Leading in a Time of Crisis:  Why All Educational Leaders Need to Make SEL a Priority

Leading in a Time of Crisis: Why All Educational Leaders Need to Make SEL a Priority

Educational LeadershipCOVID-19. The latest vector in a non-stop flow of anxiety-inducing fears in today’s world. If you are an education leader like me, you are justifiably worried about the impact all of this is having on our students and families, particularly amid the turmoil of nationwide school closures.


Parents are struggling to accommodate for forced homeschooling. Teachers are scrambling to adjust for on-line learning. And everyone is wondering how long this new normal will go on, and what the long-term impact will be on the physical, emotional, and mental health of us all.


But sooner or later it will all be behind us and we can get back to business as usual, right?


The fact is, we (kids and adults) live in a constant state of stress. There’s just no escape anymore. Bullied kids don’t get to leave that trauma at school at the end of the day. It follows them home. It follows them everywhere they go thanks to social media and smart phones. Today’s students believe it is only a matter of time before a mass shooting takes place at their own school.


Such burdens on our kids weigh heavily on the adults in their lives, educators and parents alike.

So when the dust settles on this latest crisis, and everything returns to normal, what then?

It’s a challenging time for education leaders, to be sure. But there is a silver lining in all of this.


The Sandy Hook Commission, formed in the wake of that unspeakable tragedy, identified Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as a key strategy in improving school climate and making our schools safer:

“Social-emotional learning (SEL) must form an integral part of the curriculum from preschool through high school. SEL can help children identify and name feelings such as frustration, anger and loneliness that potentially contribute to disruptive and self-destructive behavior. It can also teach children how to employ social problem-solving skills to manage difficult emotional and potentially conflictual situations.” (The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Report, as cited by Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, 2016).


Several parents of children lost to such tragedies have expressed their support for teaching social and emotional learning skills in school, indicating their belief that implementing SEL would have a positive impact on creating a safer, healthier, and happier school environment.


This time of forced school closures and alternative learning presents the perfect opportunity to learn more about how to implement SEL and how it’s connected to equity, cultural inclusivity and family engagement, school climate and safety, and academic achievement.


The Emotion Revolution, as Yale professor Marc Brackett coined it, is starting to take root in our nation’s education system. Decades of research on the science of learning and the important role emotions play in how we humans learn and process information has finally caught up with what most educators have always known – students need more than academics to successfully navigate their way through this complex world they have inherited. SEL is about treating a student as a whole person, emotions and all, and cultivating the skills we all need to become engaged citizens leading happy, healthy, successful lives.


All of this can be overwhelming indeed, where do we begin?

Let’s start with a common language and understanding of how we define SEL. A consensus of schools are using the CASEL definition of SEL. The Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) is largely considered the leading authority on all things SEL. CASEL defines SEL as:


The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.


Once staff understands that this is how we are defining SEL, then we can begin to implement SEL practices. Speaking of staff…


Happy Schools Start with Happy Teachers

Happy Teacher and StudentsEmerging SEL research supports the importance of starting with Adult Practice. This means that, as SEL is still a bit of a mystery, even to veteran educators, we must first take stock of our own understanding and self-regulation of emotions before we can attempt to work with students on developing these types of skills.


A study published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions stated: “It’s no secret that teaching is a stressful profession. However when stress interferes with personal and emotional well-being at such a severe level, the relationships teachers have with students are likely to suffer, much like any relationship would in a high stress environment” (Herman, Hickman-Rosa, and Reinke 2017). This scenario can be concisely encapsulated in the title of a 2014 book written by Nena A. Conners: If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students.

Any one of us who has spent time working with children and teens doesn’t need a research study to know that educating youth, although extremely rewarding, can also be very stressful. But what we may not realize is how we pass that stress along to our students and how that impacts both their behavior and academic achievement. According to the aforementioned study, 93 percent of teachers report “high levels of job-related stress.” And “classrooms with highly stressed teachers usually have the poorest student outcomes, including lower grades and frequent behavior problems” (Herman, Hickman-Rosa, and Reinke 2017). Additionally, stressed-out teachers lead to burned-out teachers, which lead to challenges with teacher retention. It’s a vicious cycle in our profession. Included in the study are recommendations for mitigating stress in educational settings:


Building initiatives and programs that promote mental health practices and overall health can be extremely beneficial for teachers. We as a society need to consider methods that create nurturing school environments not just for students, but for the adults who work there (Herman, Hickman-Rosa, and Reinke 2017). https://www.eschoolnews.com


As Principal Smith noted in an article published by eSchool News (June, 2018) titled, 10 Ways We Made Our School Happier, oftentimes as education leaders, we tend to jump right to ‘How will I implement this with students’ when in fact we haven’t yet taken the time to ensure all of the adults are on board. My advice, take a step back to assess how the social emotional needs and supports are being addressed with school personnel before implementing with students. This may mean incorporating basic SEL practices into staff meetings. For example, a simple round of “checking in” with one another to see what might be happening in people’s lives outside of work, where their hearts and minds are on any given day, and how we might support each other as colleagues. Needless to say, this important now more than ever, but applies even during normal times. Once these practices are in place for the adults, then we can begin to address schoolwide implementation.


The Role of School Leadership in Creating SEL Environments

Action Changes ThingsPrincipals, district administrators, and school site leaders play a pivotal role in creating an environment where SEL practices thrive. A national report titled “Ready to Lead” surveyed over 800 Pre-K–12 public school principals, including interviews with a number of superintendents and input from district-level research and evaluation experts, to capture the leadership perspective and key insights around four major areas of SEL:

  • Attitudes about SEL: Principals understand, value, and are committed to developing SEL skills.

