5 Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Strategies for Principals

by | May 31, 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic helped school leaders understand just how vital social and emotional learning (SEL) is for promoting student success. Strong social and emotional skills help students weather events that are outside of their control, including the pandemic, as they pursue academic and relational success. But not all SEL strategies are created equal; research suggests that SEL should be incorporated into your school’s culture and curriculum to have a lasting impact on student achievement.

What Makes Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Effective?

A recent research brief from Duke University and The Hunt Institute outlines the components of an effective social and emotional learning strategy for your school. Author, Katie Rosanbalm, Ph.D. explains why principals must be deeply involved in developing an SEL strategy:

“Frequently, given limited time and competing priorities. SEL resources are delivered to teachers as a list of strategies, a manualized curriculum, or a single training, with little to no follow-up on the “how” and “why” of implementation. Teachers may be left to learn the materials on their own and deliver as they choose.”

Your school’s SEL strategy should include:

  • A structured SEL curriculum — Schools should plan an intentional, evidence-based curriculum that builds student competence in the five main areas of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. This curriculum should help students continually practice social and emotional skills over time.
  • Multiple layers of student support — While a general SEL curriculum may suffice for most students, school leaders should create systems that give extra support for students with significant emotional or mental health challenges. For example, students with significant trauma may need help from school counselors, social workers, and external programs.
  • Professional development for teachers and staff — School leaders should provide professional development that helps educators incorporate SEL into their academic curriculum and classroom routines. Educators also need the training to understand when and how to use referrals and interventions to provide extra support to students in need.

Principals who are new to SEL may need to work with a professional consultant who can help plan an SEL strategy for their school. You can schedule a free call with a Center for Student Achievement Solutions expert to learn how the consulting process works and identify a consultant who is a good fit for your school.

5 Strategies to Incorporate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Into Your School’s Culture

Before educators can teach students about social and emotional concepts and skills, they must build social and emotional competence (SEC) within themselves. Social and emotional learning should be integrated into your school’s culture as you and other school leaders model compassionate and positive practices.

Here are five practical strategies for developing SEL best practices among your team:

  1. Open each meeting with “permission slips.”

Better Leaders Better Schools recommends starting your next faculty meeting with a “permission slip” exercise to help your team members ground themselves. Each participant gives themselves permission to do something courageous, like “I give myself permission to feel tired and run-down, but still engaged” or “I give myself permission to listen to feedback with an open heart.” This practice encourages your teachers to check in with themselves, become vulnerable with one another, and align their focus on the meeting’s agenda. Teachers can also tweak this exercise to use with students in the classroom.

  1. Set aside a few minutes in each meeting to practice a simple social and emotional learning (SEL) exercise.

Not all SEL strategies require significant time and financial resources to implement. In a 2017 brief, the Wallace Foundation explains the concept of SEL “kernels”: Simple, evidence-based SEL strategies that target specific behaviors or emotional responses. For example, a teacher who wants to promote social competence and decrease interpersonal conflict could have students practice writing praise for one another. Educators can share and practice SEL kernels with one another in team meetings before implementing them in the classroom.

  1. Use visual cues in your school to promote social and emotional competence (SEC).

Building SEC requires regular practice. Educators and students alike may appreciate visual reminders to practice the social and emotional skills they are learning. Tools like the Zones of Regulation poster can help remind people to reflect on how they’re feeling throughout the day and identify appropriate responses to self-regulate.

  1. Examine spaces where students feel unsafe.

A Principal magazine guide from NAESP reveals that students often feel unsafe in school spaces that have less monitoring and oversight. Work with your teachers to consider what skills students need to navigate these “unstructured zones” at school, at home, and in their communities. Then identify opportunities for teachers to encourage students to regularly practice these skills.

  1. Create a long-term SEL professional development plan.

The first four strategies we listed offer a great start for your school’s SEL strategy. However, disjointed tactics do not provide comprehensive, sustainable solutions for your team or student body’s social and emotional needs. School leaders must provide research-informed, professional development to promote a culture committed to SEL. Schedule a free call to start working on a results-driven SEL strategy with the Center for Student Achievement Solutions now.