Prioritizing Social Emotional Learning in Education

I’m entering my sixth year working in partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL to implement social and emotional learning system-wide in the Oakland Unified School District. CASEL is really one of the leading organizations around policy, practice and research around social and emotional learning.

About seven years ago, they brought together something called the CDI, the Collaborating Districts Initiative and it really started with the research question and the research questions centered around we can implement SEL at the school level, but can it be done in a large complex urban school strict? The idea behind it is that we would really help shift the focus beyond test scores and really trying to look deeply at how do you implement a whole child approach to education at a systemic level.

How to Prioritize Social Emotional Learning

In order for our organization to truly be a learning organization, SEL has to be prioritized because this is how we create the conditions for learning for both adults and for young people.

In terms of kind of what does it look like, I think that our team has been very strategic recognizing the realities of reorganizations and of leadership transition to do certain things that kind of bake SEL into the system. So one was back in 2013, we passed a board policy. We’re actually the first district in the United States to pass a board policy around SEL. Our definition and standards of SEL, it wasn’t our office coming up with these, it was really a conversation and collaboration with students, parents, teachers and leaders across the district that were coming together.

We’re really trying to model SEL through this whole practice and we did try to hold an equity lens to the development of our standards. One of the things you’ll notice if you look at our standard versus other districts is ours are a little more interpersonal than the intrapersonal, and I hope to talk about that a little more during our time together. Another thing that we’ve done is SEL is embedded in our performance framework. So it’s the way in which teachers are evaluated and principals are evaluated. That’s a really powerful signal to teachers and leaders in the district around our prioritization of SEL that it’s around how you evaluate it.

We’ve also really emphasized looking at SEL beyond program. I think sometimes when I talk with folks that are newer in this work they’ll be like, okay, I need SEL, let me just buy a program. We know that this is not about a program. This is a much bigger approach than just a program because SEL can occur just at 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at the end of the day, it’s got to be a whole school whole system approach. So we’ve done a lot around integrating SEL into instruction. There are three practices and we think about how does SEL show up in the classroom? It can show up via the curriculum, the content or through the process. How and which we’re going about teaching. 

We came up with something called the three signature practices and Ann really brought this to Oakland. What these three signature SEL practices are is there are three ways in which you can seamlessly integrate into your instruction. K12 and these can also be used in adult professional learning throughout the system. So the first is a welcoming ritual and that gives opportunity to really bring all voices in the room. There’s been a lot of research when you get students talking at the start of class, they’re more likely to stay engaged throughout and the same thing goes with adults.

It’s a way to build connection and to say hey, I see you. You talk with each other and we’re here and we’re building connection and community and relationship. The second practice refers to engaging pedagogy and these are also inclusive brain breaks that help us integrate new information. So engaging practices are different structured ways to have a conversation with each other and then engage with content and then finally an optimistic closing. Teachers always tell me this is the hardest one because they’re rushing to get through stuff. On the optimistic closing just like with adults and with young people as a way to kind of come together to reflect on what we’ve learned to share appreciations. 

I can think of a mindfulness as a very powerful strategy within the larger field of SEL. Just on a very basic example, social-emotional learning sometimes can teach us about emotions but mindfulness can help us actually feel and go inside and help work deeply with the emotions that are arising.