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A Comprehensive Guide to Adult SEL

Nick Woolf
Nick Woolf
A Comprehensive Guide to Adult SEL



More and more, district leaders are focusing on promoting and assessing students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies.

Rigorous research shows that SEL leads to greater academic achievement, better mental health, and career success. Your district community—from administrators, to parents, to teachers—is likely bought into the idea that SEL can help children deal with the stressors and challenges in school and life.

But in order to cultivate students’ social-emotional skills, the adults in your building also need to feel supported and valued. Promoting student SEL starts with adults. In other words: Is your district attending to the social-emotional development and self-care of educators and staff?

This guide will equip you with the strategies and tools you need to strengthen adult SEL and teacher wellness. By the end, you’ll understand different approaches to adult SEL as well as how to measure and implement it in your district.

Download: Adult SEL Toolkit for 2023-24 [Free Worksheets, Templates, and Resources]

1. What Is Adult SEL?

2. How to Strengthen Adult SEL

3. Effective Adult SEL Strategies

4. How to Measure Adult SEL

5. Adult SEL Resources


What Is Adult SEL?

   Adult SEL is the process of helping educators build their expertise and skills to lead social and emotional learning initiatives. It also involves cultivating adults’ own social and emotional competencies. 

There are many streams of thought on what constitutes adult SEL. Some examples include: 

  • The ability to positively model prosocial behaviors, label emotions, and demonstrate empathy, positive relationships, social awareness, and self-awareness to students.
  • Adult self-care practices to help educators cope with stress and manage their emotions.
  • Environmental supports and leadership investment to allow educators to cultivate and practice their own SEL skills while feeling supported, empowered, and valued.


Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important for Adults?

Just as research points to the importance of student SEL, studies show that focusing on the social-emotional development of adults can lead to positive outcomes for students. 

In addition, the same skills that can help students succeed in school and life can benefit teachers and school leaders who incorporate SEL practices into their own lives. 

Here are some findings that illustrate the importance of adult SEL.

Lastly, educators in school districts are asking for more support understanding SEL and developing these skills for themselves. Although 87 percent of educators are aware of the importance of SEL, less than half of practicing teachers report being provided with resources, training, or professional development in adult SEL. 

Now that you understand why social and emotional learning is important for adults, how can your central office work to strengthen adult SEL? Keep reading to find out.


How to Strengthen Adult SEL

As a district or school administrator, there are many strategies you can use to effectively lead adult SEL. From implementing SEL programs to creating professional development plans, here are some ideas to consider.   

Provide educators and staff with ongoing professional development  

High-quality professional development helps educators and staff strengthen their own SEL knowledge and hone strategies for promoting school-wide SEL. The most effective programs allow school staff to reflect on their own SEL competencies while learning how to deepen relationships with their students. 

A few pointers to keep in mind when planning SEL programs for adults:

  • Create checkpoints throughout the year so that adults can reflect on their progress, build on their learning, and ask for support on SEL initiatives.
  • Encourage school leaders to model an experimental mindset when it comes to SEL. This reinforces that it’s okay for educators to learn through failure, creating a sense of psychological safety.
  • Experiment with different ways to deliver adult learning on SEL. Your educators may respond better to some methods over others. A few examples include: in-person workshops, virtual webinars, self-guided online courses, consultations, and coaching support. 
  • If finding time for professional learning experiences is a challenge, try integrating SEL into existing PD programs in core content areas (such as mathematics).
  • Cast a wide net; involve educators across the district in the PD design and delivery process. Principals, curriculum and instruction coordinators, human resources staff, counselors, and social workers can bring a lot of value to the planning process and can help coordinate trainings.
  • Consider partnering with external consultants and/or SEL curriculum providers to administer professional learning content for specific groups of staff (e.g., principals, teachers, and counselors).


Continuously build central office expertise on SEL 

As you roll out professional development for teachers and staff, don’t forget about your central office. It’s important that administrators view SEL not as a one-off initiative, but as a key part of your district’s work. 

Involving central office staff – especially new hires – in SEL-specific professional learning that links research with practice can help support them in: (1) understanding their role in embedding SEL into their daily work, and; (2) articulating the importance and value of SEL. 

Create initiatives such as peer mentorship programs – that provide safe spaces for educators to practice modeling SEL skills 

Pairing staff with a ‘trusted partner’ gives them the opportunity to work on their own SEL skills outside of the classroom, get feedback, and share common struggles and successes. This strategy can help adults improve their own social, cultural and emotional competence and build trust within your school community. Research also indicates that peer mentorship programs can increase employee retention.

