4 Core SEL Practices for Visionary District Leaders

Response through the eyes of esteemed colleague  Sheldon Berman. 

“A caring school community gives our students a vision of the way the world could be.” – Dr. Sheldon Berman, AASA Lead Superintendent for Social-Emotional Learning.

Dr. Berman has been a trailblazer for effective SEL solutions and travels the country speaking on the fundamental necessity of a top-down approach to a positive district culture.

Social-emotional learning has found its way into nearly every school district and has been met with either acceptance or controversial hesitation. 

In a presentation, Sheldon explains that there’s no tradeoff between social-emotional learning and academic learning – a misconception among educators. Dedicating time to SEL in schools won’t have a negative impact on academic learning. In reality, a school district cannot be successful without both individual and academic learning. Not only is SEL beneficial for students’ wellness and academic success, it creates a strong leadership culture. 

Dr. Sheldon identified four Core SEL Practices for effective implementation.

  • Teach Empathy and Social Skills – Part of the core elements of social skills include sensing another’s experience, providing an empathic response, and developing the social skills needed to lead a productive life.


  • Community Building – Instilling a sense of community in your students will make them feel less isolated and better resourced. Through community building, a district-wide culture will develop. 


  • Curriculum Integration – Whether sneaking SEL concepts into core content or doing concentrated self-work through direct SEL learning, students can build and foster resiliency and adapt to life and academic skills. 


  • Service Learning – Giving back to the community fosters a sense of accomplishment. This is done when a student’s sense of self is strong enough to know they have something to offer others. When students are holistically prepared for life, they focus on humanitarian gestures and charitable connections. 

The challenge arises with the question of “how?”

Buy-in, support and strong leadership are the cornerstones for success and begin with you. 

When you embody the culture you want to see in your district, the wheels of example are then put in motion. Through authenticity, passion and intention, your district can exemplify your vision.

As with anything new, SEL and culture-setting will likely be met with resistance and challenges. Sheldon specifically addresses challenges seen during his tenure.   

A few of these challenges include: confusion around when or how to align SEL with core instruction, teacher time constraints and misaligned core beliefs around culture, diversity, equity and inclusion. District members may also experience confusion about the culture of discipline, i.e. punitive vs. restorative.

Just as you teach your students to embrace their resilience and push through, your leadership relies upon you to also do the same. Effective implementations and outcomes are rarely easy and trailblazing is where you come in. According to Dr. Sheldon, here’s how to help the transition:

By creating safe and culturally responsive classrooms, students will engage and grow academically and teachers will grow through their student connections. From this safe space, students can understand the vision of their district leaders. When they know they matter, oftentimes, the future becomes a reality. 

Serving your students will require that your teams are offered high-quality, relevant professional development that supports your vision. When your teams see your investment in your vision and feel supported as a result of their collaboration, their buy-in will increase. 

Many know that qualified SEL programs can provide windows to futures. It can be a culture-builder for students, the community and your educators. When done well, and not as a box-checker solution, SEL can be revolutionary. It’s not impossible for students to be both academically sound and life-prepared. Through your leadership, you can actualize a district of wellness, cohesion and hope for the future. 

To learn more about BASE and start the SEL journey at your school click HERE.