Building a Sustainable Social-Emotional Learning Plan

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Social-emotional learning’s importance for students, teachers, and all school stakeholders is increasingly recognized. But how we define SEL, how best to implement it, and what role technology can play in providing SEL support is not always clear.  

During this recent Tech & Learning virtual roundtable, these topics were discussed. Dr. Kecia Ray spoke with Dr. Nick Yoder, director of strategic initiatives for Harmony SEL and Inspire Teaching & Learning at National University; Dr. Dawn Bridges, the AASA SEL Cohort Program Lead and the Senior Director of Education Partnerships for Right At School; and Michael Boggess, sales director for Lightspeed Systems

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Key Takeaways 


SEL Definitions Abound

Defining SEL is more difficult than many people realize and research has found hundreds of terms have been used to talk about children’s social and emotional development, said Yoder. “So it's not surprising that we all come with a very different definition of what we mean and think about social emotional learning,” Yoder said, noting that he generally uses CASEL’s definition. The definition has been recently updated to say that social-emotional learning is an integral part of education and human development. It is the teaching and learning process, in which all young people and adults, acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy relationships, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. 

“They even continue to further talk about how it supports equity and equitable access for youth and the combination and the context in which all youth live, learn, and grow and develop in families, and communities,” Yoder said. 

Not Just for Students or Teachers 

While more attention is being paid to the SEL needs of teachers, Bridges said the conversation can’t stop there. “We need to make sure that it includes the community, it isn't  just teachers,” she said. “It's the staff and bus drivers. It's the Board of Education and the whole entire community. And when we think about moving forward and what schools need, we need to take a very comprehensive look and make sure we're including all stakeholders in that.” 

SEL and Mental Health 

Though linked, SEL and mental health are not synonyms. “The World Health Organization, defines mental health as a state of well being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with normal life stressors, and can work productively and is able to make a good contribution to his or her community,” Yoder said. “Another definition of mental health really focuses on a series of psychological symptoms that can interfere with overall functioning, so there's both that sort of asset-based approach to defining mental health as well as more of a deficit-based approach to defining mental health.” 

He added, “When we're thinking of SEL we're definitely thinking about that asset-based approach and skill development. The attitude development within supportive contexts that will help people function in multiple domains of life. So they are similar in that they both promote overall well being, but they are slightly different in their focus and how they are approached within schools and districts.” 

Making SEL Part of Your Ongoing Plan

Bridges said superintendents need to be thinking several years in advance about how SEL can support their district’s goals. “What are those skills, what is that experience of a pre-K to grade 12 and beyond, and into postgraduate work? What are those outcomes that we want, and how do we want to make sure that we are very systemic and intentional in embedding a plan and a vision for our students around social-emotional learning,” she said. “From a leadership perspective, the superintendent and stakeholders and board of education really needs to think about what does it look like, what do we want these kids to have and so a profile of a graduate is one thing that comes to mind when building that vision.” 

Harmony SEL, the program Yoder works with at National University, offers free SEL training and teacher prep for educators. “There is a huge need for increased SEL within teacher preparation across the board, but it was deeper than many people realize and it definitely needs to be ingrained more fully,” he says. 

Using Data and Technology to Support SEL 

Boggess said that before utilizing data you have to make sure it is accurate and easy to obtain. “Solutions such as Lightspeed can show you who's not logging in, which is the equity, part of the conversation,” he said. “If you have these students who have devices and they don't have connectivity at home, you need reports of who's not actually using it, not who's using it and how they're using it. It's more important to see who's not using it, because that right there is your first warning sign of what's going on.” 

It is also key that you are able to track student uses of various tech tools. This data can also provide info that helps you target SEL efforts to students and can encourage more questions to be asked by school leaders around SEL.  

“I'm grateful to see so many leaders asking the questions and using technology to ask questions like ‘Do you feel that you belong?’” Bridges said. “The biggest thing is building those relationships. So how can we use that technology to make sure that we are connecting with kids and that they do feel that they do belong. Or if they don't, what are we doing to make sure that they do, and what are our equitable practices that we're putting in place to ensure that they do feel like they belong.” 

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Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.