Use staff meetings or PLCs to create shared agreements around adult SEL while also prioritizing relationship building. 

Develop a set of norms or guidelines to help staff practice active listening, discourse, and debate in staff meetings or professional learning communities (PLCs). These shared norms will help encourage open communication around issues related to SEL. 

In addition, look for ways to increase group belonging and participation in these meetings. When educators feel supported and valued, they may be more likely to open up and share their struggles. Or, they may be more likely to share a personal strategy for emotion regulation that could help out a colleague!

One great activity for building relationships in groups is “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” It only takes a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting and can serve as an ice-breaker. Here’s how it works:

  • Participants reflect on a “Rose” (something positive in their lives), a “Bud” (something they are looking forward to), and a “Thorn” (something they feel they need support or help with)
  • To promote grit, participants can also think about how to turn “Thorns” into “Buds”
  • Have participants share their reflections in pairs, small groups, or to the whole group

Rose Bud Thorn


Introduce self-care and wellness programs for your staff. 

Stress management and self-care strategies aren’t just for students. Adults can also benefit from learning how to cope with stress. Today, many districts are introducing professional development courses focused on adult self care. Districts are also running innovative pilots focused on teacher wellness—from reimbursing gym memberships, to creating meditation rooms, to offering morning fitness classes such as yoga or barre in the school gym. 

Looking for an easy way to introduce adults in your district to the practice of mindfulness? Try kicking off your meetings with three minutes of facilitated meditation. This Mindfulness Toolkit from Transforming Education includes a facilitator’s guide and script for running this exercise. 

Mindfulness Toolkit


Effective Adult SEL Strategies

So far we’ve talked about programs and professional development that you can implement to approach adult SEL at the system level.

Now, let’s take a look at some SEL tactics and strategies that you – as a district leader, school leader, educator, or staff member – can use on a daily basis.       

1. Regularly reflect on guiding questions to deepen your understanding of how your own SEL can benefit students. 

These question prompts can help you weave SEL into your instructional practices and reflect on your interactions with students.

  • What beliefs do I have about my students that may be impacting my instruction or lesson design? How do these beliefs help or hinder my students and myself? 
  • How will I strengthen my relationship skills with my students, or their relationships with one another, through this lesson? What specific actions can I take? 
  • How will I practice self-management and be transparent about how I’m practicing it during this lesson?
  • How can I model the traits and mindsets of my district's Portrait of a Graduate

2. Observe and name your own emotions in front of students.

By modeling emotion labeling, you'll show students how to deal with frustration, stress, or uncertainty in a healthy manner. In addition, the simple act of recognizing and naming an emotion can reduce negative feelings.

3. Engage fellow educators as resources in problem solving.

Being an educator requires quick decision making around challenges that usually don't have clear-cut solutions. Unfortunately, many silos exist within schools and districts that prevent communication among educators. It's important to take an active role in breaking down these barriers. Maybe that means getting together more often with your colleagues to share lessons learned, or maybe it means creating space to collaborate on new SEL lesson plans.

4. Practice self-care.

Self-care is especially important for adults in caregiving positions. Practicing self-compassion looks different for every educator depending on their schedule and specific needs, but some ideas include:

  • Plan at least 10 minutes per day to take a break and decompress.
  • Consider practicing mindfulness using meditation recordings or a free mobile phone app.
  • Bring a self-care “emergency pack” to school with different items (such as essential oils, a stress ball, or pictures of happy places) that can help you de-stress.
  • Keep a journal and write in it to work through difficult days when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Find a way to connect with a loved one at least once a day. This can be as simple as texting a significant other, calling a friend, or having dinner with a family member.


How to Measure Adult SEL

  1. Select research-backed adult SEL survey measures.
  2. Decide on adult SEL indicators to measure.
  3. Communicate and build buy-in.
  4. Administer the survey.
  5. Explore and analyze the results.

Now that we've covered strategies for improving adult SEL, let's take a look at how to measure if your district's efforts are working. SEL data from adults is useful for understanding where teachers and staff need more support. 

In the same way you can measure students’ SEL skills by asking students to take a short assessment, adults can provide anonymous feedback to the district through a survey. You should look to collect data that highlights: (1) teacher and staff well-being at work; (2) teacher and staff capacity to teach and model SEL and (3) the working environment and professional learning opportunities around SEL. The data can inform district policies and resource allocation, improve school climate, and shape professional development.

Here's a step-by-step rundown of how to measure adult SEL.

