Seeding SEL Across Schools: Strategies for Leaders - ASCD
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October 1, 2018

Seeding SEL Across Schools: Strategies for Leaders

Two district superintendents explain why—and how—they've prioritized social-emotional learning in their school systems.

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Social-emotional learning

We lead school districts in different parts of the United States (Meria in Atlanta, Ed in Minneapolis), but share a passion for educating kids, closing opportunity gaps, and infusing social-emotional learning (SEL) into schools. Promoting SEL has been a core part of our professional journeys as superintendents. We believe it's an essential part of any district leader's strategy.

Recently, as each of us moved from leading one major school district to leading another—Meria shifted from the Austin Independent School District in Texas to Atlanta Public Schools while Ed moved from Anchorage, Alaska, to his current post in Minnesota—we've continued to emphasize the importance of social-emotional learning. We've seen firsthand the impact of fostering SEL skills, and we wanted those skills to be a core part of our work in our new districts.

Helping students develop social-emotional skills goes a long way toward ensuring they'll be on the path to success in college, career, and life. Practicing self-management in discussions with peers, making positive decisions, managing emotions when disappointments happen, building healthy relationships, and persisting in the face of setbacks—are all necessary life skills. They also contribute to academic success. The short- and long-term benefits of nurturing SEL have been well-documented (see "SEL: What the Research Says,") and the evidence continues to build.

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Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff gets to know a student at Armatage Montessori School.

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Superintendent Meria Carstarphen enthusiastically greets students at Crawford W. Long Middle School in Atlanta.

A Collaborative Initiative

We've received great support for infusing SEL throughout our districts by participating in the Collaborating Districts Initiative, a multidistrict effort initiated in 2011 and supported by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This initiative has provided leaders in many states with a strong theoretical and practical framework for implementing social-emotional learning.

In our view, the initiative's major components make sense for every district: embedding SEL in strategic plans, budgets, and hiring practices; making time for explicit SEL instruction using vetted curriculum; developing SEL standards; integrating the work into curriculum and instruction in math, English, and other subjects; and investing in a dedicated SEL team that rolls out the effort in a way that's right for each school.

The Collaborative also recommends implementing professional development that strengthens adults' SEL skills and instructional abilities and communicating clearly about SEL infusion to all stakeholders. But perhaps the most important action for strengthening social-emotional learning throughout a district is reinforcing, in everything we do as leaders, that such skills are a high priority. This means modeling the kinds of behaviors we want to see in every interaction—listening carefully, respecting diversity, and solving problems compassionately.

In Atlanta, the school staff closest to the work have expressed how valuable it has been to focus on SEL skills. Burgess Peterson Elementary principal David White, speaking about the daily community circle time his school has employed since 2016, says, "This unilateral focus on SEL schoolwide at the start of every day has enhanced and improved the culture of our learning community." And Mays High School science teacher Timiko Gray believes her SEL-focused advisory class for students has been life-changing: "I used to have hard days and go home feeling defeated and complain. Now I leave that building each day with such gratitude in my heart …. This class has taught me how to be a 'whole' teacher." Atlanta-area high school freshman Amonte McCord says learning SEL skills

… has helped me a lot with friendships. Before I came to Forrest Hills Academy, I hung out with friends not going in the right direction …. I had anger issues, holding stuff in, getting mad, and then letting it all go. Now, I am using the strategies that Dr. Rosenberg [the school's SEL coach] and the teachers have given me. I can self-manage and handle relationships better.

Transferring Our Knowledge to a New Scene

In transferring our SEL-related knowledge and experience from one district to another, we've each met with new challenges that have required new ways of thinking.

Meria's Experience: SEL as a Lever for Change

Because of the unique nature of Atlanta Public Schools, I found the runway for getting SEL in place in that district was much shorter than it had been when I led the Austin school district. Austin had fundamental structures in place—such as solid district systems and basic community trust in the school system—that sadly were missing in Atlanta. The district had experienced a very public test-cheating scandal. The community felt the schools had failed them, staff were demoralized, and student and staff engagement was low.

For our students to have a chance, I had to get SEL in place throughout schools as a key lever for cultural and academic change. My first year, we did some important things. I ensured that the school board understood that promoting SEL was a key strategy that could help lift our culture and climate. I made a board presentation and situated SEL, as part of a broader positive behavior support strategy, as a cornerstone of our five-year strategic plan. I contacted CASEL; they'd been instrumental to SEL success when I served as Austin's superintendent, and I needed support this time, too. CASEL helped us work through details like staffing needs related to bringing in SEL and funding streams. We also began looking at our hiring and onboarding practices, which resulted in a routine where I personally speak to every new employee and stress the importance of SEL in our daily work.

We now have SEL programming in place in all Atlanta schools. With the fundamental structures in place, we are moving into the next phase of implementation—strengthening school climate gains; integrating SEL skills deeper into our curriculum and instruction; and providing adults more SEL training targeted to the needs of their specific school, among other practices.

