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3 ways to jump start SEL

Tips for making sure students get the most of your social-emotional learning programs.

4 min read


3 ways to jump start SEL


One of the most important goals of schools is to support social-emotional learning. SEL provides the skills necessary for managing emotions, achieving life goals, being empathetic, making effective decisions and building positive relationships. Research shows that SEL helps create safe, supportive learning environments and emotionally enriching contexts—places where students flourish and thrive. In fact, an effective SEL program can deliver a multitude of benefits, including improvements in students’ academic achievement, behavior, and attitudes toward themselves, others, and school.

Social-emotional skills, like academic skills, can be learned. But which skills, attitudes, and behaviors should be taught and how does a school know if students are actually building social and emotional competencies?

Here are three ways to make sure students get the most from your SEL programs:

Define which core SEL competencies will be taught school-wide. The first step is to determine which SEL competencies are most important to the school’s various initiatives around SEL, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or climate and culture. Core SEL competencies may include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, goal-directed behavior, personal responsibility, and optimistic thinking, among others.

Once the core competencies are defined, collaboratively decide how and when they will be taught and embedded in daily school life. For instance, one school may choose to focus on five competencies over the course of a school year, while another may assign a separate SEL competency area for teachers and students to focus on each month. Be sure to communicate the competencies to all stakeholders including students and parents, and provide professional development for teachers as needed. This will take time and effort, but it is well worth it.

Monitor and assess core competencies. The monitoring and assessment of the development of SEL skills, attitudes, and behaviors are critical to a successful implementation. One way to measure an SEL competency is by tracking the demonstration of specific student behaviors. Consider the following example:

Self-management” may be defined as, “A child’s success in controlling his or her emotions and behaviors, to complete a task or succeed in a new or challenging situation.” Thus, a school could track the following behaviors to assess the student’s development of this competency.  The student:

  • Pays attention
  • Focuses on task despite distractions
  • Performs steps of a task in order
  • Thinks before acting
  • Stays calm when challenged

A well-designed behavior inventory can help jump-start the process by defining a list of specific skills or behaviors to measure for each core competency. Such behaviors may be measured across the entire school year or on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis to correspond with designated SEL areas of study. Of course, whether a school creates its own behavior inventory or implements an existing inventory, it should reflect the school’s specific SEL efforts and culture and climate goals.

Track and analyze real-time data on SEL skills. Tracking behaviors is an essential component of SEL monitoring and assessment. With a behavior tracking platform or app, educators can quickly and easily record student behaviors in real-time, without adding extra work to their day. Such a platform should allow educators to choose which SEL skills and behaviors to track and provide data reporting and analysis on an individual, small group, class, or school-wide level.

With this information, educators can identify each student’s social-emotional strengths and areas in need of development. This information can be used to inform SEL so that it is responsive to the unique needs of each student. It can also be used to define and monitor behavior intervention plans for students who require additional support in specific SEL competency areas.

Achieving SEL success. A thorough, detailed assessment of students’ competence in each SEL domain can inform the implementation and the effectiveness of SEL, PBIS, behavior management, and other school climate and culture initiatives. By focusing on core SEL competencies and behaviors in a systematic way, schools can help students develop the SEL skills, attitudes, and behaviors they need to succeed and flourish in school, in work, and in life.

Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983, and he is the author of several books, including “Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom.” Dr. Kent Peterson is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his research includes more than 90 studies and articles on the leadership of school principals.


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