Committee for Children Blog

4 Strategies for Effective SEL Implementation

Teachers walking and talking in a hallway.

Imagine a classroom where every child, equipped with life skills through social-emotional learning (SEL), grows more empathetic, confident, and resilient every day. The power of SEL is not just a matter of academic theory; it’s a catalyst for profound personal growth. As extensive research highlights, when school communities embrace SEL, it can lead to heightened student well-being and academic achievement, enhanced prosocial behaviors, reduced disciplinary issues, and, overall, a brighter future for our children.

But integrating comprehensive social-emotional learning on a school or districtwide level can be challenging. It may even be challenging enough to prevent educational leaders from implementing SEL programs altogether, causing students to miss out on the many benefits. According to a recent study on the factors that lead to successful SEL outcomes in schools, “when [SEL] programs are not implemented as intended, or with fidelity, student outcomes are less likely to be achieved.”

The study, conducted by nonprofit Commitee for Children’s head research team, found that school leaders across various positions—including teachers, principals, and support staff—play a crucial role in helping drive the effective implementation of SEL programs. School leaders, especially principals and administrators, are key to introducing a new SEL program, generating enthusiasm among staff, and creating systems that support sustained implementation.

Another study found that a lack of administrative direction, such as not communicating support or allocating sufficient resources for the program, was identified as a key barrier in program acceptance among staff. When school leaders demonstrate genuine support for comprehensive SEL efforts, teachers are far more likely to prioritize new programs in their own classrooms with fidelity, competency, and enthusiasm, which can result in increased positive outcomes for students.  

Starting a new learning paradigm or program can be daunting, but when it comes to social-emotional learning, it doesn’t have to be. Instead of viewing SEL as an addition to existing curricula and instruction, it’s more effective for educators to view SEL as a fundamental part of all that students are learning. Rather than an extra branch on the tree of student learning, SEL can be one of the roots.

Here are four takeaway strategies identified in the study that you can use to effectively implement an SEL program in your learning community.  

1. Create a schoolwide SEL vision.
Whether it’s better test scores in math or higher college acceptance rates, administrators, teachers, and students must understand the objective they’re pursuing to be able to reach it. The same goes for social-emotional learning. Since SEL is not explicitly tied to specific academic outcomes (although research has shown that academic performance can be one of its many benefits), it’s even more important for leaders to create a clear vision for SEL, and to express that vison to teachers and students with clarity and consistency. Gather staff and students to consider big picture questions such as, “What kind of school culture do we want to create with SEL?” and “What does it mean for us to support everyone’s social and emotional growth?” Then build your schoolwide SEL vision based on the responses.

Once you have created your schoolwide vision, an SEL implementation team of staff members can provide an extra scaffold of support and communication between school leaders, teachers, and students. Consider offering a stipend to SEL team members to incentivize participation and to further reinforce administrative support for SEL on a systemic level. Just as when school leaders designate staff to oversee specific departments, content areas, clubs, and tasks, creating an SEL team provides opportunities for professional development and empowerment. 

2. Make an SEL implementation game plan.
An effective implementation plan includes program training, implementation strategies, and the identification of program goals, tasks, and timelines. Your SEL team can also create a plan for ongoing staff support and coaching. As with building a team, creating a plan reinforces the message that the SEL program is a priority for school leaders, which can also help motivate staff to implement the program.

Setting SEL goals based on your shared vision is an essential part of your implementation plan.  Tangible, straightforward goals such as regular program usage, increased student attendance, or decreased disciplinary referrals can help staff measure SEL success, while goals relating to school culture and student attitudes can help students understand the school’s and their own individual SEL goals. Set SEL goals early in the school year and create regular checkpoints for students and teachers to assess their progress in reaching them. When school communities set and track their goals, they are far more likely to make their shared SEL vision a reality.   

3. Don’t forget the data!  
Crucially, your plan should include a methodology for gathering schoolwide SEL program data. Many SEL programs include data monitoring features that you can leverage to measure success, so use those to your advantage. Share the data with teachers and have teachers share their classroom data with students. Doing so helps everyone in the school community understand their progress in relation to their goals and shared vision and motivates students to keep growing their social-emotional skills.  

4. Train teachers and train them well. 
SEL, like any learning or content framework, requires teacher training and ongoing support to see student growth. Most SEL programs include teacher training to provide guidance on how to effectively deliver program content, so leverage those resources. It’s also critical that the training be followed up with ongoing support during and after implementation. Coaching, consultative support, and performance feedback are all effective methods for sustainable teacher training.

But these four strategies are just the beginning. If you’d like to join us on the journey to creating learning environments where every child is empowered to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically through Second Step® programs, take the first step by reaching out for a free district consultation.

Together, we can create environments where every child’s social-emotional well-being is nurtured, giving them the tools to succeed today and far after graduation. Visit SecondStep.org to learn more.