Committee for Children Blog

4 Key Ways to Sustain Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Teachers and schools can sustain social-emotional learning over time.

How many initiatives have you seen come and go during your time in education?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is trending, so you may be tempted to think of it as just another such passing fad. But SEL shouldn’t be lumped in with temporary initiatives. We all must have social-emotional skills, regardless of the time, place, or situation, to successfully navigate life’s challenges. Even businesses require employees with social-emotional skills. So while the specific contexts may change over time, the need for social-emotional skills won’t.

Social-emotional learning efforts need to be sustained over the long term to support children in developing these skills. But this doesn’t just happen on its own. SEL faces barriers to sustainability such as staff turnover and limitations on time and resources. SEL competes against pressures for implementing a multitude of initiatives or programs at once. That’s why it can’t be an afterthought—it requires preplanned, purposeful effort. These are four key efforts that contribute to its sustainability districtwide.

1. Explicitly Align Social-Emotional Learning with Your Vision and Mission

Chances are that even if SEL is not the primary focus of your mission and vision, it is highly connected to both. Do those who are currently implementing SEL supports see that connection? Or is it just assumed? Do staff see SEL as part of the systems already in place in your school and district rather than something separate or extra? If SEL isn’t seen as connected, then its value and implementation may need to be made more visible in your district action plans and strategic goals.

2. Take the Time to Establish and Maintain Buy-In

There are many ways of fostering widespread buy-in—it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that must be led by one person. Here are a few examples of how you can establish and maintain support:

  • Share your data, such as climate surveys, attendance records, or achievement statistics. You can make connections by showing how SEL relates to improved student outcomes in these areas. Offer results from this SEL meta-analysis or ask students to describe how they see social and emotional skills benefiting them. Share these student testimonials if you are a Second Step school.
  • Invite staff to join a book club or two on SEL. Some schools and districts have built this type of professional learning opportunity into the staff pay scale or continuing education credit system as an added incentive for learning about the value of SEL and how to support it.
  • If buy-in is low, identify a few champions who are already active supporters of SEL, and ask them to share with a group their experiences of how SEL helped them and their students, whether by improving climate or reducing student-to-student conflicts.
  • Ask champions to lead staff learning on SEL with an article review, book study, or webinar on SEL.

3. Make It a Team Effort and Use Data

Staff turnover is a fact of K-12 and early learning school life. When SEL implementation is led by one person such as an administrator or a school psychologist, SEL activity is more likely to wane if that person leaves. When a core leadership team supports SEL, such solid backing ensures continued expertise and supports for SEL implementation, even when there are staff changes.

Inevitably, there will be ups and downs in your SEL implementation efforts. When the team meets frequently to develop and review action plans for supporting SEL, potential barriers can be addressed quickly. Try a staff feedback survey two to four times a year to learn what elements are working, what aspects people are questioning, what they feel most comfortable with, and where they need more support. Use that information to continually adjust practices and adult supports for SEL.

4. Involve New Staff or Teachers

For most of us, each year brings new staff to our organizations. Because staff turnover can make or break sustainability, it’s crucial to put a plan in place for bringing new staff on board with SEL and making them an integral part of your school and district’s SEL plan and implementation. Do they know the value of SEL and how it relates to your student outcome goals? Are they aware of your SEL implementation plan? New staff often bring new energy and ideas on teams, so have you tapped into their strengths and skills by making them a part of your SEL implementation team? Self-directed staff training modules are included with the Second Step program; be sure to register your Program Activation Key to access these online tools.

More Resources

Here’s more information about sustaining districtwide social and emotional learning.