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

by | Sep 5, 2021 | 0 comments

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. 

No one knew what the devastation of a pandemic would bring in the long run–first graders not knowing how to walk the halls properly or how to manage their materials at a desk. We’ve heard incredible stories of students being oddly possessive of classroom supplies in the younger grades–markers and erasers–trivial things that are readily available. And we’re witness to students up-and-leaving a room without asking in the upper grades–something that they did without asking when they learned from home.  

It’s fascinating to see the skills that are typically taught in schools, yet never captured in any accountability rating or report card, now starkly missing from our students in ways that require tons of attention. This, among other strange byproducts of time away from school, dramatically impacts culture, our well-being, and our abilities. Because we are challenged by such new and different problems in schools these days, we can quickly lose our sense of purpose in what we do. Purpose is such a strong indicator of groundedness that when it’s not clearly defined can bring misery.  

So, as we look within ourselves, we want to approach introspection the best way that we know how, effectively working toward finding our solid ground. Instead of just thinking about ourselves and dwelling on our work or lives, we offer very succinct prompts to begin your professional introspective analysis. 

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      •  I know my purpose at work each day.
      •  My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.

The answer to the first prompt may seem simple and intuitive at first, such as, “Of, course, I know my purpose, I teach. I’m a teacher. My purpose is to impart knowledge.” But, work beyond surface responses that don’t provide the specificity that truly reflects your inner definition of the purpose behind your work. You might come to something like “My purpose is to change lives” or “I plan to influence the system to be more innovative than education typically is.” The grander the statement, the better. Next, ask yourself the second prompt…if your purpose no longer matches your daily activities, you need to reclaim your ground. 

Reclaim Your Ground: Empowerment

No matter what happens, it is within my power to turn it to my advantage.  ~ Epictetus

Once you clearly identify your solid ground, you need to reclaim it. There is serious power in taking control of the things that you can. Despite all of the challenges in schools for teachers and leaders, there are several elements of schooling that we directly impact and that are within our control. A few that we work through in our school leadership training are as follows:

  • Visiting classrooms 
  • Planning with high-yield instructional strategies 
  • Increasing student engagement
  • Empowering teacher leaders 
  • Creating a winning culture
  • Clarifying the vision of the school
  • Praising others and using feedback cycles for school improvement 

The next step is to identify a process goal within a particular area that we can control for the day or week. If classroom management is a challenge, then that can become a clear area of focus. Danielle Doolan, team member of The Career Contessa, which “…helps working women be more fulfilled, healthy, and successful at worktell readers this: 


Process goals are the specific actions we take to increase our chances of achieving our outcome goals. These are the behaviors and strategies that we implement that help us set a path to achieve our desired result. Process goals are 100% controllable.”

This is of vital importance as you work to reclaim your ground. Process goals require specific actions. Those actions are under our direction and control. Determining the specifics of what you work on each day creates a greater sense of calm, connectedness, and confidence (The Three Cs of Empowerment). 

  Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I feel connected to my work.
      • I see the results of my efforts.

Take the time to think about your responses. If you feel connected and you are seeing results, what is contributing to your success? Name it so that it can be repeated. However, if you are reading this and you find yourself disconnected and frustrated, start by identifying a couple goals that you would like to achieve this month and be sure to identify the actions you need to take to reach success. 

With the clarity of our purpose in mind and process goals for taking action, we are ready to bloom. 

Thrive in Your Ground: Blooming

Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you. ~ Epictetus

Identifying, finding, and claiming your solid ground will provide the necessary foundation to thrive in work and life. We approach thriving and this journey of development from a different angle than your typical school leadership training. The reality is that we don’t see the effects of all of our decisions right away. Development takes time and is actually a practice of redundancy and habit formation. Thriving can actually seem uneventful at first for those who love to start and try new things. Setting and starting activities and initiatives is fun, but the real work is in the day-to-day activities that will bear the fruit of our labor. 

This pursuit and drive forward flourishes in what Jim Collins describes as The Hedgehog Concept versus what he explains to be the work of the fox. The fox, “[is] scattered, diffused, and inconsistent, while the hedgehog understands that driving toward a concrete destination is what really works.” Thriving is focused and consistent; something that many of us struggle with in a time when so much has changed and so much is still uncertain. Disillusionment is born from doubt, skepticism, and suspicion about which direction we’re going and why. We get back on track when we find our inspiration and we rekindle our passion. 

Consider the following questions regarding how your purpose is congruent with you developing and growing in your role–thriving for the future.

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
      • I am passionate about my daily purpose.

We find inspiration in the people with whom we work, not just because they’re doing the work but because they want to get better at it. In all of our findings, readings, and trainings, we’ve realized that the most passionate people are inspired by the company they keep and the strategies they use as a team to improve. We call that a learning culture and a performance culture because it’s based on continuous improvement and a desire to do whatever we can to find success. We also recommend that leaders measure purpose and other aspects of school culture so that we can lead from a point of our strengths and work on the areas that require our attention. 

Assessing School Culture with REPSS

In our book, Building A Winning Team, we developed TheSchoolHouse302 Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools (REPSS) to measure a school’s culture using the perceptions of the staff. This process can create greater levels of clarity, trust, accountability, support, growth, and innovation in schools–all indicators of highly supportive, effective, and caring cultures.

This month we are completely focused on the purpose aspect of the survey because it sets the stage and tone for the other areas. You’ll find some of the reflection questions throughout the blog post and below as well. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions/prompts to fully unveil your purpose and consider the power in knowing the aggregate answers that your school community might post if they took this survey together. What might you do with that data as someone who wants to lead better and grow faster? After all, if things aren’t as good as they should be…or could be…then we have work to do. 


Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools


  • I know my purpose at work each day.
  • My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.
  • I feel connected to my work.
  • I see the results of my efforts. 
  • I tell a positive story about my workplace. 
  • The school brand communicated to the public is the same as the culture I experience as a professional. 
  • Our school’s core values are so clear that I know what is expected of me on a daily basis.
  • I find the work I do rewarding. 
  • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
  • I am passionate about my daily purpose. 

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, & SoundCloud. 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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