Reopening Schools: How to Overcome SEL Challenges

I recently did a workshop for educational leaders leading SEL implementation efforts. While they shared many successes and were proud of the work done, they also shared the struggles of doing this work effectively and sustainably in the long term.

As school administrators and educators think about their priorities when schools reopen in the fall, the challenges of SEL implementation cannot be ignored. We must examine why it is difficult to support students’ and adults’ social and emotional skills in schools, in order to find the right tools to overcome these challenges.

A great way to get started is by bringing together a group of educators to read Teaching with the HEART in Mind and doing a book study. You can download the book study guide here, and create an experience where teachers and leaders come together to practice their skills and learn how to integrate SEL in their teaching. Creating a safe space for teachers to try new things is an important part of engaging those who may be hesitant or uncomfortable with the teaching of HEART skills.

During the workshop for educational leaders, the participants shared three main areas of concern:

Concern 1: Lack of teacher buy-in

Participants shared that staff “do not understand” or “feel like SEL doesn’t apply to them.” This is common when SEL is implemented as a top-down initiative, teachers are asked to implement SEL lessons before they feel prepared or ready to engage with this work, or they aren’t part of the decision-making process. Participants also shared that their schools “want to just purchase programs. But SEL is more than that” or that teachers “already have so much on their plates, and they don’t know how to seamlessly integrate SEL into content areas.” These are also important concerns–if we want to implement SEL effectively, we have to go beyond the prepackaged curriculum and help educators to learn and practice how to infuse SEL in teaching to increase students’ social and emotional capacity and create positive conditions for learning.

What can you do about it?

When people feel pushed, they resist. So, if you are trying to help educators to see the importance of SEL, you need to be willing to take time to support them where they are. In fact, teachers need to “experience” what SEL feels like in order to truly notice and understand the benefits. This means:

  • Take time understanding their resistance to SEL. This can further guide your thinking about the tools teachers need.

  • Create space in your school/district for adults to practice and learn HEART skills in authentic ways. This needs to be done consistently, and not only at the beginning of the year.

  • Create multiple options to engage with this work. Some teachers may be willing to try 1 or 2 activities in their classrooms, while others will be looking at how to integrate SEL in their lesson plans. Then, educators can come together to reflect and share successes and challenges.

Concern 2: Lack of leadership vision and support

Participants shared a “lack of overall vision and systems for effectively supporting implementation across multiple sites” as a core challenge. Another participant expressed concern because there was ”not enough time or structures for adult collaboration and learning” at their district. Other participants commented on the lack of modeling these skills that came from leadership teams. These are all real struggles. When learning communities don’t have a clear vision for what they want to accomplish and a roadmap that outlines how to get there, other priorities will take over. In addition, SEL cannot happen without intentional practice, and that requires a resource in short supply: time.

What can you do about it?

Although the field of SEL has grown exponentially over the last few years, sometimes we still need to “make the case” for SEL with our school or district leaders. That means that we need to understand their concerns and priorities, and see how we can build the connection between SEL and their immediate needs. A few ideas:

  • Use this article to understand their perspective, and target your “pitches” to the things they are mostly concerned about.

  • Use these tools from CASEL to help create a vision for SEL at your school.

  • Invite leadership to experience HEART-filled staff meetings, where there is a positive environment for sharing ideas and connecting with others.

Concern 3: Lack of culturally responsive SEL

Participants also shared concerns about the lack of “culturally informed SEL integration” or “equity and inclusion in our SEL curriculum.” One participant expressed frustration because in her community SEL was seen as a checklist, instead of as a lens for teaching and learning which “can be viewed through an antiracist lens.” The reality is that many SEL resources are not culturally responsive; they don’t take into account the context that students need to navigate or how social and cultural norms shape the expression of emotions in public settings. When SEL initiatives are not responsive to students’ lived experiences, particularly for our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students, they can actually be harmful to children and youth.

What can you do about it?

It is important that you educate yourself and examine the SEL resources and materials that are being used at your school and district. The choices that we make show the lens that we bring to this work, so whenever possible, make sure educators examine those choices. A few ideas:

It is possible and necessary to overcome the challenges of effective and sustainable SEL implementation in our learning communities. Start by understanding the main obstacles in your particular context, and use these resources to help you move forward. And if you need help, get in touch. I’d love to support your efforts.

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