As school and district leaders, how can we engage families in our social-emotional learning (SEL) efforts without making it feel like “just another thing?"
Families play an essential role in fostering their children’s social-emotional learning. Research shows that SEL is more effective when parents and guardians model the same skills and behaviors that students are mastering in the classroom.
We also know that families are busy. Parents and caregivers are often juggling multiple priorities, from their children’s schedules to their own work schedules. SEL may not be at the top of their to-do lists.
Family-school partnerships are a two-way street, but it's up to us to invite parents and caregivers into our work, to highlight the central role of SEL in their children's education, and to equip them with resources and tools to apply SEL at home.
In this post, we’ll share six strategies for working with families to extend social-emotional learning into the home.
What the Research Says: SEL and Parent Engagement
When administrators and educators work together with caregivers as true partners, they create the conditions to promote children's social, emotional, and academic skill development. Research in the fields of family engagement and social-emotional learning shows us that:
Read our comprehensive guide to family engagement for more information on the research-base behind family-school partnerships.
6 Strategies for Engaging Families About SEL
1. Start by understanding family attitudes and perceptions of social-emotional learning.
When establishing family-school partnerships, it's important to meet families where they are. Seek to understand where parents are coming from, what their hopes and dreams are for their children, and the role that they think SEL plays in their children's learning.
Reach out to your school community to learn:
- How familiar are caregivers with the term “social-emotional learning?”
- How might a parent define SEL?
- Are families aware of any ongoing SEL initiatives?
- Are teachers regularly sharing information about the SEL curricula that is being implemented in the classroom?
- How do caregivers think about their child’s social-emotional development in relation to academic achievement?
Family surveys, home visits, open houses, or parent-teacher conferences are great ways to learn about families, gather feedback, and connect with them on a more personal level.
2. Establish avenues for two-way communication with families about SEL.
Consistent, two-way communication with families can help build a common understanding of SEL and ensure that parents feel included (and heard) in decision-making processes around SEL. It can also open up the door for families to provide timely and continuous feedback to schools.
In this video developed with CASEL, learn about the importance of two-way communication with families.
For example, weekly or monthly newsletters (physical or digital) are a great channel for sharing information about SEL programming, specific skills that are being worked on, and practical tips on how to extend student’s social-emotional development into the home. Better yet, you can invite families to submit articles or SEL activities that have worked well for them at home, and that they would like to share with other families.
It’s also important to communicate clearly with families about classroom norms, behavior guidelines, and the specific terms that educators are using with their children (e.g., growth mindset). This can keep parents informed, prevent miscommunications, and establish a shared language for SEL between the classroom and the home.
3. Invite families to participate in school- and district- wide SEL initiatives.
The voices of caregivers and family members need to be heard and truly honored. There is a lot to learn from strategies that families are already using to support positive youth development.
Consider these ideas for elevating family voices and increasing parental involvement in your school district’s SEL goal-setting and planning efforts:
- Reserve seats for caregivers in your school- or district-wide SEL Team, SEL Advisory Council, or SEL Steering Committee. Invite families to contribute to SEL goals, participate in the selection and implementation of SEL programming, and participate in learning opportunities (such as professional development or speaking engagements).
- Provide caregivers with a list of questions to ask during parent-teacher conferences to learn more about ongoing SEL initiatives and to advocate for their child. Teachers and school leaders can also check-in with families by inviting them to generate SEL goals for their own children.
- Ensure that SEL materials are available in multiple languages and mediums (e.g., print, online).
- Provide meaningful opportunities for families to learn about social-emotional learning alongside teachers and staff members. One recommendation from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is to invite caregivers to an SEL Discussion Series, with sessions that explore key topics related to parenting, SEL, and positive youth development. Many districts have also organized “SEL Family Nights” to share information about SEL, discuss shared agreements and norms, and give families the opportunity to participate in a mindfulness or team-building activity.
- Ask families to share rituals, strategies, or social-emotional learning activities that they are using in the home.
4. Create a family center or SEL resource library to share tools and guidance.
Consider providing a physical (or virtual) space where family members can access resources, books, FAQs, and upcoming events related to social-emotional learning. This can help them feel welcome at their child’s school and reinforce that you value their role in their child’s social-emotional growth.
When designing this type of space, be sure to include SEL materials and information that are equal parts inviting and informative, such as:
- Copies of materials being used in the classroom.
- Books about the same SEL skills and competencies that administrators and teachers are focusing on at school.
- A suggestion box that allows family members to ask questions or convey interest in participating in events.
Sharing quick tips and best practices with families can also go a long way. See below for pieces of guidance you could include in newsletters, parent-teacher conferences, and other communication channels.
Quick SEL Tips to Share with Families
5. If you gather student SEL data, consider sharing the data with families.
Today, many school districts (see: Washoe County School District and DC Public Schools) are measuring social-emotional learning to learn about students' relationships with teachers, their sense of belonging, safety at school, and growth on key SEL competencies.
Proactively sharing this SEL data with caregivers can be an effective way to engage families in ongoing SEL efforts. Not only can it build family buy-in for measuring SEL, but it can also anchor conversations about SEL in what students are telling us.
When reviewing student-level SEL reports with families, we recommend focusing on two trends:
- Area of strength: What social and emotional strengths does this student exemplify? How does the data further confirm this? Is this a strength that the student always shows? How can the student harness this strength to further help them grow?
- Area of growth: What social and emotional competencies should this student focus on? How does the data further confirm this? If the student masters this social and emotional skill, what will that mean for their future?
6. Prioritize learning opportunities for staff that focus on partnering with families.
Professional development on parental engagement can build the capacity of school staff to cultivate deeper relationships with caregivers—and, in turn, form better partnerships with families around SEL. Specialized training can also help district and school teams walk away with actionable "do-now" strategies for partnering with families to promote social-emotional learning.
In addition to offering expert-led workshops, consider creating school-based networking events for teachers and school staff. For example, a monthly “SEL lunch” meeting could bring teachers together to ask questions, share challenges, and talk about successful strategies for engaging family members in SEL work.
Interested in Learning More About Social-Emotional Learning at Home?
This guide is just a starting point. Explore additional resources from Panorama on SEL and parental engagement:
- SEL at Home: Top Resources to Share with Families
- Family Engagement in Schools: A Comprehensive Guide
- Panorama's Family-School Relationships Survey
- Parents and Educators as Co-Creators: 5 Family Engagement Strategies From District Leaders
- Webinar Recording: Supporting Family Engagement Now and For Back-to-School
- Whitepaper: Reducing Barriers to Family Engagement
There are many other organizations and researchers that specialize in family engagement and SEL. Here are some other articles and resources worth bookmarking:
- SEL 101 for Parents (via CASEL)
- CSEFEL: Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (via Vanderbilt.edu)
- Ideas and Tools for Working with Parents and Families (via CASEL)
- 10 Ways Parents Can Bring Social-Emotional Learning Home (via EdSurge)
- Extending Social-Emotional Learning into the Home (via GettingSmart)