The emphasis on social-emotional learning has become more pronounced over the past few years. Increased pressures to perform and stand out from the crowd, along with the technological tools leading to more social comparison, have led to increased mental health issues in students. With new scientific findings on the impact of stress on learning and how social-emotional learning can impact achievement, schools and districts are searching for ways to implement SEL in an already full day.

Research shows that attention to SEL skills improves student attitudes about self, others, and school; it has been shown to improve overall classroom behavior, and it lessens overall stress for students. SEL benefits adults in schools also. Teachers with more significant social-emotional skills and awareness are more able to work with more challenging students and avoid burnout. Beyond educators, higher social-emotional skills in young adults associate with positive outcomes like education and employment while showing negative associations with criminal activity, and drug use.

The case for SEL is clear, and most principals and other school leaders see the need and benefit of SEL. However, in a recent survey done by CASEL and the Aspen Institute, implementation of SEL varies significantly, with only 35% of principals surveyed having a systemic plan for teaching SEL, but only 23% perceive they are getting enough support to fully implement their plans. 

So if most principals see the need, yet few have a well-defined plan to include SEL in their schools, where is the disconnect? `At the Leading Learners Institute, we believe that there has been a lack of focus on preparing leaders to do this type of work, and because it is an essential and different type of reform, more emphasis on developing leading SEL is imperative. 

What might this look like, and how do we better help principals lead for SEL?

What Leaders Need  

Educators have always acknowledged the importance of SEL. The emphasis in schools, for the most part though, has always been in the cognitive area. Adding a new focus for learning in schools will create what is known as a wicked problem which can be defined as having

  • multiple subproblems within the larger problem [e.g. improving both student and adult SEL skills]
  • different solutions depending on who you talk to [e.g. separate program versus in class]
  • no stopping rule e.g. the problem never ends [e.g. student needs change by cohort and generation]
  • no right or wrong answer but based more on values and judgments [ e.g.which set of SEL competencies to use?]
  • different solutions for different contexts meaning that what works in one place is not easily duplicated in another [e.g. high poverty schools versus low poverty schools]

Unlike a typical reform (if those ever existed) in which leaders can employ a standard way of thinking, leading SEL will require a new and different mindset from leaders. 

 To help principals better lead for social-emotional learning, we need a different set of competencies derived from modern leadership frameworks and connect them to SEL through SEL for adults. Based on more personalized, student-centered, and equity-focused schools, the competencies like ones from the Jobs for the Future can help leaders and supporting organizations understand what it will take to lead for SEL.

  • Vision, values, and culture for SEL: This is the foundational competency in leading for SEL. In this domain, principals help to establish a learning culture in which SEL is both a means and end of the learning process. Principals know how to set the vision for SEL and embed SEL as a significant part of their school’s culture. 
  • Understanding the landscape of SEL: In this domain, principals understand relevant content knowledge about SEL, and how SEL impacts cognitive learning. Principals use their growing knowledge base to deepen the learning of others and can connect others to essential resources for SEL. 
  • Personal Skills, Mindsets, and Values for SEL: In this domain, principals understand their social-emotional skills and how to help others develop theirs. Principals model the development of their SEL skills and use responsive monitoring of themselves and the environment to keep growing. 
  • Capacity building for SEL innovation and continuous improvement: In this domain, principals know how to create an effective leadership team for SEL and ways to develop the capacity of their staff for SEL. Principals also know how to use cycles of inquiry to deepen their school’s capacity for SEL. 
  • Shared responsibility and structures for innovation and continuous improvement of SEL: In this domain, principals know how to create structures and processes to help spread SEL innovation in their skills and create a sense of collective accountability for SEL. Principals also advocate strongly for equity and equitable distribution of resources for all students.

Are You Ready?

In the busy landscape of today’s schools, the importance of social-emotional learning has become an essential consideration for all leaders. With some research pointing out that SEL can impact the achievement as much as 11%tile points, SEL should be on every principal’s radar. To implement it thoroughly, however, will take much more than buying a program or doing a one-shot training. School leaders will need to embrace their roll in leading SEL and understand what it will take to make SEL a north star for their school’s culture. We hope to help start the discussion, and in the following blogs will detail each of these competencies more in-depth.

Until next time.