Social-Emotional Learning

How to Make the Most of SEL Tools

Social-emotional learning (SEL) remains a top priority in K–12 education. One recent survey found that teachers believe in the value of SEL for academic success and well-being, and see it as a tool that’s helpful for the transition back to in-person instruction.

Related: SEL Gaining Substantial Traction in K-12 (T.H.E. Journal)

SEL is complex, however — and educators already have a lot on their plates. To launch and supplement social-emotional learning initiatives, districts are investing in SEL tools, curriculum and similar resources — with adoption and spending rising rapidly since the beginning of the pandemic.

There are several considerations for district leaders as they work to make the most of current funding opportunities to maximize the impact of SEL tools.

Prioritize SEL for educators

The evidence behind SEL is clear — but its impact is dependent on the support educators receive as they are teaching and monitoring SEL. Every time we talk about the importance of student SEL and well-being, there’s an equally important conversation about educators.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing stressors and introduced new traumas, and educators who are socially and emotionally competent are better equipped to navigate these challenges. They are also set up to help their students reap the benefits of SEL.

When introducing a SEL tool, curriculum or initiative, district and school leaders should work alongside teachers — ensuring their voices are heard and their needs will be appropriately met. Just as much as everyone agrees that SEL support is essential for students, we also agree that it’s equally as essential that we do not add unnecessary stressors to educators. New efforts and tools should be supportive and solve problems. Senior research scientist Tricia Maas provides additional guidance in an article from EdSurge:

“Above all else, education leaders need to establish high-trust environments in their schools. Such environments can be developed through nurturing a shared vision, effective communication, distributed leadership practices and choosing professional development approaches that promote relationship-building. Leaders may begin this work by implementing an SEL program for adults that helps staff members build trust, manage stress and attend to equity.”

Conduct universal screening for SEB and academics

Many schools already conduct universal screening to identify students who are “at risk” of not meeting standards in core subjects, like reading or math. Increasingly, schools are using similar approaches to evaluate social-emotional behavior (SEB).

Conducting screening is just the first step. After data are available, they need to be acted upon. Analyzing SEB and academic screening data together helps reveal a plethora of insights — including the efficacy of Tier 1 efforts, resource allocation needs and identification of students in need of SEB or academic intervention to succeed.

Use visualizations to track and communicate progress

When connected, SEB and academic data provide a more informed view of student, school and system needs.

But to transform data into specific insights and action steps, districts can monitor and share these data visually (e.g., graph). Seeing certain datasets — like attendance, SEB, school climate and grades — next to one another can reveal additional insights.

This approach is also useful for communicating updates to external stakeholders, including students’ families.

What to know about SEL funding opportunities

Because of its inextricable connection to student success and potential to promote equity and student well-being, SEL is eligible for a variety of grant and funding opportunities, including and especially pandemic relief.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Any activity authorized under major federal laws including ESEA and IDEA is an allowable use of ESSER funds.

  • American Rescue Plan (ARP) guidance specifically directs state and local education agencies to invest in “activities and interventions that respond to students’ academic, social and emotional needs”.

  • Because it is finite, pandemic relief is ideal for investments that are sustainable and provide lasting impact — and SEL tools, curriculum and training are a good place to start.

  • If using ESSER for hiring staff, consider the potential impact of long-term funding cliffs (and plan investments accordingly).

  • List: 30+ Funding Resources to Implement SEL (Classroom Champions via Medium)

In summary…

We won’t know the full impact of the pandemic on student learning for some time — but the need for effective tools to support SEB is clearly there.

To get the most out of SEB tools, districts should focus on using data to generate insights, inform action and drive continuous improvement. By doing so, they’ll reach an ideal point of understanding regarding system and student SEL needs — and make a lasting impact on both student and educator success.

About the Authors

Dr. Amy Jackson is Vice President, Applied Research & Strategy at Illuminate Education.

Dr. Sarah Brown is Executive Director of Professional Learning at Illuminate Education.