Whole School Approach to SEL

SEL cannot be solely focused on teaching social and emotional skills once a week. Why not?

While explicit instruction of SEL competencies is a key component, and in many cases the first step taken by schools starting to implement SEL, students (and adults too!) need plenty of opportunities to practice these skills beyond the “SEL instructional time”. SEL programs and practices are more effective when students can experience how these competencies support their personal and academic goals, and when adults (teachers, parents and administrators) are invested in modeling and practicing the skills alongside their students.

Six Seconds, the Emotional Intelligence Network, has created a set of benchmarks to proficiently support SEL in classrooms and schools. These benchmarks are organized under 3 key implementation levels or strands—individual, classroom and school—which help orchestrate the efforts of all stakeholders in the learning community. Although I will not discuss the specific benchmarks in this post (click here to access them), I would like to reflect on these three levels of implementation as a guide for a whole school approach to SEL:

  • Individual – As educators, we cannot teach skills that we don’t practice! The same is true for school administrators or parents. If we want students to learn these competencies and use them in their daily lives, all people in the school community should learn and practice these skills together. Therefore, SEL implementation plans should create opportunities for students and adults to practice their skills in a safe and supportive environment, where people have a sense of belonging and trust.
  • Classroom – We have discussed that explicit instruction is an important strategy when implementing SEL in the classroom… and it is not the only one! Embedding SEL with teaching strategies and connecting the competencies to academic content are fundamental to support students’ learning. Teaching SEL is also about creating inclusive classrooms, where students’ cultural diversity, abilities, home language or sexual orientation are celebrated and honored. As you know, this whole blog is dedicated to give you tools to integrate SEL in your teaching! When you browse through the different posts, you may realize there are things you are already doing. Great! Find something you aren’t doing yet, and give it a try this week.
  • School – Creating a sense of community, where students and adults feel engaged and connected to each other, is probably one of greatest outcomes of SEL implementation. School events, discipline policies, dismissal procedures… they can all be redesign with an SEL lens. It will take time and, no doubt, you will face resistance (maybe from your school administrator). The effort is worth it!

It is not uncommon for schools to organize their SEL implementation efforts in different stages; they might be more focused on individual development and classroom practices during phase one and two, while focusing on school structures and routines during phase three. In my experience working with schools, one size does not fit all, and your school’s process may be different than other schools in your neighborhood or city. No matter what that process is, make sure your learning community considers these three levels as they plan their SEL initiative. Questions about where to start or how to grow? Get in touch.

And if you need additional SEL resources for the first two levels of implementation (individual and classroom), please check out our new book The EQ Educator: Taking Social Emotional Learning to Schools! It is a collection of great articles and other resources to help educators deepen their understanding of emotional intelligence (EQ) and the many ways SEL can be infused in classrooms and schools. My co-editor, Dr. Susan Stillman, and I hope that it will support you in your efforts to build more positive and engaged classrooms and schools.


  1. Julie Wolf January 22, 2023 at 10:31 am - Reply

    I’ve been teaching SEL with a curriculum for several years. I struggle with the content. While it is culturally sensitive and diverse, it is often not engaging or relevant to a classroom. My greatest concern in my 27 years of being a school counselor is that more time needs to be invested with parents so that the school is not essentially raising kids. Educators have kids for short bursts of time. Parents/families/caregivers have them for life. It’s home that should be the basis for SEL.

    • Lorea Martinez, PhD January 25, 2023 at 1:50 pm - Reply

      Hi Julie, thank you for writing. Finding an SEL curriculum that will meet the needs of your students can be challenging. I have found that it is better to use a variety of resources and strategies when teaching SEL, so students can benefit from different ways to learn and develop their skills. And yes, parents are an essential piece of the puzzle. For starters, they know their kids better than anybody else! As a parent myself, I know that I don’t always have the tools or answers to my parenting challenges, and would welcome support from the school. Anything that we can do to support our families with their own SEL development can contribute to growing the capacity of our students and learning community. Thank you for your contributions and service! Wishing you all the best, Lorea.

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