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Social-Emotional Learning

The Outlook for SEL in 2021: What Experts Say About Implementing with Fidelity

Given the unique and constantly evolving dynamics of K-12 education in our current context, it is more important than ever before for district leaders to think holistically about social-emotional learning. We need to critically consider systems that can advance educational equity for every student.

Systemic SEL provides an approach for districts and schools to implement SEL effectively, equitably, and sustainably. In recognizing that all approaches to social-emotional learning are not equal, systemic SEL relies on district leaders, school leaders, and educators to create equitable learning conditions that actively involve all Pre-K to Grade 12 students in learning and practicing social, emotional, and academic competencies.

As Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, said:

"A lot of the time this work can be very fragmented. The SEL work lives by itself and hasn't been fully integrated with equity work or academics. But SEL is fundamentally equity work. It's also fundamentally academic work. If we haven’t integrated the work from a systems-perspective, we aren’t going to leverage our collective power to move it forward. It’s all interconnected."

On a recent webinar, we partnered with CharacterStrong to host a discussion with Dr. Cook that explored how districts can implement SEL programs with fidelity to develop safe, supportive, and engaging learning environments for young people. 

Here are the key takeaways from our conversation. Learn how district leaders are supporting staff in implementing SEL programs, key considerations for creating equitable and culturally responsive learning environments for students, and the vital role of capturing data for continuous improvement.

Download our SEL Playbook for Superintendents to unlock more advice on leading equity-centered social-emotional learning

1. Start by concretely defining what "SEL work" is and how it is integrated into both equity as well as academics.


Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

When we examine district- and school-wide systems behind social-emotional learning work, it frequently looks like many independent kayaks heading in different directions. Oftentimes, this is because the system has not really defined what SEL is.

The first step is actually define what SEL is. The term can mean so many different things. For some, it refers to curriculum and instruction; for others, it’s all about relationships. We need to concretely define what the work is so that we can all get in the same boat and start heading in a unified direction.

When we think about SEL implementation, one approach is to think about the system as a recipe. What are the active ingredients that we are combining to achieve the types of outcomes that we want? If we rely on a single ingredient (for instance, defining SEL as only curriculum and instruction) we will miss other elements that are necessary to promote students’ social and emotional wellbeing. We know that relationships matter; does that fit into our SEL work? Do we have common language and dedicated practice to bring the ingredients within our system to life?  

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

A common problem that we’ve observed in our work with schools and districts lies in the difference between diffusion, dissemination, and implementation. 

Diffusion is letting it happen; it’s just sending out the password or instruction guide to a curriculum. We need to move past that and get to dissemination and implementation. This only happens when you take a complex system and simplify it.

For staff that are implementing a program, we need to guide them through the first several steps and have clarity on how this instruction fits within the broader SEL system. Too many times, we assume that this is happening when, in reality, it’s being overlooked. If we’re truly going to serve students, we need to guide schools in how to implement; how to go about teaming; how to make it past the first two weeks of implementation. These supports are so critical.

Additionally, we need to create systems before setting goals. How many times have we set goals that never come to fruition? It’s because we don’t have systems in place, and we rush to adoption without addressing readiness. 


2. Create systems that support adults to promote implementation outcomes

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

Buy-in [for SEL] from staff is rarely the issue. Teachers understand that this work is important. It’s usually more a question of: how do we do this with everything else that’s on our plate?

We really need to simplify SEL implementation. It can come across as so complicated. A big paradigm shift for CharacterStrong was that we realized we needed to give the same amount of attention and focus on helping schools to actually implement the curriculum as we do on what’s actually being taught. It’s about guiding schools through the steps so that they see a roadmap and can build momentum, because that’s what ultimately allows us to deliver high quality SEL to students.


Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

Most educators believe in the mission of SEL. They believe that SEL work is effective. They think it’s fundamental. But we see this intention-to-behavior gap where people end up not enacting their good intentions. 

In many systems, how we function and behave can create harmful experiences for students if we’re not deliberating leveraging effective equitable practices that promote students’ social and emotional wellbeing in the context of school.

The science of human behavior change can shed light on how to act strategically from an implementation standpoint. There are two phases of human behavioral change: the motivation phase (e.g., people don’t enact behaviors that they’re not motivated to exhibit) and the enactment phase (e.g., initiating and, ultimately, achieving change through action). 

