Why I Hold Monthly SEL Sessions with Students’ Families

As a student, I came to school every day from a chaotic household. The safe and nurturing learning environments fostered by my teachers provided a refuge where I could grow and thrive despite my circumstances. And now as a school principal, promoting that same affirming environment for every student is at the heart of my leadership practice. This means working with various school teams to integrate Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) skills and resources into student learning. In addition to schoolwide efforts behind the gates, I strongly believe school leaders must make efforts to invite families to learn about those strategies and resources, too – to become our partners in social-emotional growth. By cultivating SEL skills with teachers and families, we can encourage students to develop the social-emotional foundation they need to navigate challenges and achieve goals, throughout their learning careers and lives.

That’s why I hold monthly “Coffee With the Principal” sessions – and I integrate SEL resources and staff expertise into every one. Due to pandemic restrictions, I hold these sessions on Zoom, but normally it would be in person. It’s a space where families can explore and experience the SEL skills and supports we provide 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 three ways I integrate SEL into my monthly coffee sessions with my students’ families: 

1) I start the session the way we start the school day.

When school begins, teachers spend the first 15-20 minutes doing an SEL activity with students, such as an emotional check-in. By starting the day with self-awareness, self-expression, validation and connection, we show students that we welcome their real selves at school – and that’s critical to supporting and promoting their academic and social-emotional growth. I simulate that same experience with families during the opening of my “coffee with the principal” sessions with the same emotional check-in. I display an emotional thermometer up on the Zoom screen and invite everyone to share how they are. Or I’ll 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) I promote roles, resources and relationships.

After our opening, I move 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 or what available resources might be. During each session, I feature a new school community member. Examples include the School Nurse, Library Media Technician, Assistant Principal, School Psychologist, Academic Coach, Behavior Intervention Assistant and more. Our guest speaker explains the ways they support students on campus within their role, provide resources available for families (including how to access them), and provide information regarding how they can be reached, should a parent or family like to connect with them in the future (i.e. email address, phone number, etc.).

I highly recommend this practice: Families feel encouraged to take important risks such as incorporating essential SEL skills they have learned at home or be willing to contact the school to ask for help. Why? Because of the relationships developed over time– we are no longer strangers. We are familiar faces, people who care deeply about their children. Additionally, we are seen as more than an educational consultant– we are perceived as being part of the same team. Over time, authentic family and community engagement practices such as “Coffee With the Principal” sessions break down barriers and walls which have traditionally divided schools and families in the past. While your staff might be a bit nervous about participating at first, the relationships they develop with families as a result will make it well worth it– not to mention the incredible job that everyone will do. My staff never ceases to amaze me with their thoughtful presentations. 

3) I make it easier for families to practice SEL skills and strategies with students.

I really want to encourage parents and guardians to use these SEL skills and strategies to support their children’s well-being at home – and their own, too! This time is so full of challenges for everyone. If we, as adults, pretend those challenges never make us feel anxious, we give kids the idea that it’s not okay to feel anxiety, and that makes it harder for them to tackle their own challenges. Instead, my team and I model acknowledging our feelings and practicing our SEL skills for students – and it is my goal to equip families to do the same. When I join a classroom for SEL time, a teacher 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 blowing through my hair. I feel my toes wiggling in the warm sand. I can start to feel my breathing slow down.” I share with families that teachers may invite students to reflect on a tough moment, practice the strategy and share their experience. In the following coffee session, I’ll take the same steps with their families, and get them reflecting, practicing and sharing, too. 

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

Here are a few examples of the slides I use 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! 

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