SEL is More Than a 3-Letter Word: District approaches to intentional integration


Most educators would agree that social-emotional learning (SEL) needs of our students have been increasing in the last five years.  As we cope with how to better support our students to better develop their competencies such as managing emotions, building relationships, solving interpersonal problems, and making effective decisions, it is important that the concept of SEL does not become one more acronym of an initiative that is placed upon our shelves or worked into the schedule once a week.  

Schools need to think of SEL not as a new or additional initiative, but something that is woven into the daily fabric of all that we do in schools. Peter Greene wrote, “Just as some teachers try to accommodate for different learning styles, it’s helpful to remember there are different social styles.” This notion is impossible to refute. Jeff Veal said, “Not every kid has the same experiences, but every kids wants to be loved, accepted, affirmed and challenged.” These are not things that are “add ons” but these are things that need to be a part of every classroom and school. This is the heart of what SEL is all about!

media-20180225 (1)Additionally, it is important to partner with parents and local community groups to address social emotional learning.  Social emotional learning cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the schools and, indeed, the school’s success in supporting staff and students in SEL is enhanced by community understanding and participation.

There are helpful procedures and steps that districts can take to work deliberately on strengthen SEL in their systems.  

Step 1–Self-Assessment:  How do we know what our staff and student needs are?

media-20180225 (6)In order for teachers to lay the groundwork for embedding social-emotional learning into their classrooms, they must first have a sense of their own SEL competencies, because their own competencies will have a direct impact on how they work with their students.  Furthermore, they must understand how to best implement effective strategies to support their students competences.  Therefore, beginning a district SEL implementation process typically should begin with some self-assessment activities.  Our districts have used a number of SEL self-assessment tools to set the foundation for future work such as K-12 Insight Climate and Culture survey (Mendon-Upton Regional School District), Metrowest Health Survey Data (Ashland Public Schools and Mendon-Upton Regional School District, Milford Public Schools), and Panorama Survey (Ashland Public Schools).  

If a district was looking to dive deeper into the competencies and teaching practices, one tool that comes highly recommended was created by the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, and is a tool for teachers to self-assess social and emotional instruction and competencies.  This self-assessment helps educators to reflect upon their current teaching practices that impact student SEL, as well as their own SEL competencies. Through a series of self-ratings, teachers can self-reflect on their social interactions, as well as their own competencies.  Here are a few examples from the tool to illustrate questions that teachers would rate themselves:

Student-Centered Discipline Examples:

  • I have discussions with my students about how and why classroom procedures are implemented.
  • I ask my students to reflect and redirect their behavior when they misbehave

Responsibility and Choice Examples:

  • I let my students help plan how they are going to learn in developmentally appropriate ways
  • I arrange experiences that allow my students to become responsible (e.g., classroom aides or jobs, peer tutoring, specific roles in group work)

Self-Management/Emotion Regulation Examples:

  • I effectively use multiple strategies (e.g., breathing techniques and mindfulness) when I have a strong emotional reaction in the classroom (e.g. stress, anger) when implementing social teaching practices.

Classroom Discussions (SEL Instructional Practices):

  • I help my students identify how to listen (e.g., tracking the speaker, making mental connections)
  • I help students learn how to respond to and learn from their peers’ contributions during a discussion.

Step 2–Communicating a Vision:  How do we prioritize and communicate our SEL integration plan to all stakeholders?

media-20180225 (5)Communication is one of the keys to ensuring that all stakeholders have an understanding of the goals and rationale for social emotional learning in one’s district, school, or community. This can occur in a number of ways including presentations, through building-based weekly or monthly emails and newsletters, as well as through social media.  It is important to present SEL as part of what you do and not just another new initiative that will eventually go by the wayside.  Any communication should incorporate how SEL becomes a part of school culture, curriculum, and how you operate.  Districts need to identify why they are making SEL a priority?


 In the Milford Public Schools we emphasized SEL as one of our four strategic focus areas that drives our three year strategic plan:

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According to CASEL Social Emotional Learning competencies include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills. How are these competencies integrated into school or district-wide expectations, practices and policies, and curriculum instruction?  In the Milford Public Schools we focused on developing SEL competencies in faculty and staff to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for all students; increasing communication with families and the community; and building SEL skills and competencies in students to support both their academic learning and growth and emotional well being.  Whenever there is an event, highlighted project, or program we share that information with the community and all of our stakeholders.  Additionally, we linked our school improvement plans and budget proposals to the four strategic focus areas to ensure continuity and the integration of SEL as well as the other three strategic focus areas.  Again, the objective is to integrate SEL into what we do and make SEL what we are about.


Ashland is not any different than Milford. We too have incorporated SEL as one of our 4 improvement priority areas in our Blueprint for Continuous Student Improvement.

Our Improvement Priorities remain consistent from year to year. However, every summer at our retreat we modify or strategic actions based on the needs of our students, staff, and community.  The following is an outline of the Ashland Blueprint, which includes SEL priorities:

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Similar to Milford and Ashland, the Mendon-Upton Regional School District also included SEL into our district strategic priorities and action steps.  In particular, for this school year we identified one of our goals to be solely focused on social-emotional factors in our schools.  As a result of this priority, we are also a member district of the ExSEL Network, which is a resource that is helping us to improve and refine our SEL goals for future planning. To support this SEL goal, our district has had several years of ongoing professional development opportunities to create a supportive SEL culture.  Below includes our current descriptions of our current district SEL goal:

Strategic Objective:  Instructional Excellence

Goal 2:  Review, develop and implement supports for all students to promote social, emotional, and academic success.

