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New Book Maps How Schools Can Successfully Support Students’ Social and Emotional Learning

Professor Rimm-Kaufman offers insights into how teachers and leaders can work together to effectively implement longstanding SEL practices in their schools.

Audrey Breen

School is out for the summer and with camps, vacations and other seasonal activities in full swing, kids will have an opportunity to practice the lessons they learned during the school year—including lessons like how to play well with others and manage strong emotions. Lessons that help teach these types of skills are part of what educators call social and emotional learning (SEL). 
“These are the skills we want kids to learn so that they can use them now and so they can also become thriving young adults upon graduation,” said Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Commonwealth Professor of Education and the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. “We want them to care about people and get along with them, including with people who are different than them. And we want kids to understand their emotions and learn how to manage them. Ultimately, SEL can help prepare kids for an increasingly uncertain world and teach them how to work with others to solve problems in ethical ways.”

Sara Rimm-Kaufman

According to Rimm-Kaufman—who has been studying SEL for more than two decades—between 90 and 95 percent of principals agree that it is important to teach these social and emotional skills in schools. However, schools’ effectiveness in implementing SEL varies.  
“Like almost anything in education, there is a lot of variation where some schools are doing exceptionally well implementing SEL practices in their classrooms, and some schools are really struggling with it,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “As it turns out, there are so many factors outside the classroom that factor into whether teachers can or cannot teach SEL.” 
This spring, she co-edited a book, Social and Emotional Learning in Action, designed to help educators—from district leaders to classroom teachers—build sustainable and effective SEL practices in their schools. While working on the book with co-editors Michael Strambler, associate professor at Yale, and Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, Rimm-Kaufman discovered that they needed to focus primarily on adults. 
“The question that educators typically ask me is, what SEL program should we use in our school?” Rimm-Kaufman said. “So, I used to help schools navigate which programs might be good for them to consider. Now, I’ve begun to realize that successful SEL is not just about the program, but also the culture and priorities of the school and district.”  
According to Rimm-Kaufman, there are ways that some districts and schools value relationships and put that in the foreground. They build trust and value the time it takes to be caring toward the adults and kids in schools.  
“I see how schools can harness the powerful relationships they have in the schools to address challenging situations that arise,” she said. “Above all, these schools and districts seem to value whole-child development and are not focused only on math and reading achievement at the expense of all else.”

Navigating Teacher Burnout 

It is well documented that teacher stress and teacher burnout are very high. A typical way schools have integrated SEL is to select a program, implement it for a couple of years, and then put it aside to try something new. Too often, the teachers who are implementing the program have little say in what approaches will be adopted. 
“This kind of approach was putting a lot of pressure on teachers,” she said. “I even heard a teacher say, ‘We're going to eventually get a new SEL program, so I'm going sit this one out and wait for the next one because I'm overwhelmed.’” 
To navigate these challenges, Rimm-Kaufman and her co-editors recommend starting with a school culture that is committed to long-term, sustained work, deeply engaging with some of the same ideas over time.  
“The good news is that SEL program developers are realizing the need for and value in this sustained work and are developing multiyear training with lots of good coaching—which is really, really important,” Rimm-Kaufman said.  
In addition to increased training and coaching, teachers benefit from intentional community-building for the adults across the school, as well as efforts to help educators develop their own social and emotional skills. 
“Before teachers can really be fully present for their students and effectively teach these life skills, they need to possess a deep understanding of themselves,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “For instance, that means knowing when it’s time to reach out for help rather than persisting at a problem on their own. It also means being aware of what issues ‘get under their skin’ and make it difficult to respond effectively.” 

Four Elements of Effective SEL  

According to Rimm-Kaufman, the places most effectively implementing SEL leverage teacher agency with strong leadership to combine a bottom-up with a top-down approach. This shared leadership is the first of four elements of effective SEL implementation 
According to Rimm-Kaufman, teachers feel like they can do their best work with a level of autonomy and agency in their schools and classrooms in making decisions about what they do day-to-day. Increasingly, some programs feature a shared leadership approach with opportunities for teachers to lead in productive ways. 
At the same time, school and district leaders can work to make policy decisions to support SEL implementation. For example, they might work to create roles for SEL coordinators or space in the school psychologist’s role to actively support the school culture. 
The second element is strong relational trust among and between the teachers, staff and leaders. This relational trust depends on a culture of care and respect, where educators feel connected with other each other, and they can rely on them for help when they need it. 
“When it comes to relational trust, it is important that school leaders be very explicit about the kind of culture they are working toward.” 
A third is about striving toward equity. Many of the routines and structures at schools create advantages for some students and disadvantages for others.  
“We need to expand the circle of people (e.g., families, kids) who are giving input on what’s working and not working and then prioritize those problems.” 
A fourth element is about schools creating opportunities for intergroup understanding.  
“We’re at a crisis point in the U.S. where people are quick to reject people who are different from them. Schools can change that conversation, so youth have experiences spending time with people who have had different experiences and hold different beliefs.” 
Rimm-Kaufman is careful to explain that this doesn’t mean one group helps another group. It means that the school can create opportunities that increase kids’ comfort with being around people who do not see the world in the same way that they do. Teachers can help kids be curious instead of judgmental about differences. 
While these four elements are present in successful schools, there is not one roadmap to getting there. So, the book’s co-editors invited 12 colleagues who work closely with school partners to write about how they’ve launched SEL. 
“We know there's not one single path to becoming an SEL-oriented district,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “But we know that really good SEL occurs when there's alignment between the district, the school's leaders and teachers to focus on whole-child approaches that meet students’ needs and support their development.” 
Individual chapters of Rimm-Kaufman’s book describe a different path for how to effectively implement systemic SEL. 
“My hope is that people might gather in workgroups to read chapters and discuss the questions at the end of each,” she said. “And I also hope that it will be useful to policymakers at all different levels, like school boards or district superintendents. I hope this can bring answers to anyone asking, ‘We're trying to do this, but we don't seem to be getting it right. What are we doing wrong?’” 

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Audrey Breen