Social-emotional learning (SEL) is widely recognized as a foundational component of K-12 education.
After first coining the term twenty-six years ago, the rapid rise of interest in (and varied implementation of) social-emotional learning over the past several years led the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) – widely considered to be the authoritative source for SEL research, practice, and policy guidance – to release an update to their definition of social and emotional learning.
The new definition (which focuses on an expanded vision for SEL that emphasizes its ability to advance educational equity and excellence) has sparked a focus on the importance of systemic SEL, or an approach to create equitable learning conditions that actively involve all Pre-K to Grade 12 students in learning and practicing social, emotional, and academic competencies.
The majority of educators now believe that fostering students’ social and emotional development is critical for success in school and beyond. Decades of research indicates that promoting student (and adult) social and emotional learning results in improved academic outcomes and classroom behaviors, along with a slew of ancillary benefits – from increasing one’s ability to set positive goals to building stress-management skills to improving economic mobility.
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 and critically consider systems that can advance (or suppress) educational equity and excellence for every student.
This guide will equip you with a comprehensive understanding of what systemic social-emotional learning is and the conditions needed to foster systemic SEL. By the end, you’ll walk away with tools to lead, measure, and implement SEL systemically, effectively, equitably, and sustainably in your district.
What is Systemic SEL?
Systemic SEL is an approach to create equitable learning conditions that actively involve all Pre-K to Grade 12 students in learning and practicing social, emotional, and academic competencies that are important for success at school and in life.
In recognizing that all approaches to social-emotional learning are not equal, systemic SEL relies on district leaders and legislators to align behind policy, programs, and resources that help support a coordinated learning process. Systemic SEL is one component of an integrated districtwide approach that is focused on developing safe, supportive, and engaging learning environments for young people.
The equitable learning conditions that a systemic approach to SEL seeks to create require aligned programs and policies that:
- Build the personal and professional capacities of adults to model and implement social-emotional learning
- Implement culturally responsive learning programs and evidence-based SEL programs practices to teach and model SEL core competencies
- Leverage data-driven insights to continuously evaluate and improve programs and practices
- Create an inclusive culture that fosters caring relationships and prioritizes student agency
- Support coordinated family-school-community partnerships to enhance the development of the whole child
Indicators of successful systemic SEL range from supportive school and classroom climates to supportive discipline policies and practices to the mixture of both explicit SEL instruction as well as SEL integrated within academic instruction.
When districts implement systemic SEL, a wide range of positive student outcomes are expected:
- Improved attitudes about one’s self and others
- Increased academic achievement
- Reduced emotional distress
- Enhanced perception of classroom and school climate
- Increased high school graduation rates
- Expanded capacity for healthy relationships
- Increased levels of college/career readiness
- Increased levels of civic engagement
|Questions to Consider
CASEL's Systemic SEL Framework
CASEL’s framework for systemic SEL – which is based on over 25 years of research and field testing carried out in partnership with school, districts, and states – encapsulates the foundational practices to establish and implement SEL, the settings directly involved in promoting systemic SEL throughout a school district, and the outcomes that can be achieved through systemic SEL.
As outlined by this framework, the process by which systemic SEL develops at the district-level begins with four coordinated “implementation focus areas” (aligned to CASEL’s Districtwide SEL Framework) that include a set of recommendations for creating an environment that embeds SEL into every part of students’ educational experience and promotes equitable outcomes for every learner.
- Implementation Focus Area 1: Build a Strong Foundation. Build foundational support by establishing an SEL team, fostering commitment to SEL, developing a shared vision, and creating a districtwide communications strategy.
- Implementation Focus Area 2: Strengthen Adult SEL. Support all staff in cultivating their own social and emotional competence, building trusting relationships, improving their overall well-being, and collaborating to promote and model SEL for students.
- Implementation Focus Area 3: Promote SEL for Students. Create coordinated opportunities for students to practice SEL district- and school- wide, in the classroom, and through family and community partnerships.
- Implementation Focus Area 4: Practice Continuous Improvement. Identify opportunities for improvement and examine data to inform decisions and drive improvements.
The “what and where” of systemic SEL includes all “key settings” in which students’ social and emotional competencies have the potential to be developed, including classrooms, schools, homes, and in the broader community. Through culturally responsive, respectful, and trusting relationships between staff, caregivers, students and community members, these settings help to nurture and sustain students’ (and educators') social and emotional competencies. It is particularly important to collaborate with family members in the planning and implementation process of districtwide systemic SEL efforts.
A key element of systemic SEL is the interconnectedness of these settings. The approach underscores a coordinated approach across school, family, and community settings to implement and improve SEL programs and practices. Actions taken in one environment affect the others.
Furthermore, for social-emotional learning efforts to be truly systemic, these key settings must honor student voice and agency while giving opportunities for every learner to engage in rigorous educational experiences.
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Key Considerations for Systemic SEL
When reflecting on ways to create equitable learning conditions that actively involve all Pre-K to Grade 12 students in learning and practicing social-emotional learning competencies, it is paramount for district leaders and school leaders to consider the following principles:
- Systemic SEL should prepare every student for success in school and beyond (e.g., in college, careers, and life) through high-quality instruction and evidence-based programming that focuses on building students' capacity for self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills
- Systemic SEL can foster active citizenship through caring and positive relationships between adults and children that center on perspective-taking, demonstrating concern for others, and how to apply SEL skills in multicultural societies
- The implementation of SEL in schools should follow a developmental, age-appropriate and sequential approach that prepares students to continually develop SEL competencies throughout their lives and supports educators with high-quality professional learning opportunities to build their own SEL competencies
- Systemic SEL programming needs to be intentionally designed to allow for equitable, culturally responsive opportunities for all students (especially those from diverse backgrounds) to learn and thrive
- Systemic SEL efforts should be regularly assessed at district and school levels and continuously improved through data-driven reflection and action
- School districts and states can collaborate to integrate and align systems that ensure evidence-based practices and policies are both supported equitably as well as regularly evaluated in a process of continuous improvement
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Additional Systemic SEL Resources
This guide is just a starting point for exploring the topic of systemic SEL. Here are some resources to explore next:
- Benefits of SEL
- CASEL's Collaborating District's Initiative (CDI)
- CASEL's District Resource Center (https://drc.casel.org)
- CASEL's Guide to Schoolwide SEL Implementation
- Interview with CASEL Board Member Emeritus Mark Greenberg on Systemic SEL
- Panorama's Adult SEL Toolkit
- Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Everything You Need to Know
- 3 Ways to Support the Whole Child with Cares Act Funding for School Districts