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The One Key to Effective SEL Implementation

By Jeff Waller, Co-Author and Co-Creator of the 7 Mindsets |  Sept 14, 2018

Social and Emotional Learning is only as good as, will only ever be as good as, the teacher who stands and delivers it. If teachers are engaged, if they have bought into the program, students’ lives will forever be transformed. If teachers are not engaged, then you have most likely implemented “one more thing,” one more tool that will sit on a shelf collecting dust. If you win the teachers, you win the students, their parents, and ultimately the community.

We are very proud of our solution. We believe it is the most comprehensive and engaging curriculum on the market. I have witnessed its tremendous impact on thousands of students and educators around the country. I have also seen it fall short. Lessons that are dynamic and powerful in one classroom come off as mechanical and cheesy in others.

So, what differentiates a highly impactful experience? If we boil it down to one word, it is “connection.” Great SEL is about creating conversations that foster improved relationships, which then create the platform for impact. Anyone who tells you otherwise has never sat in front of 25 eighth graders trying to help them understand social and emotional concepts like resilience, growth mindset, empathy, and decision-making.

Here is why conversation is so important. We as adults can write curriculum that we think is relevant. We can wrap these concepts around emotional videos, experiential activities, and reflective processes. We can use language that is more accessible and engaging than adult-based terms like self-advocacy and responsibility. We can do all these things and still come up short. The key ingredient for success is conversation.

Here is the magic of student discussion. When students connect with a concept and share with their peers, they connect it to their lives in a deep and meaningful way. By sharing this, they make the concept exponentially more relevant and meaningful to the rest of the class. The “gold” of SEL is student discussion. Are teachers able to get students to talk? Are they searching for and finding great teaching moments?

Here are some strategies that will allow you to have the greatest degree of success with your SEL initiatives:

Make It Teacher Friendly

In our experience working with educational leaders, we have found that they are tired of pushing programs on their teachers. They feel like they are swimming up-stream and asking too much of an already over-burdened team. They want something that teachers are excited about; they want to paddle downstream and in the same direction as their teachers. We need to stop adding to what we are asking teachers to do and start giving them tools that fuel their passion and energy to impact students.

As you consider implementing SEL, remember that it is only as good as the teachers when they are in front of the students. Your success will be directly proportionate to their level of enthusiasm and buy-in with the program. This comes down to leadership, communication, and enabling your teachers to implement the solution.

Our training and coaching process has evolved. Central to our solution is the focus of first using the 7 Mindsets to inspire educators to connect the concepts to their own lives, dreams, and relationships. If we want to create the highest level of success, we need to give the teachers fuel that will get them excited.

This focus creates the platform in which teachers authenticate our solution, allowing them to insert their own lives into the conversation and create spaces where students are comfortable sharing openly. With SEL curriculum, you can personalize it, or you can just try to sell it. If you are only selling it, they aren’t buying.

Make It About Conversation

We get asked by educational leaders how they should measure the impact of an SEL program. There are many quantitative and qualitative models we can suggest. However, from a leadership perspective, the most critical indicator will be the level of conversation that is being created in the classroom. It is conversation that builds relationships that create the foundation for student impact.

As you observe or teach our program, understand that the critical success factor is getting the students to talk and share. If you keep that singular focus, you will drive cultural transformation, and improve achievement, behavior, and attendance. When getting a feel for how SEL is working, the single question, “Are you able to create good conversation?” is by far the most telling.

Focus on Teacher Buy-In and Engagement

A passage by Lee Shulman was once shared with me. It states, “Classroom teaching . . . is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented. In fact, when I compared the complexity of teaching with that much more highly rewarded profession, ‘doing medicine,’ I concluded that the only time medicine even approaches the complexity of an average day of classroom teaching is in an emergency room during a natural disaster.”

We are asking a lot of teachers. In many ways, Social and Emotional Learning pushes teachers into the realm of therapy. Not only are we asking them to teach subject matter, but we are also asking them to build a community of trust, de-escalate issues, and even intervene, in some cases. It is an incredible responsibility to not only manage and instruct 20+ students but to meet them where they are, in an individually unique and nurturing manner.

The greatest opportunities for improvement will be providing techniques and strategies that allow teachers to feel more comfortable and more equipped to engage students in meaningful discussion. Our recommendation is to organize a leadership team with the singular focus of making sure every teacher in the school is comfortable and equipped to deliver a great lesson. There will be introverted teachers that are not comfortable with SEL. Over time they can become some of your very best, but they need to be supported over the first few months of the implementation. It is important to have open lines of communication with all teachers, a communication process that is constantly keeping a pulse on the program and identifying and addressing the educators who may not be thriving initially.

Disengagement is the epidemic of our time. Students are disengaged at school, parents are disengaged at home, and employees are disengaged in the workplace. When we are disengaged, we seek more exciting forms of engagement, and often those forms are destructive in nature.

The antidote to disengagement is connection. When we connect with other individuals, we engage, and we perform and function at higher levels. That is why conversation is so essential. It is the element of SEL that builds community and fosters connection. It is the essential ingredient in environments where every student can thrive and where teachers experience what they treasure most: the feeling of connecting, developing meaningful relationships, and impacting student lives.