with the intention to be a vessel for your speaker, to be a sympathetic witness so that unspoken meaning may have room to find words. Radical listening encourages both speaker and listener to reside in the moment, non-judgmentally.”

During your next conversation with a student, a colleague or a relative, try to follow these listening instructions:

  • Quiet your mind and heart
  • Hold space for the speaker
  • Express your attentiveness non-verbally (facial expression, body language)
  • Note the speaker’s non-verbal communication
  • Use (and appreciate!) silence
  • Refrain from making comments, interpretations or suggestions
  • If appropriate, reflect back the words of the speaker

Poor listening is becoming the norm rather than the exception, but it doesn’t need to stay that way. Listening is an acquired skill, something you can develop over time with practice. In order to become a better listener or help your student develop their listening skills, follow these tips for radical listening in your daily conversations. What do you notice? What do you hear? I’d love to know how it goes!


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