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How leaders create, sustain SEL

Tamara Fyke describes how leaders can create and sustain an SEL mindset.

6 min read




You’ve read the articles about the importance of social and emotional learning , or SEL, and you believe that a nurturing environment, high expectations and meaningful participation are keys to students’ academic success. You are familiar with CASEL’s five competencies:  self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship management and social awareness.  Now what?  It is time for your belief to shape your actions. Here are some practical tips for creating and sustaining buy-in for yourself and others in your organization.

Let’s be clear: students can tell if your intentions are sincere or not. SEL integration needs to be more than checking boxes on a report for district office about fulfilling a mandate. To impact the culture and climate of your school, everyone must engage their hearts.

For leaders: sending a clear SEL message

For SEL integration to be successful, you must lead the way. This begins with introducing the right ideas and then requires sufficient, sustained follow-through. If you want your staff to commit wholeheartedly to SEL, they must know that this is a priority for you. Be sure the message is clear:

  • Be intentional about building relationships with your staff — Get to know them in and out of school. Show them you care about them, and model the same kind of social and emotional support you’d like them to give to students.
  • Include SEL in your school’s vision and mission statements — This may require a refresh of these guiding declarations. These are the guiding principles by which your school operates, so SEL should be right in the center.
  • Adopt and define a common language — Use the same words with the same meaning across the school experience.
  • Allocate adequate time and resources for SEL instruction — Make morning meetings or advisory periods a regular part of the daily schedule. Provide content for meaningful conversations between educators and students.

For teachers: simple, powerful classroom actions

Whether teachers are conscious of it or not, they are already teaching SEL.  Students are paying attention and modeling the attitudes, words and behaviors educators display.  The most important thing all educators can do is build positive relationships with students. To increase effectiveness, teachers should be intentional about integrating SEL into their practice. Integrating SEL is most effective when teachers and students are on the same page with an agreed upon common language, and teachers are mindful of giving the reason for what they are doing. That way, students can understand the benefit and buy in. These are simple yet powerful ways teachers can create social and emotional learning opportunities:

  • Facilitate conversations — These discussions may start with the academic focus, then evolve into applying lessons to students’ lives. Students will get meaningful value from conversations when given ample time and space to use their voices and share their opinions.
  • Structure cooperative learning experiences — When working in groups, students learn how to work as a team by brainstorming ideas, communicating, disseminating tasks and meeting deadlines. When teachers place students in positions to work in collaborative groups, they are fostering some of the most important skills needed in both school and the workplace.
  • Dedicate time for self-reflection — As John Dewey says, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” A fast-paced classroom environment requires intentionality to ensure that students have time to reflect and better understand their learning.
  • Utilize the arts — Stories, music and creative expression can be used to unlock students’ thoughts and feelings. Teachers in language arts, social studies and the creative arts all have opportunities to integrate SEL with arts activities.

For the school community: attitudes for success

The school community includes everyone whose life is touched by the school — principals, office staff, teachers, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school counselors, non-profit partners, volunteers, coaches and family members.  All of these caring adults are there for one main reason: to help children learn and grow. By demonstrating these attitudes and behaviors, school community members can set the foundation for SEL support:

  • Keep children first — Our children are more important than test scores or career advancement. Everything we do in a school, no matter our role, must always be done with kids’ best interests in mind.
  • Be positiveHope and joy produce strength and perseverance.
  • Acknowledge and appreciate each other  — Working with students requires great compassion and stamina. All members of the community benefit from encouraging each other about the work you do at school and at home.
  • Have fun! — Incorporate play and celebration into the life of the school community through events such as student assemblies, cultural awareness activities, family movie nights and more.

Keep in mind, SEL is not just a trend in education.  Being able to identify what is going on in our heads and in our hearts so we can build up and not tear down is what makes us human. SEL skills are foundational for success in all aspects of life, and educators have the opportunity to get kids started on the right path.

Tamara Fyke (@entrprenurgirl) is a creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families and urban communities, and is the creator, author and brand manager for Love In A Big World with Abingdon Press. In her early days, Tamara worked as a substitute teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools. She transitioned to leading community programs as well as in-school support services, program development and research. Tamara received her master’s degree in education from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and worked at Vanderbilt’s Center for Safe & Supportive Schools, providing professional development, coaching and consulting for principals and teachers in issues related to safety and climate. Learn more about Tamara’s work at


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