Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a hot topic in schools across the nation—and for good reason: A recent survey of elementary and middle school principals shows a high degree of concern about issues associated with student mental health and socioemotional needs. Principals and their teams of educators I’ve met across the country seem to agree, then, that sound development of SEL skills is imperative to students’ success in school and in life.
After becoming president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), I took a two-week, 4,800-mile, 28-school road trip across the United States to talk with other principals, school administrators and teachers to find out what they’re proudest of in their schools and what keeps them up at night. (Check out #PrincipalRoadTrip on Twitter to read about where I visited and what I learned on my Epic Ed-venture.)
The greater educational community understands that student success in the classroom and out of the school setting is predicated on the foundation SEL provides. Research shows that classrooms function more effectively and student learning increases when children are able to focus their attention, manage their negative emotions, navigate their relationships and persist in the face of difficulty.
SEL is a fairly new concept. In 2018, it ranked as the top concern among participating principals in the survey, which formed the basis of NAESP’s Pre-K–8 School Leader in 2018: A 10-Year Study cited above. But issues such as self-management and mental health weren’t always a priority in schools. In the same survey, just 10 years prior, none of these student-related issues was identified as major concerns.
Despite SEL’s importance, child development, education and health care experts all agree that challenges remain as schools navigate the implementation process for their students. That’s why NAESP wanted to do something to help principals help their students. Enter longtime NAESP partner The Wallace Foundation, which has commissioned extensive research on SEL in recent years. The end result of this collaboration was Leading Lessons: Social and Emotional Learning.
The guide addresses developing SEL instructional skills and strategies and ways for schools to work with out-of-school programs to keep the SEL continuum of learning going outside of the classroom. Principals can use the guide to identify the right SEL focus area—interpersonal skills, character, cognitive regulation, emotional processes and mindset—to ensure student growth in their schools.
Then, collaborating with their teachers and leadership teams, they can select an existing program whose primary focus matches what has been identified as a key focus area for that school. I know firsthand that it’s not as simple as just picking a program, though. Partnering with the right SEL program for your school can be the key to success. Leading Lessons offers a resource section that features 33 leading SEL and character development programs profiled in The Wallace Foundation’s Navigating SEL From the Inside Out report, with descriptions of the primary focus and other details of each program.
What else did I learn from my conversations with educators across the country? This is a nationwide initiative. It didn’t matter if I was visiting a rural school in Wisconsin or an urban school in Kentucky; educators spoke in unison about the need for systematic implementation of SEL opportunities for their students.
Eric Cardwell is a principal in Michigan and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.