SEL for district leaders in 2 easy steps: Self-care and relationship building

When I was 13, my family moved to Miami, Florida. About eight weeks after we landed, on August 24, 1992, so did Hurricane Andrew. One of only four Category 5 hurricanes to strike land in the US, Andrew still holds the record for the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida. But when school started soon after, no one was talking to me or my mom about social-emotional learning (SEL). It seems no one anywhere was talking about SEL in 1992, though it surely would’ve helped everyone in my school—administrators, teachers, and students alike.

Luckily, times have changed. I recently spoke with Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), to learn about SEL and how it can support everyone during this difficult school year. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Can we start with a mini history lesson? When did SEL first start gaining ground in education?

CASEL was founded 26 years by a group of SEL pioneers who came together to address a concern about ineffective school programming and a lack of coordination among programs at the school level. Since then, CASEL’s efforts have evolved to focus on the intersection of SEL research, practice, and policy to advance high-quality, evidence-based SEL as an integral part of education and development. For example, CASEL works with states that are committed to creating statewide conditions where educators are effectively equipped and encouraged to support their students’ social and emotional development through the creation of guidelines and policies around SEL. There are currently 20 states that have pre-K–12 standards around social and emotional learning and all 50 have pre-K SEL standards.

What’s the focus of your role at CASEL?

I oversee our Collaborating Districts Initiative. It’s a partnership with about 20 mainly large urban districts that are really committed to embedding social and emotional learning into everything they do, from the way they hire and support folks to the way they run classrooms, the way their nutrition and transportation services run, and more. It’s all about really thinking holistically about how a district can embed SEL into everything, from how their central office feels to each and every classroom.

With all 50 states bought in, I think it’s safe to assume there’s consensus on SEL being really important. But why is it especially important now, as most schools remain closed due to COVID-19 and protestors continue to have to take to the streets to fight for racial justice?

I think we’re all—our teachers, our principals, our students, our families—being asked to do something we have never done before. I think it’s safe to say that this time is unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. And I think it’s drawing on our social, emotional, and cultural competencies in ways that we just haven’t always had to do in such intense ways. Now we’re having to draw on those same skills during numerous challenging events tied to COVID-19, systemic racism, and economic crisis in this moment. It’s a lot.

SEL has been top of mind for educators all year. For their students, that is. Why is SEL important for adults, too?

In a word: modeling. What adults do, kids will learn. But also, adults are going through a lot, too. And paying attention to how they’re doing helps with staff retention, well-being, and an ability to connect meaningfully with their students.

There’s that saying about putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. What can administrators do to ensure they’re taking good care of themselves?

We know that having really concrete self-care strategies creates a buffer against trauma. We know that relationships serve as a buffer, too. I encourage administrators to prioritize both as much as they can.

How can district administrators lead the charge with SEL?

I think it’s important for them to think about how they model SEL so their principals are experiencing it in their principal meetings. They should have regular check-ins, which helps build relationships, and they should infuse those check-ins with SEL.

[T]his time is unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. [I]t’s drawing on our social, emotional, and cultural competencies in ways that we just haven’t always had to do in such intense ways.

One thing we talk about at CASEL is SEL signature practices. These are three ways to begin building a supportive environment when you come together with others, the kind that’s ripe for SEL. Hopefully these become habit over time. People sometimes worry about the time it takes to do them all, but I think the time spent on that is actually an investment in something deeper and richer, whether it’s work for adults or learning for students.

It’s important for leaders to encourage self-care, too. They can model it by sending a note like, “Happy Friday morning! I’m gonna go for a quick run before school starts. What are you doing to take care of yourself?” That gives everyone permission to say, “Yes, we’re all working so hard, but part of that working so hard is taking care of ourselves.” Part of any professional development plan can be a self-care piece as well. That’s a great way to really commit.

Many educators may feel particularly overwhelmed about how to address issues of racial justice in their district. How can SEL help?

It’s important to unite SEL with an equity focus. Allowing adults the space to reflect on their own identity, their own biases, their own awareness of the history of social justice in the country is critical. If we’re opening up space for young people to have these conversations, which we think is hugely important, I think we need to allow adults to have those conversations as well.

The New York Times recently published an article on the role of restorative justice at an elite New York high school. Can you tell me a bit about restorative practices and how they tie into SEL and racial justice in particular?

In my work with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), we were able to significantly reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions by increasing the role of SEL across the district. There are a lot of districts that know they want to shift trends, too. One thing we were really conscious of in our work with CPS was, yes, you can shift policy, but if you do that without the community engagement and professional learning people need, then you are not going to get the results you are hoping for.

We encourage having coaches in schools who are well-informed on restorative practices and can model what it looks like to have a community circle, a peace circle, after an incident has occurred.

It’s also about mindset-shifting, right? If we—really and long-term—believe part of our job as educators is to build social and emotional competencies, we need to think about restorative practices. If a child fails a math test, we’re not gonna just kick them out of math class, right? We’re going to double down on supporting them in math. Similarly, we support in SEL. If there’s a problem, instead of punishing or removing a student, we first try to find restorative ways to solve that problem, build competencies, and restore our community with one another.

Learn more about CASEL and SEL through their District Resource Center.

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