5 SEL Systems That Can Transform School Culture

The school I help lead was designed for students who have experienced some interruption in their high school education, either because of academic issues, life disruptions or both. Our program helps support them along the path to graduation and connects them with resources. Because of this, social emotional learning (SEL) has long been our priority. From the ground up, our team has built a school culture around supporting students’ needs.

As the pandemic has increased the need to focus on SEL throughout many school communities, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the approaches that have made a difference for our students. While we are fortunate to have extra SEL resources in our small school, many of these practices could be adapted to serve students across a variety of contexts.

5 ways we make SEL a school-wide priority: 

1. We assign “chief emotional officers (CEO)” to each student, and teachers meet in small groups to plan focused student supports. 

At our school, each student has a counselor assigned to them that we call their “chief emotional officer.” Our CEOs meet with groups of teacher teams to share information about students and make plans for their next steps toward graduation. CEOs can also step in to help support students in other ways, offering mediation between teachers and students, students and families and families and teachers. It’s a way to make sure that all students have at least one person in the school that they can go to for emotional support. Because of the information shared in these regular meetings, all staff members gain a more well-rounded view of students. It makes the community feel smaller, and I’d venture to say that all of our students feel they have two or three staff members who truly know them. 

2. We have a “Y-O-U Crew,” inviting students to share what SEL supports they need. 

We have a staff committee called the “Y-O-U Crew.” We’re the cheerleaders for students on the brink of graduation. We tell our students, “You’re almost there. So now what can we do to help you?” Our students’ responses have fueled some of our most impactful engagement ideas. During the pandemic, our Y-O-U Crew conversations led us to institute mindfulness Monday, with a counselor leading a mindfulness session for 10 minutes weekly, as well as leading breathing exercises and sharing strategies to help staff and manage the week’s stress. And then on the back end of the week, we started holding celebrations on Fridays, with virtual karaoke or games – activities meant to bring the community together. During the early part of the pandemic, these meetings gave us a chance to see the kids and make sure they were okay, and when we came back to in-person school, we decided to keep this in place. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of school culture shifts, but it seems to me that these moves have made a difference in deepening positive relationships between students. 

3. We include SEL in our instructional planning across content areas. 

We have a health class that focuses specifically on SEL, including self-awareness and decision-making, but I believe in the power of teaching SEL through subject-area classes, too. In their instructional planning, our teachers make explicit plans to reinforce SEL in their lessons: Our ELA teachers invite students to discuss the ways they see their lives reflected in fictional characters and situations. When our history teacher introduced a set of historical artifacts, she invited students to focus on artifacts that exemplified an aspect of their identity, supporting both social awareness and self awareness. Our gym teacher starts class every day with a check-in question about how students are feeling. Some teachers start class with a “do now,” showcasing a quote or a picture that ties in with the instructional topic then offering a reflection question that allows students to find a point of connection.

SEL looks different across instructional areas, but this school-wide expectation means that our students have a consistently supportive experience. Because our team built our school culture together, there’s a high-level of buy-in from staff around this priority. My next goal, outlined below, is to offer more robust support for teachers who are newer to this work.

4. We’re developing a library of lesson planning resources to support our teachers in implementing SEL. 

Right now, I’m developing resources to support teachers who might not have as much experience thinking about SEL as part of their instruction. One step I’m taking is surveying my teachers who do this work successfully, gathering approaches and resources that can be adapted for a toolkit to offer newer educators. Another step is pointing out what teachers are already doing that fits within SEL frameworks, even if they haven’t yet absorbed that vocabulary. I might say, “You naturally invite students to question their own histories and experience as they’re learning. You already differentiate your support based on students’ needs, and you already support SEL skills by scaffolding students’ ‘turn and talk’ activities.” Teachers are doing so much transformative work, and I want them to feel like emphasizing SEL is not adding something completely new. Ultimately, I want to provide teachers with a lesson planning toolkit that supports the implementation of SEL on a daily basis. 

5. We emphasize the importance of slowing down. 

During the pandemic especially, our team has been reminded that focusing on patience and understanding matters. We’ve consistently reiterated that we can’t do everything in one day. The permission to move slowly makes a big difference in staff morale and, ultimately, our students’ experiences. As educators, we all want to support our students’ learning and growth. It can be a challenge to realize that we can’t always move forward without putting their social and emotional needs first. We’ve found that by taking the time to invest in those social emotional needs, more learning ends up happening – and everyone feels better at school.

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