Social-Emotional Learning

Published: October 1, 2021

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process whereby students develop the awareness and skills needed to manage emotions, build empathy, set goals, build relationships, and learn positive decision-making skills. Studies have found that adopting SEL in schools supports positive school communities and improves academic outcomes. The key to academic achievement is to promote psychological development in students and to recognize that social development is as important as a student’s academic ability.

Rachel Madding is a mental health program manager at Highline Public Schools. When asked about the importance of social-emotional learning, she said, “The biggest indicator of academic success is social-emotional safety in school. When a student is feeling unsafe or threatened, nothing they are being taught will stick. Students who have experienced complex trauma need school to be an emotionally safe environment.”

Examples of SEL may include teaching conflict management skills, embedding social-emotional check-ins into all subject classes, and modeling and practicing coping skills with students. Strong SEL promotes positive behavior and lessens emotional stress, reduces disciplinary incidents, and improves school- community cohesion. For youth experiencing homelessness, SEL skills can serve as protective mechanisms against risk factors associated with homelessness.

When students are emotionally and mentally supported, they are more likely to learn and thrive in a structured, safe environment. McKinney-Vento liaisons, teachers, and district leadership can advocate for culturally responsive SEL materials and programming to create safer, more equitable environments in schools for students experiencing homelessness.

(Note: Abbreviations following recommendations indicate sources for those recommendations. See the Sources Key below for details.)

Goal 1: Trauma-informed, culturally responsive SEL programming with an anti-racist lens is implemented throughout all subjects and classes.

  1. Use a racial equity tool to vet all SEL sources for implicit bias and to challenge white dominant cultural values in schools (i.e., inflexible communication styles that do not account for students’ cultural backgrounds, individualistic versus communal learning, and outcomes-based learning versus relationship-based learning). (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Create teacher/staff evaluations and accountability systems on implicit bias and racial equity to effectively address microaggressions in the classroom. (PE, LE)
  2. Ensure SEL efforts are rooted in building relationships rather than managing behaviors and data outcomes. Studies show that youth can sense inauthenticity, which can further harm potential student-teacher relationships. (PE, LE)
    • Strategy 1: Include students’ voices in SEL curriculum development by incorporating their feedback and recommendations. (PE, LE)
  3. Offer continuous training and time to reflect for all staff to better respond to the needs of students. Training can include topics such as implicit bias, trauma-informed care, how to repair harm with students, and strategies for emotional self-regulation. (PE)

Goal 2: SEL values and practices are normalized and modeled by fostering a community of support throughout school environments.

  1. Create accountability systems to repair harm in school communities at all levels (e.g., staff, students, and families). (LE)
  2. Provide ongoing professional development regarding secondary trauma and mental health of teachers and staff, and create routine check-ins with staff (not just after tragic events) to build a culture of staff wellness. (PE)
  3. Advocate for more funding to increase capacity for more support staff at schools. This can help create lower student-teacher ratios in classrooms to promote relationship-building. (LE)
  4. Embed SEL values throughout disciplinary procedures to support students rather than penalize them. (PE, LE)
  5. Discuss equity, cultural humility, race-based stress and trauma, racism, and societal events that can impact students at a Tier 1 level. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Offer small groups to advise and counsel people experiencing racism and other forms of oppression in school environments, and provide avenues to repair harm in school communities. (PE)
    • Strategy 2: Provide ongoing training and reflection opportunities for teachers and staff about implicit bias, root causes of homelessness, and cultural responsiveness to address negative preconceptions about students experiencing homelessness. (PE, LE)
    • Strategy 3: To better prepare future teachers, advocate for changes to graduate-level teaching programs using an anti-racist, intersectional lens to avoid perpetuating microaggressions and unconscious biases about students experiencing homelessness and their families. (PE, LE)
  6. Prioritize responding to mental health needs through prevention and intervention strategies.
    • Strategy 1: Create universal mental health screeners vetted by racial equity tools to systematically respond to all student needs. For example, in King County, Best Starts for Kids was integrated into middle schools. (PE)

Goal 3: SEL values and practices are normalized and modeled by fostering a community of support throughout school environments.

  1. Create opportunities to gather feedback from families experiencing homelessness regarding school environment and safety. (LE)
  2. Prioritize the safety and well-being of students, especially those experiencing homelessness, by offering them the time and space to get their basic needs met (e.g., catch up on sleep, eat, do laundry). (PE, LE)
    • Strategy 1: Make school events, such as curriculum nights and family nights, accessible for students and families experiencing homelessness by providing transportation. (PE)

Sources Key

AcronymCategorySources Include:
PEProfessional ExpertiseBuilding Changes staff; school and district staff interviewed through Schoolhouse Washington-funded projects and our Students of Color project
LELived ExpertiseInterviews with with parents, students (including those from our Students of Color project), and school staff in Washington State
MMMixed-methods ResearchBeating the Odds quantitative and qualitative analysis showing association between a practice and better-than-predicted outcomes

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