The 6 Significant Ways to Build Your SEL-Focused School Culture

by | Sep 5, 2021 | 0 comments

13 min read

As schools reopen their doors to their students, welcoming over 56 million learners nationwide in our elementary and secondary public schools, two pressing questions are on every educator’s mind: 

  1. How can I effectively engage and educate every student to accelerate their learning and ensure that they are on grade level?
  2. How can I connect with every student to ensure that they develop emotionally and socially to thrive in and outside of the classroom?

The two areas are interconnected and deeply rooted within one another. We know through the powerful work of Bandura that self-efficacy is vital for student success, including how they view their own achievement and the school itself. As much as we want our schools to be havens of personal and intellectual development, attending school is not always a positive experience for every child. 

That said, we know that when social and emotional learning strategies are woven into school policies down to the lesson plan, we see improvements to student performance as well as their behavior. To be sure that this work is done well and lives within our schools in a productive and pervasive way, it’s important to first establish a working understanding of exactly what we mean by SEL. 

What is Social and Emotional Learning in Schools? 

Schools go far beyond the 3Rs of foundational learning and skills. At one time, reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic were considered to be the drivers of instruction. Although they serve as a good starting point, educators–from principal leaders to teachers–now realize that we need to focus on the whole child. At TheSchoolHouse302 we refer to this as “The Blend” regarding effective evidence-based pedagogy and social and emotional learning strategies. 

We want our educators to be pedagogical powerhouses with a blended focus so as to offer high-level instruction along with a strong knowledge of the individual learner–a balance and blend of curriculum and care, instruction and insight, technology and tenacity, accountability and awareness. The Blend is an approach to planning lessons and school-based activities with a focus on both the academic and social and emotional side of the student. 

Educators must possess a keen understanding of each student’s needs to effectively educate all students and to help them acquire skills to be able to socialize productively and effectively, this includes learning how to cope and process their own emotions and attitudes. For teachers and school leaders to optimize The Blend, it requires a culture within the school that embraces academic rigor as well as SEL. Culture is often an elusive concept so we put together 6 significant ways to build an SEL culture within a school. 

As you get started building your SEL culture, we want to acknowledge the specific work that goes into it. We paint a full picture of what it means to have an SEL approach to schooling, starting with a model and the needed framework to move the work forward. Additionally, pay close attention to how these six concepts build upon one another to demonstrate a full scope of The Blend that you’ll want to achieve. 

A Social and Emotional Learning Framework

When considering a framework for SEL, we don’t have to look any further than CASEL’s wheel. This is a powerful visual that identifies the essential components of SEL that many organizations work to achieve. It is comprehensive and encompasses all of the critical environments that make up a culture–classrooms, schools, homes, and communities. Each element is interconnected. 

SEL Strategy #1: Assembling a Core Team 

Identifying and having a core team to lead this work will support greater collaboration and representation. The composition of the group should represent the diversity and needs of the students and staff. One powerful aspect of having a core SEL team is that they can solicit input from a variety of stakeholders. 

Social and Emotional Learning for Teachers

Education is an emotionally charged profession. Rarely will you hear teachers say that they joined this profession to simply teach a subject, but rather inspire kids, change the trajectory of a student’s life, develop a passion for learning among their students, and change the world. The reasons are endless and the passion is energizing. The challenge is that educators can also experience high levels of frustration, burnout, and disillusionment. That’s why the power of self care is more important than ever. Social and emotional learning doesn’t work for students if our teachers aren’t self-aware enough to take care of their social and emotional needs as well. A quality SEL culture includes everyone.  

SEL Strategy #2: Improving Self-Awareness for Staff to Manage Stress 

Improving self-awareness for staff is easier said than done and not typically something that school leaders think to do for teacher SEL. That said, incorporating activities, such as the following, at faculty meetings and staff gatherings is a way for staff to learn more about their own self-regulation needs. This self-awareness strategy is from Lorea Martinez’s blog post, What do you do with your stress? Building Resilience through Emotional Intelligence. We love the ERC framework and the wisdom that Dr. Martinez shares.

Self-Awareness Strategy

Reflection Question: What are the situations, circumstances or people that are causing your stress? Write them down and assign an E for Eliminate, R for Reduce, or C for Cope:

  • E – Eliminate. These are items that you can probably let go. For example, if you are drowning with a never-ending list of “to dos,” find volunteers at school (students or parents) to help you with the tasks that others can do for you. They might not get done the way you would do them, but you will be able to check them off your list, allowing you to feel less overwhelmed. 
  • R – Reduce. Reducing the strength of your stressors is sometimes a more viable solution than eliminating them entirely. For example, changing your morning or evening routine to make better use of your time is something that has been called a miracle. Ten extra minutes in the morning for a quick mediation exercise can change your level of stress for the rest of the day. 
  • C – Cope. In some cases, learning to cope with stress might be the only option and you’ll have to tap into your problem-solving skills to do so. What are some choices in a given situation? Just knowing that you have control helps with coping. Can you look at this stressor from an alternative perspective? Stress can often make us stronger in the long run. Who can help you? Identify an expert and seek to improve your skills in the area that stresses you. 

To find out more about Dr. Lorea Martinez’s work, visit here.

