The prior post in this series emphasized the importance of focusing SEL efforts as tightly and as strategically as possible before setting out to plan any staff learning, practical expectations, monitoring, and the like. Establishing this focus is imperative as, with so many improvement initiatives currently moving within schools, practitioners require clear ideas about (1) what, precisely, is to be improved and (2) what changes to practice will be expected. If you attempt to operate without these, you should also prepare for your SEL initiative to overwhelm staff–and, frankly, for the very real possibility that the whole thing will soon fall fully flat.

Yes, focus is that important.

The Sprawling SEL Landscape

No question, though, “strategically focusing SEL efforts” is much easier said than done.

One major reason for this, plainly, is that the SEL universe simply includes so many qualities. FutureED’s CORE Lessons report took this on directly, saying, “The social and emotional landscape in learning is sprawling, with scores of sometimes confusing and conflicting subcategories that can overwhelm educators and principals responding to them.” Relatedly (and very much in line with Search Institute’s approach to implementation), the FutureED report offered that it would increase schools’ chances at effective implementations if they focused “more deeply on fewer, developmentally appropriate constructs that have been shown to leverage learning.”

So…right: When everything’s a priority, nothing is a priority. Heard that before, got it.

But if I’m in a school trying to choose which SEL qualities my staff should actively get to work on strengthening in students, which ones in the “sprawling SEL landscape” should be viewed as most important? Like, is it more important to help students learn to control their impulses, or more important to help them make more ethically responsible decisions? Is it more important for a school to shape students into more empathetic and respectful individuals, or to help them recognize one’s own strengths and becoming more self-confident?

(As I said: Easier said than done.)

Toward SEL Intentionality: Measure to Narrow & Prioritize

To narrow that sprawling landscape down a bit, we at Search Institute recommend that schools start all their SEL intentionality with some kind of objective measurement–data that can make students’ social-emotional states and needs more plainly visible.

These data help us to avoid going exclusively with what our gut might tell us about students’ social and emotional needs. They use verified, site-specific proof to prioritize certain social-emotional categories higher than others, allowing each site to do its own best work. (Rather than, say, implementing blanket solutions that simply don’t apply in some contexts.)

As such, a site beginning all its SEL improvement planning around some objective SEL measurement and begins the process of deep continuous improvement–not just the additional improvement I know so many educators to be growing weary of. It locates and verifies students’ social-emotional growth areas so appropriate practices can be collaboratively designed, developed, and improved. (Which, take it from me, school staffs tend to like a whole lot more than practices they have to start doing because “the district said we have to, and they’ll be sending teams over in the next month to observe.” Talk about building buy-in…)

How Are You Measuring?

A critical step, though, is finding the right measurement instrument or processes for assessing and analyzing your students’ social and emotional states/needs. In our motivation-via-relationships work with schools, we recommend our own REACH Survey because it aligns to all parts of the REACH research and resources already in motion at that school.

Other schools, though, may not be doing motivation- or REACH-specific improvement work, but use Search Institute-created instruments of (Attitudes & Behaviors Survey or the Developmental Assets Profile) to better understand their students in light of our 40 Developmental Assets work. (NOTE: We are currently recruiting partner schools to help us build and test Developmental Relationships-related survey tools. If you like Developmental Relationships and would be willing to help out, please email me at There will be free stuff/incentives along the way!)

Here’s The Point. If you currently have no data to more objectively describe the states of your students’ SEL qualities, finding that data should be your SEL leadership group’s (the one you gathered after reading the first post in this series, remember?) Job One: Research available surveys/assessments, look for available interview/focus group protocols, find out if funding and time is available, and all the rest. Having that data is important.

While you’re at it, plan a couple meetings for your leadership team to go over the data once it’s harvested, about three hours in total. (This is the minimum amount of time I schedule when I facilitate a “3D Analysis”–for Distributions, Demographics, and Details, that is–of our REACH Survey, for example.) There’ll be a lot to process. And as these sessions’ end goal should be a limited number of prioritized SEL focus areas clear enough to communicate widely, they’ll need some time to get there.

As I’m reaching the edge of blog-readable length here, I will for now forego any details about the data-analysis-to-decision-making process. If you have questions, reach out to me or to Search’s Mary Shrader ( to set up a call.

In the next installment of this series I’ll be talking about how, to design and integrate more effective SEL practices across your school, you may want to rethink how professional development happens–the way we typically think about and ‘do’ PD, sadly, won’t be enough to get it done. See you in a couple weeks!

1Quick Reminder: When schools work with us, it is explicitly to improve students’ academic motivation via stronger developmental relationships. In our partnerships with schools, in other words, we are not working in a general SEL-improving capacity. Rather, we have the luxury of working in an already-narrowed and -prioritized space. The school/district has determined in advance that motivation via relationships is an SEL objective they want to get more intentional about, and they’ve enlisted our expertise to help them meet that objective. (And even then, part of this work with schools is using data to break motivation and relationships into smaller grains, to use those grains to set priorities, and so on. Read on for more.)  

2Important Caveat: When looking at data sources to inform your SEL work, it is crucial that the driving objective always be “data for improvement purposes” not “data for accountability purposes”. Importantly, many of the available SEL data sources will rely heavily on students’ and or staffs’ self-report questionnaires. As these can be unreliable in several ways, they should not allow employment consequences or school-quality comparisons to hang in their balance. (Even leading researchers in the SEL space agree.) They can, however, be very useful for several vital improvement matters, and should be leveraged accordingly: prioritizing areas for improvement, understanding students’ perspectives en masse (and by population subgroups for further targeting actions), raising practitioners’ awareness of–and strengthening their commitments to improve on–their practices’ non-academic elements.

3Read: Whichever data source you use (e.g., survey, student focus groups, various school climate data, etc.), the growth areas that emerge come from your students, not from a school leader’s hunch or from some mandate put onto the school from outside.

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