However, even if an individual is motivated, that does not mean they’re going to engage in the intended behavior. Motivation is insufficient alone to promote behavior change; it’s not enough to just have motivation to implement SEL. We also need help staff enact new behaviors to incorporate into their routines and workflow. 

To do this, we need to create systems to support adults in our buildings to enact and follow through with the behaviors we want. This helps those behaviors become habitual over time and lead to real change. 

The adults are the implementers. The adults are the ones who model SEL skills. The adults are the ones who are interacting with students. They are the ones who have power from an equity standpoint. We have to create systems of support for adults to help them reach shared expectations and commitment, support their ongoing learning, protect their time, allow for collaboration and planning, and allow for routine feedback, acknowledgement, and recognition. We need to mobilize intentional supports that help staff get started with SEL work and persist. Only those that persist can reach fidelity when it comes to implementation, and if we don’t get to fidelity then we minimize our ability to get to the outcomes that we want for students. 


3. SEL work is equity work. Equity work is about voice, input, and data disaggregation.


Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

As we design and adapt programs to work for all those who are intended to benefit from it, we have to be mindful of a few factors.

One is about voice and input. Power comes from being in a position to influence and make decisions that impact the course of programming in a school. It’s very hard to influence things if you’re not in the room where it happens. 

Engaging stakeholders and bringing them together to: (1) really define what the work is, and; (2) start to co-create the work moving forward. This is a huge part of equity-centered SEL and making course corrections to create more equitable learning environments. We have to have voices and input from those who are the recipients of the program. If we don’t, we risk only representing one particular subgroups’ voice. 

The other piece is about data disaggregation. This is where platforms such as Panorama can be very helpful. Equity work is about data disaggregation and exploring for whom and in what contexts things are working or not working. We can identify discrepancies between what we expect and want for all students (in terms of their experience in school and outcomes) versus what is actually happening for some students.

If you look at Panorama’s national dataset for secondary schools, only 40% of students report that they feel a strong sense of belonging. If you start to disaggregate that data, you can tell a more refined and precise story about the inequities that exist within systems that exist related to belonging and connection. Most educators would say that they want 100% of students to feel that they belong in school. But this isn’t the reality. That discrepancy warrants a solution that requires us to mobilize and look at SEL as equity work. We need to ensure that this core human need – to belong – is in-place for every single student in our schools. 

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

In our work with so many different schools across the globe, we’ve learned an important piece of equity work comes in the creation of the materials. If something was created years ago, how relevant is it now? Equity-centered SEL programming needs to be responsive to current needs. 

We need adults and students at the table when we are creating and updating curricula. There has to be ongoing accountability to ensure that a diverse set of voices are represented in the actual creation of material.


4. Leverage data for continuous improvement and to improve fidelity of implementation


Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

The role of continuous improvement and data-driven action in SEL implementation is essential. Gathering information to monitor how things are going during implementation – not just after the fact – enables us to engage in a learning process. We need to figure out what sources of data we need to have available at our fingertips that are actionable and signal back to us how well things are working or not working. This allows us to make course corrections as a learning organization.

When we think about data in the context of implementation, it’s important to have metrics on adoption, fidelity, reach, and sustainment.

Adoption data represents the proportion of staff who begin to implement a program. Oftentimes, after training, we find that not all staff start implementing. Fidelity data shows the degree to which staff deliver the program as intended. Reach considers how many students that need this program are actually receiving it. In Tier 1, for example, reach should be 100%. But when reach is lower, the outcomes we can expect to achieve are lower as a result of this breakdown in implementation. Sustainment is the number of people who keep implementing it, which is the end goal.

This data is particularly helpful when we consider what I call the “leaky implementation pipeline.” If 20 staff members get trained on a new SEL curriculum, maybe only 10 start adopting it post-training. Of those 10 staff members, only half deliver it with fidelity. This means that only 25% of the students who should receive the program as intended are getting it, and only a few of the teachers who deliver it with fidelity are likely to actually sustain it. 

Implementation issues are why many people’s good intentions around SEL do not produce changes in outcomes. That’s why we need to track it, monitor it, and constantly introduce systems of support for adults that promote the implementation outcomes we want. It’s a data monitoring process and system of feedback.


Download our SEL Playbook for Superintendents to access more expert advice on leading equity-centered social-emotional learning.

Topic(s): Social-Emotional Learning

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