SEL Programs: Which is Best for My School?

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration
Teacher leads young students toward school entrance.

Throughout all levels of education, one constant remains: the learner. Whether it is an early childhood setting, elementary education, middle school, high school, or postsecondary education, the learner is the primary focus. Over the past two decades, an instructional shift has occurred that focuses on much more than academia, including focus on the child’s needs as a whole. This shift of social-emotional learning (SEL) is rapidly expanding.

The consensus has heightened over the last five years in that research has shown that social and emotional skills are critical to the development, education, and health of children in our schools. To meet this growing need for SEL education, multiple high-quality, research-based, and evidence-based programs are available for schools and districts to implement. These programs promote skills among students that can improve their physical and mental wellbeing, academic outcomes, and college and career readiness success.

What Kinds of SEL Programs are There? 

To understand what type of SEL programs are currently available for schools and or school districts and systems to purchase and utilize, one must understand the types of programs available. SEL has emerged to include several smaller concepts, including character development and education, trauma-informed learning (Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs), and even 21st-century skills.

Personally, my state education department has focused on 21st century soft skills as a more significant part of the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. Overall, there are a considerable number of SEL programs currently available. These programs are conducted by early childhood providers and out-of-school organizations, widely varying on different components like focusing on specific skills, teaching strategies, implementation supports, and general approaches to SEL.

In a recent report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, supported by the Wallace Foundation, over 33 different programs were identified and evaluated. Within these 33 programs, several different strategies were present, including teacher modeling and whole-class discussions, while others include more specific activities like read-alouds, games, role-play, music, and more.

How Do I Decide Which is Best for My School? 

When looking to implement an SEL program at your school, several factors need to be considered.

  1. What are your school’s specific needs and/or target behaviors that would lead to implementing an SEL program? Are there identified challenges within your student population or demographic information that would lead to a need for a program?

    Sometimes programs and initiatives are created or implemented in schools with no follow-up or justification, leading to teachers and adult members not practicing “buy-in” to the program, which can lead to failing of the program.

  1. Does the program align with existing school, district, and state-wide regulations and initiatives?

    This is critical as educational leaders determine which program to implement. Having a blueprint for success from local and state leadership can prove beneficial to choosing the right program.

  1. Will the program of choice fit into the school’s current demographic setting and culture and climate? Can the program be adapted and implemented with success in individual schools that have unique locations?

    To avoid using “canned curriculum”, schools must decide which components of the curriculum can be implemented, and even which parts can be broken into chunks and completed over time. Ultimately, logistical considerations like time, training, and cost will determine individual school or district choice for SEL programs. When choosing an SEL program, the program needs to be feasible, align with current structures in the school, and be a relevant fit to the existing context and needs of the student population.

How to Begin a SEL Program at Your School

Like other school-wide interventions and initiatives, whole group buy-in is important. When beginning a SEL program in your school, several factors must be considered.

Establish a Team

Establishing a SEL team will help identify areas of need, through grade-level partnering, leadership teams, or other areas with multiple perspectives. This whole group approach can help when making decisions about the next steps for SEL implementation.

Set Clear Targets and Goals

Setting targets and goals that align to the already established school norms and expectations, particularly around behavior targets, is essential. Successful schools are data-driven, and establishing a SEL program needs to follow the same recipe.

Implementation of the Program

Will it be infused into the academic curriculum, a special designated time of the day for SEL initiatives, or will it be only before or after school? This plan will also need to include the frequency of SEL instruction, and play an important role in scheduling. Additionally, preparing teachers for real practice is key. Rolling out a SEL program with little to no teacher input and involvement can be a recipe for disaster. Teachers must understand the “why” behind the shift, and be given opportunities to participate in sample lessons and skills.

Continuous Review and Monitoring

A system of continuous review and monitoring will allow for the best program to be implemented. What works in the pilot year may not be needed as much in year two and three, etc.

Regardless of your level of teaching experience, our main goal is to educate students. In 2021, this has become increasingly difficult, given the adverse life experiences and circumstances our children have faced or will face. It is paramount that we implement practices within the total school system that can further prepare students for their future. Whether a classroom or school-wide practice, implementing SEL curriculum and initiatives can certainly help students learn.

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