1. Select research-backed adult SEL survey measures. 

When researching instruments, identify a research-backed survey that aligns with your district’s goal(s) for measuring adult SEL. Are you hoping to understand teacher and staff readiness to implement SEL? Teacher and staff well-being at school? Teacher and staff perceptions of school climate? Get clear on what you’re looking to get out of the assessment. 

Alternatively, you may choose to develop an instrument in house. Use this survey design checklist to ensure that your instrument is set up to gather valid, reliable feedback from staff. 

If you also plan to measure student SEL, select a survey instrument that covers both student and adult SEL. This can streamline your efforts. For example, the Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Survey, developed by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, includes student SEL measures in addition to 15 teacher and staff measures around professional well-being and capacity to support student SEL. 

2. Decide which adult SEL indicators you want to measure.

After you’ve created or selected an instrument, chances are you’ll need to narrow down the topics. The survey should take 10 to 15 minutes (or less) for teachers and staff to complete, so be sure to choose only the topics that align with your district's goals.   

Here are some examples of topics we recommend measuring:

   Topic Description
   Well-Being Faculty and staff perceptions of their own professional well-being
   Belonging How much faculty and staff feel that they are valued members of the school community
   Teacher Self-Reflection Perceptions of professional strengths and areas for growth related to social-emotional learning
   Professional Learning About SEL Perceptions of the amount and quality of professional growth and learning opportunities available to faculty
related to social-emotional learning
   School Climate Perceptions of the overall social and learning climate of the school

Download Panorama's Adult SEL measures (includes all adult SEL topics and questions) 

3. Communicate and build buy-in.

Share the context behind why you are administering the survey. In order to get high-quality feedback from teachers and staff, they need to believe in the process. 

Use these strategies to increase understanding and buy-in for your adult SEL assessment.

  • Be transparent about the purpose. Explain what the data will help your school or district learn, and promise to share the results once the survey is complete. For example, you could say, “Many of you have asked about professional learning opportunities for SEL. Collecting your feedback will help us understand areas of focus for PD.”
  • Acknowledge that district leadership values all teacher and staff opinions. Districts need to know what is and isn’t going well directly from the population they are serving: teachers and staff. An anonymous survey ensures that all voices are heard, not just the loudest voices at faculty meetings.
  • Show how the benefits outweigh the costs. For instance, you might say: “It’ll take just a couple of minutes to fill out this survey, and we’ll learn significantly more about how to create better conditions for your social and emotional wellbeing at school. This will help inform the professional learning and resources we provide around SEL.”
  • Invoke a team norm. Emphasize that everyone is in this together and responsible for doing his or her part for the team. You can also reinforce that “nearly everyone provided feedback” to add positive social pressure to participate.

4. Administer the survey.

Make sure you administer the survey to a captive audience! Most educators feel that time is their most valuable resource. Instead of asking teachers and staff to take the survey on their own time, consider carving out time during an existing faculty meeting. This will reinforce the importance of the survey, increase your response rate, and make the most of educators' time.

5. Explore and analyze the results.

Once the survey has closed, it’s time to dig into the results. As a district leadership team, start by simply noticing the data without leaping to conclusions or thinking about next steps. This will help you identify areas of focus and understand your results more deeply.

If you use Panorama's SEL reporting platform, you can easily break down your results by topic, by question, and by demographics. You can also compare your results to other districts using national benchmarks.

Adult SEL Assessment Results

Looking at the data, ask yourself these questions: What topics have the highest and lowest scores? How do the results differ by demographics? How are the answers distributed? Are more respondents choosing particular answer choices?

Use the survey results to:

  • Identify areas for celebration and improvement related to adult SEL
  • Prioritize focus areas for the upcoming academic year
  • Set specific, data-driven goals

Lastly, don’t forget to share the results with stakeholders who took the survey. You could release the full results or just highlight a subset of findings. In addition, make a plan to re-administer the survey so you can measure if your action plans and programs are driving results.


Adult SEL Resources

This guide is just a starting point for adult SEL. But there’s much more to learn.

Here are some resources to explore next:

You can also learn a lot about adult SEL from organizations and researchers that specialize in this area. Here are some articles and resources worth exploring:

Next Steps 

Without focusing adult SEL, it’s unlikely that your social and emotional learning initiatives will take flight. In order to impact students' social-emotional development, educators need to deeply understand SEL and be aware of their own strengths and areas for growth.   

As a district leadership team, continuously take stock of your community's needs surrounding adult SEL. By establishing systems and supports for adults, you can build a strong foundation for SEL that leads to positive student outcomes.

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