As mentioned in previous posts, my role at Search Institute gives me the chance to talk with educators from all over about how to improve social-emotional learning (SEL) in their schools. These conversations come in many shapes and depths: one-hour informational calls, Q&A sessions at conferences, full-day learning engagements with frontline and administrative staff, implementation-planning sessions with schools’ leadership teams, and so on.1

In all those interactions, an idea I hear over and over is, “We want to do a good job with SEL, but we’re a little worried about adding one more thing.” (And at this point, the discussion usually turns to the various frameworks, plans, and processes operating in their contexts. I hear of what’s going well, what’s not, what the district is committed to and why, how it’s being received and put into practice by staff, and on and on. Honestly, it can sometimes feel like I’m getting walked through each school’s Dark Forest: interventions, iPads, and tiers, oh my.)

A lot of improvement work is going on in schools today, and many education professionals are starting to feel the crunch of it all.

The crunching feeling isn’t surprising. All those improvements require significant infrastructure to operate (i.e., professional learning time and capacity, coordination, extra staff, etc.), after all, and infrastructure is finite. If multiple improvement initiatives have been introduced over a period of years, the space for “one more thing” simply may not exist. Worse, the stacks of improvement initiatives can overwhelm and/or confuse frontline staff with their new (and sometimes competing) practical principles and expectations.

In all, then, it’s a good thing when educators get cautious about adding “one more thing.” They recognize their sites’ growing levels of initiative fatigue, and they’re tapping the brakes like they should. Because when everything’s made a priority, remember, nothing ends up being a priority.

Continuous Improvement Begins with Specific Improvement Focus

We recommend that you approach your school’s SEL work in a similar “brake-tapping” manner. More specifically, we recommend that you rationally, realistically, and strategically prioritize the area(s) of students’ SEL you wish to improve, then design improvement actions (and professional development, monitoring, etc.) in accord.

1Incidentally: if you’re new to this series, our specific corner of the wide SEL universe is helping schools improve their students’ academic motivation through developmental relationships. In terms of CASEL’s* wheel of core competencies, our work lives most squarely in the areas of “Self-Awareness” and “Self-Management.”

SEL is an expansive and varied universe, after all, including everything from goal-setting to social-engagement skills to ethical responsibility. So as not to overwhelm, and so specific practices can ultimately be designed, we recommend that schools’ SEL leadership groups narrow that universe down very early in their SEL initiative.

FutureED’s CORE Lessons report noted similarly in its recommendations, in fact. Under the heading, “Don’t overwhelm schools with new strategies,” the report said schools would be wise to “identify only a few goals…and stay focused on them. That strategy is likely to increase teacher buy-in to the work and to produce tangible improvements, wins that will sustain educators’ commitment. An effective approach is to identify a school’s most urgent problems and work backwards to school climate or social-emotional strategies that best address those problems.”

In other words: If you’re going to be introducing “one more thing” for practitioners to do, make darn sure that one thing is (1) easy for practitioners to see and (2) necessary for your school to be improving on.  

This is all made a bit easier in the work Search Institute does with schools, of course, as the schools we work with bring us aboard expressly to get more intentional about a specific SEL quality, academic motivation. (And even within academic motivation, we ask schools to drill down even further using data from our REACH Survey. Humans’ motivation is complex, after all. For more on measuring to prioritize, see this series’ next installment.) If you haven’t done this, though, and are generally “doing SEL better” or “creating a healthier school climate,” we urge you to zoom in on something more specific. The clarity of focus should make all subsequent improvement steps–from choosing PD content to defining and communicating desired practices–go much more smoothly.

Where to Start

The trick, of course, is actually arriving at your prioritized area(s) of focus. Leadership teams are great for this, so make sure to start with discussions there. (If definitions/guidance would aid these team discussions, start with the previously referenced Core SEL Competencies resources from CASEL. I hope it’s helpful!)

Even better, though, make sure your priority-focus discussions include (at least) some analysis of objective data. Great as our guts and our instincts may be, after all, we always want to be making our improvement decisions based on the truth, not just our truth.

For more on using measurement to set SEL priorities, see the next post in this series.

*®CASEL 2017. The five social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies were developed and defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). For more information, visit

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