Committee for Children Blog

SEL Needs Principals

Social-Emotional Principal

Principals demonstrably have an impact on student achievement1 and school climate, and are key to the success of social-emotional learning (SEL) within their schools.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) recently released an update of Ready To Lead, a report examining principals’ perspectives on SEL,2 which noted several interesting points.

  • Principals still see SEL skills as highly teachable and an important priority in their schools.
  • They’ve made progress in implementing SEL: a majority now have a long-term plan with a SEL vision and are using an evidence-based SEL program. Both urban and suburban schools are advancing SEL implementations. But small town and rural schools still lag significantly behind the rest of the country.
  • More schools are implementing specific SEL benchmarks by significant percentages.
  • Educators are assessing social-emotional skills at a higher rate compared to 2017 findings. Nearly 70 percent of principals believe social-emotional skills should be assessed, and nearly half of principals believe these skills should be included in state education standards and guidance.
  • More work is needed to ensure that SEL is systemic across schools and districts and to convince more principals to believe existing assessments are useful.

Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution blog Brown Center Chalkboard published the article The cascading effects of principal turnover on students and schools describing the multi-layered effects that stem from principal turnover.3 Approximately one in five schools lose their principal each year, which has negative implications for student achievement (such as student test scores) and for school-level outcomes such as school proficiency rates and teacher turnover. We suspect the same downsides might hold true for SEL outcomes. These issues are compounded when principal turnover is even more frequent, an occurrence that’s common and particularly pronounced in schools with higher levels of poverty and minority student populations. 

Principals might be more likely to stick around if they attend to their own SEL competencies.

Pennsylvania State University released Principals’ Social and Emotional Competence, a brief on their social-emotional competencies with consideration for their experiences of stress, coping, and positive school leadership.4 The brief addresses the high amount of job-related stress that principals face, noting that they often lack support to develop their personal social-emotional competencies. This leaves principals feeling that they don’t possess the skills to lead effectively in challenging situations.

There’s reason to believe that developing principals’ social-emotional competencies can mitigate principal attrition and promote effective leadership and student achievement. The deliberate cultivation of principals’ social-emotional skills and support of their SEL efforts can address these issues and improve SEL for students schoolwide.

In terms of policy, Committee for Children continues to support legislation that places greater emphasis on SEL in educator prep, which includes principal prep. In terms of practice, we’re developing an SEL program for adults that principals can enjoy with a team of their fellow educators, to debut in early 2021. Learn more about our policy and advocacy efforts at


1. National Association of Secondary School Principals & National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2013). Leadership matters: What the research says about the importance of principal leadership. Retrieved from
Gates, S. M. (2014, November 26). A principal role in education [Blog post]. Retrieved from

2. Atwell, M. N. & Bridgeland, J. M. (2019). (2019). Read to Lead: A 2019 update of Principals’ perspectives on how social and emotional learning can prepare children and transform schools. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Chicago: CASEL, Civic Enterprises, & Hart Research Associates. Retrieved from

3. Harbatkin, E. & Henry, G. T. (2019, October 21). The cascading effects of principal turnover on students and schools [Blog post]. Retrieved from

4. Mahfouz, J., Greenberg, M. T., & Rodriguez, A. (2019). Principals’ social and emotional competence: A key factor for creating caring schools. University Park, PA: Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. Retrieved from