  • SEL Implementation: Support for SEL is high, but implementation varies greatly.
  • The Path to Increased SEL: Principals want more SEL training for teachers and access to research-based strategies.
  • Assessing SEL: Most principals believe SEL skills can be accurately measured and assessed (p. 3-5).


In line with previous teacher surveys, principals overwhelmingly support incorporating SEL into their schools; “Nearly all principals (98 percent) believe students from all types of backgrounds—both affluent and poor—would benefit from learning social and emotional skills in schools.” With such overwhelming support for SEL, why are only about one-third of principals implementing SEL on a school-wide level? (p. 3-4). 


The report sheds light, from the school principal’s perspective, on identifying circumstances that impact both successful SEL implementation and student outcomes:

  • Principals value SEL but need greater knowledge and support to effectively implement school-wide, evidence-based SEL programming.
  • When superintendents and other district leaders are driving SEL and implementation is high, successful outcomes are much more likely.
  • A lack of time and teacher training—in both pre-service education and in-school professional development—are critical barriers to implementing SEL.
  • School and district leaders are open to having better data on students’ social and emotional competencies to improve school-wide SEL programming and student outcomes but need better training to do so (p. 41-42).


Setting the Stage for SEL—Environmental Building Blocks

Ideally, SEL practices and strategies should be integrated into all aspects of the learning environment—across all grade levels and content areas, and both within and outside of the traditional school day and classroom setting. That being said, where do we begin to realize this vision for the future of SEL? Let’s start by establishing a research-based framework for SEL implementation.


CASEL advocates for a four-pronged approach to SEL implementation, which includes incorporating one or more of the following components:

  1. Free-standing lessons using the SAFE approach (see instruction framework below)
  2. Universal teaching practices incorporated school-wide 
  3. Integration of SEL in academic content
  4. School-wide SEL initiatives facilitated by all school staff, including non-teaching staff.


Similar to the implementation framework, CASEL also provides a framework for the effective delivery of SEL instruction, known as the “SAFE” approach.

The acronym SAFE stands for: 
           Sequenced activities coordinated to cultivate SEL skill building
           Active learning, such as project-based and hands-on learning to support mastery
           Focused intentional emphasis on the cultivation of SEL
           Explicit in the development of specific SEL skill sets.

(CASEL: Evidence-Based Instruction in Social and Emotional Learning—October 2015)


Ultimately, the vision for SEL is to implement and adopt these frameworks in entirety throughout all of K–12 education. However, to get the SEL ball rolling in your school, program, or professional practice, CASEL recommends tackling just one or two of the implementation entry points to start.


In addition to CASEL’s implementation framework, the Aspen Institute has also released a very similar 3-pronged approach, essentially combining CASEL strategies 2 and 4 into one, which they refer to as creating an environment that fosters SEL skill development. The creation of that environment extends even to the hiring and training practices of teachers and staff as well as using data from students, parents, and other stakeholders on issues such as school climate to guide thinking and inform planning of SEL practices. Aspen’s recommendations were released in August 2018 in a report titled, Realizing the Vision for SEL in the K-12 setting. The Aspen Institute is another excellent SEL resource, for more information visit their website: www.aspeninstitute.org.


It is recommended that schools adopt a specific and explicit evidence-based SEL curriculum, and there are plenty to choose from, see the CASEL website for recommendations. However, I would like to make clear, SEL is more than a curriculum, it is a way of being. It’s the way we show-up for our students and our staff on a daily basis, and not only in times of crises; think environment over method.   


My challenge to educators, and particularly leaders, is this: of the top issues we struggle with in education today; school climate and safety, equity, cultural inclusivity and family engagement, chronic absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions, academic performance and graduation rates, you name it, is there not an SEL component involved in each and every one of these issues? I would argue, indeed there is. SEL is not a nice to have, it is a must have. SEL skills are foundational for all learning and all students; Maslow before Bloom.


SEL is not one more thing on the plate – it is the plate!

When the days of Corona are behind us – the schools reopen and we return to normal – please take this opportunity to show our kids, parents, and policy-makers that what Aristotle believed is even more profound today – educating the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all.


Learn more about International SEL Day (SELday.org). Sign up your school or district as a SEL Day partner – it’s free and it’s your opportunity to show your support for SEL and to highlight SEL practices taking place at your school. 


FREE SEL On-Demand Webinar

By building SEL into instruction, schools and districts can help students be the best that they can be. Check out this On-Demand webinar to learn three key considerations and actions for implementing SEL throughout a district or school.

Additional References:

For more from Dr. Cranston on SEL, check out her article 5 Ways to Implement SEL at Your School.


Author bio

Amy Cranston

Amy Cranston, Author

Amy Cranston, Ed.D., has enjoyed a 20- year career in education, serving K–12 students and educators. As a teacher, school-site administrator, and educational thought leader, Dr. Cranston has dedicated her career to serving marginalized and vulnerable student populations. Her passion for reaching students who are at risk of disengaging and dropping out of school drives her to address the needs of the whole child and to level the playing field through social and emotional learning (SEL). She advocates for making SEL a priority in K–12 education as a means of providing students with the skills needed to navigate successfully into adulthood. Dr. Cranston currently serves as the Executive Director of SEL4CA and as the cofounder of the nonprofit organization Playing Field Foundation, which is dedicated to educational equity through SEL. Dr. Cranston is also the author of Creating Social and Emotional Learning Environments. Follow Dr. Cranston on Twitter: @dr_cranston