Key Actions:

  1. By October 2017, a revised District Curriculum Accommodation Plan (DCAP) will be disseminated to faculty and staff, reviewed at a faculty meeting, and implemented district-wide in classrooms, child-study meetings, and in the Response to Intervention (RtI) process.
  2. By December 2017, complete an audit of K-12 support services.
  3. By January 2018, review and revise, the K-12 Response-to-Intervention (RtI) process at each level as needed.
  4. By June 2018 ensure that growth mindset messages/reminders are implemented at all levels:  elementary, middle, and high school.
  5. By June 2018, provide at least three opportunities for parents and community members to increase awareness of and ability to support students’ SEL needs.
  6. Throughout the 2017 – 2018 school year, build partnerships at every school level with outside mental health agencies to provide services to students and their families.
  7. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, provide professional development to teachers, staff, and paraprofessionals in social-emotional learning.
  8. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year,  the District’s Health and Wellness committee will identify resources to promote social and emotional behavioral health.


In Natick, SEL is approached in strategic ways, with a slightly different focus–embedding SEL to other work ongoing in the district.  With social justice and service within the community as core values for our students, we attach our SEL learning to these core values.  We work with our SPARKindness community partners to develop programming for teachers, students and staff / the larger community, designed to promote SEL for all and develop resilient parents and students  Our high school has decided to focus on identifying and connecting trusted adults to all students. Our middle schools use advisories and mentor programs to encourage relationships and provide a warm, supportive ecosystem for learning and the cultivation of social emotional skills.  In addition, our work in building resiliency and understanding, the district has prioritized personalized learning goals that allow student to take more responsibility for their own learning.  District goals around student self-determination and student-led IEPs work hand and glove with our work on personalized learning, project based learning and individualized competencies enhanced by our blended learning instructional model.  Social-emotional learning, therefore, is at the core of our instructional model–the growing medium that allows students the most access to their zone of proximal development–the sweet spot of learning.  It is important to note, that even in a highly digital district like Natick, there is no substitute for the learning accelerator that is trusted relationships between adults and students.  They are the basis of all learning and the core of SEL.

Step 3–Programming for Staff:  How do we embed ongoing professional development for our staff?

media-20180225 (4)Schools have been doing professional development for several years in order to help staff be better equipped to understand and deal with the ever changing issues that face out students.

Professional development can be broken down into these categories:

Social and Emotional Issues that Students Face -DBT Training

-How to Support Those at Risk of Suicide

-Book Studies

Social Thinking Conference

-Second Step Social Skills Curriculum

-Zones of Regulation

Dealing with Anxiety -Jessica Minahan, strategies for working with students

-Book Study:  The Behavior Code

-Anxiety and School Performance (1/12/18)

Mindfulness -Mindful Mondays in schools


Mindful Educator Essentials (MEE)

Guest Speakers -Jessica Minahan

-Ken Ginsburg

-Lisa White – Mindfulness in the Classroom

-Dr. Robyn Bratica – Diagnosis vs. Classification

-Rebecca McCall, LMHC – Trauma-informed classrooms

-Pam Garramone, Positive Psychology

Building resiliency with students -Ken Ginsburg

-Growth Mindset

-Grit/Drive/Flow research by Duckworth/Pink/Csikszentmihalyi

Promoting Positive Culture -Seeds of Happiness

Building Our Kids Success

-School-based faculty t-shirts

-Increasing student voice

-Highlight student and faculty accomplishments through recognition programs or social media

-Certificates in Positive Psychology

Teaching about Service and Justice -Facing History and Ourselves

-Anti-defamation league

-Teaching Tolerance

-Community Service Learning

-Problem-Based Instruction/Project Based Learning

Step 4–Programming for Students:  How do we integrate SEL into our curriculum and our classroom lessons?

The CASEL website provides a very good framework and rationale for working with students with clear and admirable outcomes:

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The behavioral and academic outcomes of positive social behavior, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved academic performance support positive school climates and cultures, college and career readiness, and a focus on the development of the whole child or student.  The accountability movement in education had a number of positive outcomes, but in many places de-humanized the educational process and many school settings.  Students became data points instead of the complex children with diverse needs and goals that educators know them to be through countless daily interactions.  A school culture that emphasizes SEL supports students in both their academic and social development and growth.
The CASEL website ( is a great resource for developing SEL programming in your school, district, or community.  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also developed Guidelines on Implementing Social Emotional Learning Curricula that has a number of fantastic ideas and resources (  

Step 5–Evaluation:  How do we know we have made a difference?

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According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Guidelines on Implementing Social Emotional Learning Curricula these are some of the key outcomes of effective SEL programming or work in schools:

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Based on these four broad areas of impact it is possible to measure the impact of SEL on several potential academic, behavioral, and emotional metrics.  One resource to consider is to check out the article by Susanne Denham which includes  several resources for how schools can measure the effectiveness of their programs. There are different resources in the article and schools must find the one that best fits their needs.

In Summary…

Social Emotional Learning is a growing movement in education across the country.  The best advice we can give to our colleagues about SEL is that how SEL is executed in a district should be highly tailored to the environment and school system.  As in many aspects of school system leadership, sensitive execution of SEL–execution that is not just an “add on” –another initiative added to educators’ already-full plates–is done best with strategic stakeholder groups.  Group planning with representatives from district constituencies ensures that the SEL “curriculum” and programs is a way of life instead of an add-on led by school-only partners.  In most cases, the very SEL practices put into play for students also benefit teachers and all adults involved in the lives of our students. Investing in SEL is an investment in the total community and builds the foundation of a strong learning culture.