SEL: 3 Evidence-Based Instructional Strategies for School Leaders

by | May 31, 2022


We have struggled with principal and teacher retention, violence and mental health challenges, grief and loss, and other ongoing life events this school year. One thing we cannot argue is that there is a great need for support in all of these areas. The question is will we be courageous enough to do what is not only right but needed to move the agenda in education forward to heal and build a stronger education community.

What Does the Research Say?

The research highly recommends a systemic approach to addressing learning loss, social-emotional learning, and mental health concerns.  As school leaders begin to plan for the upcoming school year it’s important to consider the social-emotional needs of your students to ensure that your school’s academic, behavioral, and social-emotional curriculum and instruction, and assessments are designed to address the needs of all students.

School leaders must analyze assessment data to identify their student’s social-emotional and mental healthcare needs.  This information should be shared with all stakeholders to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that they have an opportunity to provide input in the decision-making process.

Collaborative Planning Process

We know first-hand that districts that invite stakeholders into the collaborative planning process to develop SEL definitions and vision statements are able to focus on the bottom line; student achievement, behavioral interventions, mental healthcare, and social-emotional learning. They are not afraid to ask clarifying and probing questions such as:

  1. What do we want all students to know and be able to do within our school system and beyond?
  2. What are our priority goals, student performance targets, and vision for student success?
  3. What do we want our culture and climate to look like and feel like for staff, students, and community stakeholders?
  4. How does SEL help us to accelerate student achievement?
  5. What will our schools and classrooms look like after achieving our SEL vision for student success?

These are some of the questions that districts, schools, and community stakeholders are interested in learning more about to create a strong culture and climate for SEL.  We know for sure that the pandemic has impacted the lives of all, but what we don’t know is to what extent. As we visit districts and schools across the country, school leaders, educators, students, and parents are all concerned about the state of education.

3 SEL Instructional Strategies that Work

We would like to share 3 tips that will support school leaders with planning for instruction, social-emotional learning, and implementation for the upcoming school year:

  1. Explicit Instruction in SEL Skills, Behaviors, and Attitudes

At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, we like to see ourselves as thought partners to help districts and schools define their “Why”. SEL is an important next step to accelerate student achievement as they move past the pandemic crisis.

When the school community has a shared understanding and language about their “Why,” they can define the core skills and abilities that allow individuals to establish positive relationships with others, prioritize goals, manage emotions, and resolve conflict.

SEL requires an all-hands-on-deck type of approach which means that it is not just about selecting the right curriculum and instructional strategies; we must also include positive behavioral intervention and support structures and leverage family and community partnerships to strengthen and promote a strong SEL culture.

  1. Curriculum and Instruction

Our guide on the side approach to help districts and schools create an inclusive SEL culture includes support with identifying evidence-based programs or explicit instruction strategies to teach specific SEL skills, behaviors, and attitudes. There is no one size fits all approach to SEL implementation because each district and school is different.

We ensure that school leaders understand how to create a school-wide approach to develop their staff, students, and home-to-school connection SEL core competencies.  There are a variety of approaches that can be implemented system-wide, and we would like to highlight a few to start the conversation with your leadership team:

  • Explicit SEL Instructional Strategies and Skill Development: Model and demonstrate the strategy and provide students with ongoing opportunities to practice skills to mastery. We help teachers implement a gradual release of responsibility approach that includes, “I do, We do, We do, and then You do,” ensuring that students are set up for success.

The students who have been identified as at-risk should be provided with one-to-one or small group coaching support to ensure they can engage in positive interactions to master newly learned strategies and skills.

  • Student-Centered Project-Based Learning Opportunities: Teachers should be supportive of pivoting from passive practices like “teaching to the test,” traditional lectures, and learn student-centered instruction to ensure that students are actively engaged in the learning process.

SEL should be the undercurrent of your school’s curriculum and instruction. When we connect the dots between PBL and SEL through real-world tasks, which include social challenges that our students will experience, they will have an opportunity to apply competencies associated with social-emotional learning.

Let’s look at the PBL process in action through the lens of SEL:

o   Planning and Goal Setting:  Students have the opportunity to incorporate social awareness and responsible decision-making through the task development process.

o   Collaborative Work Groups: Self-management and positive relationship-building skills are necessary for students to work together and build trust, effective communication skills, respect, and teamwork.

o   Project Completion: Students will better understand social awareness through repeated interactions to develop their active listening skills, effective communication, and reflection to explore various solutions with the possibility of opposing perspectives that are part of responsible decision-making based on the collective, not individual, needs of the community.

When we provide students with real-life experiences in a safe and orderly environment, they are able to develop the soft skills they will need to enter the world beyond school, equipped to deal with challenges, diverse people, and interactions.

  1. Professional Development Opportunities and SEL Implementation Guidance

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions’ approach to job-embedded professional development is designed to be flexible, adaptable, and customized to ensure that we identify and focus on the priority goals that will accelerate student achievement. School leaders, teachers, students, and parents’ competencies are similar, but the approach and application must be differentiated to build capacity and sustainability.

We have identified several job-embedded professional development topics that districts and schools can use to create or continue to build a strong foundation for SEL:

  • Overview: What is SEL? Why is SEL important?
  • Benefits of SEL: How do school leaders, teachers, students, and parents benefit?
  • SEL Competencies: What SEL competencies do school leaders and teachers need in order to manage stress and support the social-emotional needs of students to create inclusive, safe, and orderly classroom environments?
  • Curriculum: Identify evidence-based SEL programs: Select an evidence-based SEL program or identify the core competencies and strategies based on your school community’s needs.

CASEL strongly recommends that districts use evidence-based SEL programs because of the scientific program development process, evaluation, and evidence that these programs have worked in districts and schools.

  • Instruction: What High-Leverage Strategies Should We Implement to Accelerate Student Achievement? CASEL has created an SEL 3 Signature Practices Playbook A Tool That Supports Systemic SEL resource that is designed to support the implementation of SEL practices in classrooms and schools.
  • Assessment: How Do We Measure and Monitor Progress?

The research is clear; ongoing job-embedded professional development and coaching support is critical to the success of any program or curricula implementation. Viewing SEL as a process, not (just) a program has the most promise for delivering student SEL growth.