Social and Emotional Learning Training for Your School

When schools embark on the journey toward developing a training program for the entire school to learn about SEL, one key consideration makes all the difference: SEL itself should be embedded throughout the existing programs, policies, and other training sessions as much as possible. We cannot treat SEL training similar to how we often approach other new curriculum updates and pedagogical professional development. Of course, you can do some upfront SEL training sessions for teachers, but after that, all other training and professional learning should get an SEL spin to it. We draw on the analogy of the common problems with dieting. We often look to a weight loss “program, “ which tends not to be aligned to our lifestyle. Willpower and discipline hold us steady for a while but eventually we regress back to our original way of living. We may even end up worse off than when we started. The problem is the dieting program, similar to initiatives, is that they remain separate from our day-to-day work. SEL has to be woven into the fabric of the school or it will end up being something on the agenda rather than incorporated into the lessons.  

SEL Strategy #3: Taking Certificate-Based Courses

One powerful way to train individuals that can lead this work in our schools, for staff and students, is to earn a micro-credential. Although we haven’t completed this course, which is a partnership between Rutgers and the College of Saint Elizabeth, it does provide the type of credentialing that can inspire confidence and knowledge among those looking to lead this work and ensure it’s done well. As the leader, if you’re not going to get an SEL certification, consider tapping into a teacher leader to take the course and become your school’s subject matter expert

Social and Emotional Learning Resources 

A quick google search reveals a variety of different resources available for schools. We’ve already mentioned the Heart in Mind blog, which offers a ton of information for those seeking to learn more about SEL. You definitely want to read 3 Ingredients for a Strong SEL Year.  We also like Cultured Kids, which has a broad focus with universal themes. This resonates with us because they focus on cultural competence, which is an employability skill. Also, be sure to sign up for LaVonna Roth’s SHINEtastic Lessons. You can get 12 lessons for every age group. LaVonna’s OneThingSeries interview with us has a ton to offer about SEL as well. Finally, sign up for our 302 Thoughts this month. We’ll be talking about SEL and pointing to great resources for your school.  

SEL Strategy #4: Connecting with Meaningful Work

Connect the learning resources to other areas of focus like employability skills. Below are the top skills employers are looking for that are directly connected to SEL.


Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum 

Once the team has a good understanding of the resources available, a well-developed curriculum is necessary. We don’t subscribe to a particular curriculum but rather use A.I. to enhance our current curriculum. No, we don’t mean artificial intelligence but rather Associate and Integrate. 

A–Associate what is being learned to the learner so that they can reflect on themselves.

For example, if students are reading a passage, short story, or text connected to a standard “regarding relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts…” that should be connected to the SEL strategy for self awareness, which is tied to self-regulation and emotion. We really do stress The Blend rather than separating SEL from what and how we already teach. 

I–Integrate the SEL standards with the identified curriculum. As mentioned before, for SEL to be effective it needs to be embedded in the lessons. The humanities courses lend themselves to this integration naturally, where the sciences are terrific fits for analyzing, identifying, and solving in systematic ways. 

The good news is that when done well, SEL supports learning and retention of key concepts. Because a major component of SEL is self-reflection, when students are reflecting on the learning–meta-cognition–they get The Blend of SEL and the standards in a way that unlocks the science of learning

SEL Strategy #5: Using a Simple Table for Lesson Organization

Learning Standard
Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more
individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical,
scientific, or technical text based on specific information
in the text.
SEL Standard
STANDARD 4 – SOCIAL AWARENESS – Individual has the ability to
take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse
backgrounds and cultures.
SEL ObjectiveStudents will be able to recognize the various beliefs and values of the
characters in the story and understand the aspects of a healthy
and constructive relationship.
Instructional ActivityStudents will engage in a socratic seminar, identifying the key attitudes,
behaviors, and conditions that led to certain actions and the more
productive decisions that the character could have made.

Setting Social and Emotional Learning Goals

Lastly, we want to anchor all of this work and effort with explicit goals that are aligned to the school and district’s SEL vision. Random and intermittent offerings for staff and students that are not rooted in the established systems of the school will not last or make any notable differences. Your SEL goals should drive the work of the core committee mentioned above. When setting goals consider Who, What, and How. 

  • Who is the goal targeting? We’ve mentioned throughout this post that the SEL schoolwide culture should encompass the staff and the students so it is necessary to create specific goals for each group. 
  • What are we trying to achieve? Each goal should be explicit and measurable.
  • How are we going to achieve the goal? Each goal needs to have a basic plan that outlines the process for accomplishing it and the action steps necessary to gain momentum.  

SEL Strategy #6: Reinventing the Wheel is Unnecessary

There are a great deal of resources online with standards and guiding principles. For example, we found California’s DOE to have a comprehensive document. The advantage of following principles versus something overly prescriptive is the flexibility that you have to work within your resources and identified needs. Every principle you pick, such as “Students and adults must have opportunities to practice, demonstrate, and reinforce social and emotional skills within the context of supportive relationships” can be achieved through the Who, What, and How exercise we outlined above. 


Teachers and students thrive in appreciative, nurturing, supportive, and goal-driven environments. Developing a schoolwide SEL focus that is designed to build a positive human-centered culture transforms environments and, frankly, is life-changing work. Just remember that this work doesn’t have to be done overnight. SEL in modern times dates back to the 1960s, it’s just now amid a pandemic and social injustices that we are relying on ideas that we know build productive students and citizens. Take your time, be strategic, develop your core team, find the right resources, set goals, and make a difference. Let us know how it goes. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 


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