Ed's Experience: Taking It Districtwide

Before I started in the district, the idea of SEL had been implemented autonomously in Minneapolis, school by school. Educators weren't explicitly using the same language or approaches.

One of my main priorities has been to make the focus on social-emotional learning much more strategic and intentional districtwide, to create a foundation for introducing SEL into all schools in Minneapolis. Schools can tailor the approaches to their own students and needs, but we're creating and communicating a common language, common expectations, and a common focus.

One realization I had early in my tenure in Minneapolis was that I could make SEL a strategic priority only after doing lots of listening. I knew how much I personally valued SEL, but I had to build common understanding and support from the board, students, staff, families, community members, and local funders. (In Anchorage, SEL had been part of the culture for two decades under previous superintendents; although I had to strengthen my predecessors' work, I could move at a quicker pace.) To build awareness across the district, my leadership team began modeling what we wanted to see. All meetings—from the board level to departmental—began with a moment to recharge and focus on the people and task at hand. During each meeting, staffers were encouraged to refocus their energy through an engaging activity; this stopped the tendency to talk at—rather than with—one another. Meetings ended with an optimistic "closer" to give hope as we moved forward. These activities helped build awareness of the program and its priority within our district, even if someone wasn't yet part of an SEL school.

SEL is now one of the four key strategic priorities of our school district. We're implementing SEL in a cohort of 10 elementary, middle, high, and alternative schools. We've done comprehensive needs assessments in these schools and aimed to create an environment where schools and staff can learn from one another what's working and what's not. Leaders in cohort schools are evaluating SEL instruction models like Second Step; embedding SEL competencies and skills into our new literacy curriculum; and asking our communities to help define SEL within their cultures. This will all inform the SEL Toolkit we're creating to pass these strategies on to other schools.

Advice for Doing the Work

Invest Upfront

We've both found that to infuse social-emotional learning districtwide, you must invest on the front end to see results on the back end. The work has to be a part of a district's long-term strategy. Our own experiences affirm research findings from Columbia University 1 showing an 11:1 return on investment in quality SEL programming; for every $1 spent on effective SEL programming, the return on investment is $11 in long-term benefits to students, schools, and communities, such as improved health and reduced crime.

In Atlanta, we're already seeing promising data. Graduation rates have gone from 59 percent in 2014 to 77 percent in 2017. Five-year-trend data on ACT scores show increases in all subjects for Atlanta students, and three-quarters of the district's preK students are now "kindergarten ready" (based on the 2016–2017 STAR preK assessment). In December 2017, the district also officially exited "disproportionality status" for the suspension rates of African-American students with disabilities, as defined by the state of Georgia.

Use Peer-to-Peer Learning

We both benefit greatly from the wisdom of our peers, mainly through the collegial learning community that CASEL has established through the Collaborating Districts Initiative. We have long been members of this professional learning community and as we each met challenges in a new district, we knew we needed to tap this collective expertise. 2

Our conversations with fellow administrators inform and inspire us. Through a mix of site visits, conferences, work groups, webinars, and phone calls, we regularly learn from district leaders from Cleveland to El Paso to Nashville—as well as from our former colleagues in Anchorage and Austin, who've continued participating in this learning community. For example, Minneapolis staff visited a high school in Chicago that has SEL embedded in its climate, not just its curriculum. The visit reinforced these educators' belief that the daily interactions staff have with students and one another are critical to student success.

Seek Sustainability

Build values and expectations central to how you understand social-emotional learning into the fabric of your school culture. Doing so will help you address another challenge: sustainability. SEL is too important to suffer the fate of being one more education fad. Using and acting on needs assessments, listening carefully to staff members, and implementing your program well can help ensure that any leader will have widespread buy-in for their district's approach to SEL.

Superintendents come and go, as our own careers demonstrate. But SEL needs to be a constant, the North Star that helps students master the skills and demonstrate the behaviors that will help them succeed in school—and in life.

Guiding Questions

› Is SEL part of your district or school's strategic plan? Why or why not?› In what ways could you improve communication and understanding around SEL in your school district?› Carstarphen and Graff outline various steps they took to integrate SEL in their new districts. Which ones would be viable starting points for you?› Are you able to document the impact or return on investment for SEL in your school or district?

EL Online Exclusive

For more on creating an SEL-informed learning community, see "What's SEL Got to Do With It?" by Daniela Leamer Mantilla.

End Notes

1 Belfield, C., Bowden, B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. New York: Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

2 Each of us also had CASEL conduct an SEL engagement and readiness analysis in our new districts; this gave us a clearer recognition of our primary priorities and day-to-day implementation challenges.

Meria Joel Carstarphen has nearly 20 years of education and experience in diverse, major metropolitan public school districts. She is currently superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.


Ed Graff is superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.

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