A few weeks ago at this blog, I discussed what developmental psychologists are increasingly understanding about what works (and why) when it comes to social-emotional learning (SEL). Relatedly, I shared some resources for school leaders who are hoping to get more intentional about strengthening their schools’ SEL practices: CASEL’s* Guide to Schoolwide SEL and CORE Lessons, a report and recommendations from FutureED. I hope the post provided some ideas about how to best proceed regarding SEL in your context.

If you’re not quite ready to write up all of next year’s PD calendar, though, or to reformat all your PLCs to incorporate strong SEL emphases, please don’t worry. My primary aim was not to send you rushing straight into action.

Rather: the Big Point was supposed to be that, based on what we know about building kids’ social and emotional strengths, improving SEL in schools requires an approach that’s much different from “finding the right program and implementing it with fidelity,” and that this is especially true for schools serving adolescents. As leading SEL researcher David Yeager says, we’ll be much more effective if we seek to build practices that “weave SEL together with our academic content, rather than separating it out as an extra program.

While getting intentional about practices that students process as unintentional presents a unique challenge, it’s one that can absolutely be met. At Search Institute, in fact, we work with schools every day doing precisely that. (More specifically, by the way: we help schools improve their students’ academic motivation through developmental relationships.)

SEL Strategy Implementation – A Blog Series About Our Approach

This post is the first in a series about steps and guiding principles we follow in such work. Our approach urges schools to think and to use their time a bit differently, but it aligns well with the aforementioned recommendations from CASEL and FutureED and, importantly, it has proven effective for moving our and others’ research fully into schools’ SEL practices.

In the weeks ahead, the series will offer posts on the following topics:

  1. (Today) Who Does The Work? – Assembling a team to lead all elements of the chosen SEL strategy
  2. Think “Continuous Improvement,” Not “Additional Improvement” – Being careful to limit the number of SEL strategies operating simultaneously
  3. Measuring & Setting Practice Priorities – Considering measurement tools like the REACH survey (and upcoming DRs survey) to focus schools’ activities
  4. Rethink How Professional Development Happens – Maximizing available learning/planning infrastructures to enable continual and collaborative learning and modification
  5. Find Best Ways to Monitor & Continually Improve – Establishing ways of knowing if practices are indeed shifting as desired–not for accountability purposes, but to inform subsequent learning and modification

(NOTE: As this is more a set of implementation principles than an implementation playbook, the posts in this series should not be read as following strict orders of sequence or importance. Indeed, several of these steps will intersect with and influence one another over the life of any improvement initiative. In this blog series, though, they will be presented in roughly the same order they are presented to schools in our in-person workshops and consultation.)

Who Does the Work?

If you looked at the earlier-referenced Guide to Schoolwide SEL from CASEL, you may have noticed that their first recommended step in Focus Area 1A (“Build Awareness, Commitment, and Ownership”) is “Create A Team.” Similarly, you may have noticed this assertion from the recommendations portion of FutureED’s CORE Lessons report: “Establishing in-school culture and climate teams creates a sense of collegiality and a shared agenda among school staff, a sense that they’re learning and tackling problems together.”

We at Search Institute agree fully with these recommendations. Based on our field experience, we know that teams of educators provide sturdier foundations for school improvements–and that such a foundation is especially important when a school aims to create wide changes in practices.

In accord, we make the establishment of a leadership team a key step when helping schools be more intentional and strategic about improving academic motivation.

Please note that this is not in any way to disrespect the abilities of single administrators as initiative-leaders. Our rationale here is purely practical and realistic. To name just a few reasons, we’d say that diverse leadership groups (1) improve solution-building processes by bringing in more perspectives and suggestions, (2) keep initiatives’ various elements on track simply by offering more capacity, (3) add to the staff-wide investment and “we-do” mentality (the much-pursued “buy-in,” that is) necessary to build and keep momentum, and (4) contribute to a school’s long-term health by giving non-administrative staff authentic leadership responsibilities.

In our work we call this team the “leadership nucleus,” actually, as in the nucleus of an atom. For just as in the atom, this nucleus is what helps hold the entire strategy/initiative together. The leaders in this nucleus analyze data, determine practical priorities, construct messages to staff, plan professional learning, execute improvement-based monitoring, and so on. (I’ll examine several of these elements more closely in subsequent posts. In the meantime, go get your team.)

On Assembling the Right Team

Here are a few reminders I commonly give to school leaders as they set out to find their REACH Leadership Nucleus, Relationships/Climate Team, or whatever they decide to brand it:

  • Depending on the size of your school, consider a team of 6-12 staffers
  • Regarding Composition, Point 1: Whatever the size of your team, aim for 50% classroom teachers or higher, with adequate representation across departments. The idea, remember, is to build buy-in as widely as you can. This means getting classroom teachers–lots of them, and from multiple subject areas–aboard. (NOTE: Some creativity may be necessary down the line, like when getting sub coverage for planning meetings. Taking this logistical consideration into account now may come in handy later.)
  • Regarding Composition, Point 2: If possible, involve staff who may not always be your top choices for this kind of work. In other words: yes, actively involve some who have historically been nay-sayers. Their more skeptical perspectives will likely prove to be helpful, it may win some optics points with their closest colleagues, and the leadership opportunity may actually pull them out of a rut. (Plus, it may take something off the plate of one of your typical go-to leaders.) Seriously, trust it and try it.
  • Take time to personally invite each prospective team member: After you’ve considered the right people, take time to invite each member individually–and be ready to have to recruit them a little. Explain what you have in mind, why you thought they’d be a great fit, a rough idea of the time commitment, and so on. Relationships are important  from adult to adult in a school too, remember. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen some.

Good luck building that leadership team. I hope your search and your conversations go well.

In the next post (which will not be as long as this one, I apologize–some prelude was necessary in this one), I’ll start getting to the business of what this team will actually be working on: examining your school’s current improvement landscape and working toward some prioritization of initiatives and preliminary direction-setting.

*®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 https://casel.org/core-competencies/

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