Effective and Sustainable, Part I: Taking a Whole Community Approach to SEL | Nick Haisman-Smith | 4 Min Read

Advancing equity-rooted, Social and Emotional Learning that is both effective and sustainable over time, is a challenge to which all schools must rise in the post-pandemic world. In this article, I will share an evidence-led framework and some practical insights that will guide compassionate and impactful action, regardless of your school’s current level of SEL development.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process of lifelong learning to understand and flourish in our intrapersonal and interpersonal worlds. It is through SEL that we learn critical skills to ensure an equitable, just, and inclusive society in which empathy abounds and all people thrive.

A Whole Community Framework for SEL

To ensure that aspirations for nurturing SEL across a community are realized and sustained over time, a Whole Community Approach, looking beyond just the curriculum, is essential.

This broader focus brings integrity and a sense of community-wide consistency to SEL work. It also avoids SEL becoming an add-on or something that happens only in Advisory or Morning Meeting or something that lives with the counselor.

The Institute for SEL’s Whole Community Framework 
1. Teaching Student SEL skills through an evidence-led spiraling curriculum 
2. Pedagogical practices to integrate SEL into all teaching/learning areas, including essential anti-racist, anti-bias, and trauma-informed practices
3. A focus on adult SEL and well-being 
4. SEL lens on schoolwide structures and systems
5. Connections to home
6. SEL-informed responses to every day and more significant events that impact the community 

Each of these dimensions of a Whole Community Approach is complex and warrant detailed investigation. For this article, I will focus on just the first three — not that they are the most important, but rather that they are often the starting points for schools.

1. Teaching Student SEL Skills

The explicit teaching and learning of SEL skills are the foundation of an effective, impactful approach to SEL in schools. It is through the transformative experiences of SEL lessons that students learn, reflect, and integrate SEL into their lives, behaviors, and decisions. In the design of this curriculum, a spiraling approach enables students to revisit the SEL competencies over time, deepening their understanding and seeing them through the lens of each new developmental stage.

The SEL tool of communication is one example. In the youngest grades, we teach about the companion skills of listening and speaking, perhaps focusing on the widely known “I-Message.” Yet, as students grow and mature, we can spiral and deepen the concept to focus on the more sophisticated skills of Assertive Communication, Listening to Understand, Speaking from I, and Self-Advocacy. These kinds of spirals, across all SEL tools and competencies, engage students in their authentic real-world experience and build a consistent and clear language that is the backbone of best practices for SEL.  

An intentional and spiraling SEL curriculum can have positive outcomes for students while moving a school toward a rooted and sustainable Whole Community Approach to SEL.

However, experience and compelling research tell us that the broader context in which those lessons take place is critical to the success of this work.

2. SEL Pedagogy: The “How” Is as Important as the “What”

Teaching SEL is a facilitative experience. In creating a space for students to explore the social and emotional domains of their lives through the spiraling curriculum illustrated above, we educators must adjust our frame toward being a facilitator rather than “the teacher.” To do this, we can draw upon pedagogical tools, including:

  • Open and reflective questioning
  • Deep listening
  • Offering students choice
  • Providing a variety of types of experiences and activities
  • Designing curriculum to affirm diverse perspectives

These pedagogical practices can be activated not only in Advisory and Morning Meeting but also in all classes, sports, trips, and service-learning. When this happens, a child’s educational experience is infused with SEL-informed practices all day long, and learning is catalyzed as a result. 

We know that all learning takes place in and among our social relations, identities, and histories. SEL must therefore be rooted in and grow from our diverse communities, and it must focus on understanding varied perspectives, privilege, and traumas. For the Whole Community Approach to SEL to be authentic and equity-focused, administrators and teachers need to focus on ensuring that SEL works to actively dismantle systemic racism and oppression. In particular, it is critical to ask whether the SEL curriculum promotes and affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds and resists conformity to any dominant culture. This work to interrogate our SEL practices and curriculum resources also requires us to assess how universal SEL teaching and learning fit into a tiered approach to supporting students who have experienced trauma. This is a critical set of issues and I hope all educators will connect with IFSEL and other equity-focused SEL Leaders to explore them further.

3. Educator SEL as a Mediator of Success

Abundant research illustrates that teachers are the most important in-school factor contributing to student success, satisfaction, and achievement. Alongside the many other variables that influence teachers’ well-being (pay, working conditions, etc.), teacher SEL is critical: If we want good SEL outcomes for students, we have to start with the adults. This means reframing teacher SEL from ‘self-care’ initiatives, to an approach that builds communal-care, and changes systems and structures that negatively impact teacher wellness.

My hope with this article is to share some of the broader contextual factors that need to be addressed, alongside the SEL curriculum, to enable whole communities to thrive and for equity-rooted SEL endeavors to be sustained over time.

Doing this heart-heavy work is not easy, and it takes time, committed leadership, and a willingness to test, refine, and persist in bringing creative, experiential, anti-racist SEL practices to all corners of our school communities. 

Note: For support assessing and prioritizing action to improve your school’s SEL efforts, try IFSEL’s “School/District SELf Reflection Tool”: https://www.instituteforsel.net/self-reflection-tool

Nick Haisman-Smith

Nick Haisman-Smith ([email protected]) is the Executive Director at the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning and a doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, focusing on social and emotional learning, educator well-being, and education policy.

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