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Compassion, Commitment, and Crowdsourcing: Best Practices for a Successful SEL Rollout

A panel of four education experts joined Robin CEO and co-founder Sonny Thadani for the webinar “Best Practices for a Successful SEL Rollout” to share the insights they’ve gained from on-the-ground experiences—and to learn from each other.

The panelists highlighted a need for compassion during a time when students, teachers, administrators, and families are all suffering.

Successfully launching new SEL initiatives or expanding existing ones is an opportunity for leaders to learn from stakeholders and ensure that everyone has a voice and agency. Here are ways compassionate leaders can set the tone.

  1. Crowdsource priorities

Start with students, then take their voice to the community. That’s what Dr. Quintin Shepherd did at Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas, where he’s the superintendent. “We didn’t want our kids to feel seen and heard,” he said. “We wanted them to BE seen and heard.” Using an online crowdsourcing platform, the district took students’ ideas—and their underlying desire to be prepared for future trials and tribulations—to the community. The response was extremely supportive. “The community stood up and said, ‘Yes, let’s give this our resources,’” Shepherd said.

2. Gauge readiness

With all the focus on students’ well-being since the pandemic hit two years ago, awareness is high. But that doesn’t mean everyone is at the same place in terms of next steps.

“The majority of educators understand that mental health is key,” said Sean Slade, an education leader, speaker, and author with nearly three decades of experience in education. They know that, as a student, “you need to feel like you’re healthy and safe—and feel like you belong—before you can learn.” Still, their workload is huge already, and they may not be excited to add yet another responsibility to their plates.

Many parents likewise understand the importance of prioritizing mental health, Shepherd said. But how schools initiate the conversation about social-emotional learning is hugely important to avoid future skirmishes.

He suggested that leaders avoid the language of competence (“I’ve figured out how to solve this”) and instead use compassionate phrasing (“I’m suffering with this alongside our students and teachers.”)

3. Frame the topic

Shepherd, who believes in creating a culture of innovation within education systems, suggests school leaders honor families’ and educators’ expertise by being open to their perspectives. He used the following analogy to explain how differences in understanding about the complex topic of social-emotional learning arise based on limited information: “Imagine you take a cone and put it inside a cardboard box. If you look at it from one side, you see a circle. If you look from the other side, you see a triangle,” he said. “They’re both right—and they’re both wrong.”

Shepherd and Slade recommend heading off opposition by focusing on the ways in which mental health struggles affect children’s ability to learn.

“If we know something affects a child’s ability to learn, we have a responsibility to address it,” Slade said.

Shepherd compared it to the movement for special education 50 years ago. “Everything we do now was based on legislation about barriers to access at that time,” he said. “Now it has become second nature, and we don’t even consider the struggle it took.”

4. Tap into educators’ passions

“Most people got into education because they believe it’s a really fundamental way to improve the individual and to improve the community and society,” Slade said. In the past, their focus has been solidly on measures like reading and math scores, not quality of relationships.

To create the sense of safety and belonging that’s crucial for teachers’ passion to flourish, school leaders must set the tone.

Acknowledge that everyone is suffering right now—students, teachers, principals—and be authentic and transparent about welcoming and supporting them just as you do with students.

5. Highlight what students gain

Any successful SEL program will benefit a students’ knowledge and skills in categories ranging from positive thinking to empathy, said Robin Coach Nyeesha Williams, who has more than 20 years of experience in women’s health, clinical research, and trauma release. Importantly, it will also reinforce their perception that they matter.

“Right now, they don’t believe they’re being heard, seen or understood—which is what we all want as humans,” she said. But when they DO feel seen and heard, they can carry the impact of SEL programs outside the school walls.

“Students have a lot of power and energy,” Williams said. “They are resilient. If we can allow children to have strategies and tactics and game plans to show up for themselves, they can bring that home and show their parents.”

6. Address equity

Some students are already developing strong social-emotional skills, but others aren’t, for a variety of reasons.

Between these “already” and “not yet” groups, Shepherd said, “there’s fundamental equity work that has to be done. We need to focus on kids who don’t have someone in their lives who can look after their well-being.”

Tara Karch, Robin’s SEL Client Services Manager, agreed. She developed a passion for students’ mental and emotional well-being during 14 years as an elementary school teacher, and she outlined some very direct steps educators can take. “We can put SEL interventions into IEPs,” Karch suggested. “I’ve put meditation time into an IEP to deal with anxiety, for example. Or you can bring in an SEL interventionist.”

7. Plan adequate future funding

There’s been a large push at the federal level to incorporate SEL into educational settings, including ESSER funding. But these are one-time infusions. Districts will need to plan ahead to make the programs sustainable. In Shepherd’s Texas school district, for example, they restructured to be able to afford hiring social-emotional specialists for every building.

But he also added a caveat: “Don’t start with funding. If you talk about securing resources first, you’ve set yourself up for failure with the public,” he warned. Instead, use these best practices to lead with compassion.

In conclusion, Thadani thanked the panelists for setting an optimistic tone and reminding the webinar audience that “there are a lot of authentic people who want to support all of us—parents, leaders, and educators.”

For more best practices around a successful SEL rollout, view the full webinar.