Why I Hold Monthly SEL Sessions with Students’ Families

As a student, I came to school every day from a chaotic household. My classroom was a refuge where I could grow. Then, as a principal, I made promoting an affirming environment for every student the heart of my leadership practice. That meant working with my team to build Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies and resources into our students’ learning.

These days, I’m striving to promote affirming learning experiences for students across my district. I still believe school leaders need to invite families to learn about those strategies and resources, too – and to become partners in social-emotional growth for each student. By building SEL skills with staff and families, leaders can encourage students to develop the social-emotional foundation they need to navigate challenges and achieve goals, throughout their learning careers and their lives.

That’s why I held monthly “Coffee With the Principal” sessions – and I built SEL resources and staff expertise into every one. Due to pandemic restrictions, I hosted these sessions on Zoom, but normally I held them in person. They created a space where families could explore and experience the SEL skills and supports my team and I provided for their kids. I know it might sound complicated to plan, but it doesn’t have to be – and that’s why I want to share my approach! Here are 3 ways I brought SEL into my monthly coffee sessions with my students’ families:

1. Start the session the way we start the school day.

At the start of each day, we would spend the first 15-20 minutes doing an SEL activity with students, such as an emotional check-in. I believe that by starting the day with self-reflection, self-expression, validation and connection, we show students that we welcome their real selves at school – and that’s so important in promoting their growth.

I wanted to offer families that same experience, so I started my “Coffee With the Principal” sessions with the same emotional check-in. I’d put a thermometer up on the Zoom screen and invited everyone to share how they were doing. Or I’d bring in a reflection that resonated with students – like “share someone in your life you’re grateful for” – and encourage the adults to practice reflecting and sharing, too. When you first try this, be prepared for silence: Adults need some modeling and time before they’re willing to share their feelings, just like students. Over time, families will start engaging with these strategies – and trust me, by the end of the year, they’ll all be talking!

2. Promote roles, resources and relationships.

After our warm-up, I’d roll right into introducing staff roles, sharing resources and promoting relationships. Families see a lot of faces around school, but that doesn’t mean they know who can support them with what. So I’d invite the behavior-intervention specialist or the academic coach to join us, and they’d explain the ways they work with students, the resources families can access at home and the ways they help families use those resources. 

I highly recommend this practice: Families feel encouraged to try an SEL resource or ask for support because this isn’t a consultant – this is a familiar face, someone who cares about their kids. For instance, when we first started using classroom circles and prompts to invite students to reflect on their feelings, like the gratitude prompt I shared above, some of our staff joined a coffee session and broke it down for families: “Here’s some info on why this is valuable, here are some pictures of how it works with students and here’s how you could use it to support your kids.”

3. Make it easier for families to practice SEL strategies with students.

I really wanted to encourage parents and guardians to use these SEL strategies to support their children’s well-being at home – and their own, too! Each stage of the pandemic was so full of challenges for everyone. If we adults pretended those challenges never made us feel anxious, we would give kids the idea that it’s not okay to feel anxiety and make it harder for them to tackle their own challenges. Instead, my team and I modeled acknowledging our feelings and practicing our SEL skills for students – and I tried to equip families to do the same. When I would join a classroom for SEL time, I might say, “I have a deadline coming up, and I feel anxious about it, so I’m going to my safe space now. I’m picturing myself on the beach. I’m looking at the waves. I’m feeling the wind. I’m feeling my breathing slow down.” I’d invite students to reflect on a tough moment, practice the strategy and share their experience. In my next coffee session, I’d take the same steps with their families, and get them reflecting, practicing and sharing, too.

Before long, students would start telling me stories about how they reminded a worried adult to use an SEL tool, or how an adult helped them practice SEL when they were upset. Then in my next coffee session, the adults would start telling me the same stories! Moments like that really filled my heart because there’s nothing I wanted more than to see these strategies come full circle. By partnering with families on social-emotional learning, school leaders can create a wrap-around culture of support for every student – from school to home and back again.

Here are a few examples of the slides I used to share strategies with families. If you’d like any further tips on building your own slides or planning your own coffee sessions, I hope you’ll reach out to me!