De-Mystifying SELs- A Playbook for School Districts

by Jerry Barone, Chief Clinical Officer, Lucille Carr-Kaffashan, PhD, and Coleen Vanderbeek, Psy.D, LPC

Long before school districts were confronted with the challenge of rising mental health problems in K-12 students, they were incorporating some form of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into their curricula. According to Jager, et al., the SEL field has emerged over the last 25 years, and since that time the accumulated research evidence is so compelling that educators, researchers, and practitioners have advocated strongly for the universal adoption of such programs both in and out of school settings.

The pressure to address the growing youth mental health crisis, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, has left many educators scrambling to ensure that the proper supports are in place for their students. For many school professionals, this, in turn, has increased the confusion about the interface between SEL programming and onsite mental services. Many districts are wrestling with a number of key questions: What is SEL? How does SEL differ from mental health services? How can SEL and mental health services work synergistically as part of a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) approach to child wellness?

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social Emotional Learning is one of six Developmental Domains of early childhood development. These domains are interdependent, with development in one affecting the development in each of the others. The domains include Expressive Language, Receptive Language, Cognitive (includes executive functioning), Physical — Fine motor, Physical — Gross motor, and Social Emotional. It is common for pediatricians, educators, and other practitioners to track children’s progress in each domain, and to chart their findings as developmental milestones.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) commonly refers to a process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (see Jager, et al. and The 5 core areas of an SEL curriculum, known as “The CASEL 5”, are self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These can be taught and applied at various developmental stages from childhood to adulthood, and across diverse cultural contexts.

“The CASEL 5” is the “gold standard” guide for SEL programming. According to its website, CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) “was formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) as an essential part of preschool through high school education. From the beginning, CASEL was comprised of a distinguished national leadership team that identified key issues to advance the science and practice of SEL … Both CASEL and the term ‘social and emotional learning’ emerged from a meeting in 1994 hosted by the Fetzer Institute. Meeting attendees included researchers, educators, and child advocates involved in various education-based efforts to promote positive development in children. These SEL pioneers came together to address a concern about ineffective school programming and a lack of coordination among programs at the school level.”

The CASEL 5 are:

Self-Awareness The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values, and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes the capacity to recognize one’s strengths and limitations; to identify one’s emotions; to link feelings, values, and thoughts; and to develop and maintain a growth mindset.

Social Awareness The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. This includes the capacity to feel and demonstrate compassion for others; to understand and express gratitude; to identify diverse social norms, including unjust ones; and to recognize situational demands and opportunities.

Self-Management The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively, and to achieve goals and aspirations. This includes the capacity to delay gratification; to manage stress; to set personal and collective goals; and to use planning and organizational skills.

Relationship Skills The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships, and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. This includes the capacity to communicate clearly; to work collaboratively and negotiate conflict constructively; to seek or offer help when needed; to demonstrate cultural competency; and to stand up for the rights of others.

Responsible Decision-Making The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. This includes the capacity to demonstrate curiosity and open-mindedness; to consider ethical standards; to evaluate the benefits and consequences of various actions; to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing data and facts; and to reflect on one’s role to promote personal, family, and community well-being.

The benefits of teaching students “The CASEL 5” competencies are far reaching. Research studies summarized on the CASEL website include positive outcomes across multiple areas:

· A 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies demonstrated that students participating in SEL programs showed an increase in academic performance by 11 percentile points, improved classroom behavior, increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.

· A 2017 meta-analysis of 82 research studies involving 100,000 students world-wide showed that SEL programming can have a positive impact on conduct problems, academics, emotional distress, and drug use up to 18 years later.

· A 2015 report from American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution concluded that SEL competencies are critically important for the long-term success of all students in today’s economy.

· A 2015 study published by the American Journal of Public Health found statistically significant associations between SEL skills in kindergarten and key outcomes for young adults. SEL decreased the likelihood of living in or being on the waiting list for public housing, receiving public assistance, having involvement with police before adulthood, or spending time in a detention facility.

· Columbia University’s 2015 review of six evidence-based SEL programs showed an average return on investment of $11 for every $1 invested.

As articulated by CASEL, SEL is an integral part of education, individual development, community development, and social justice. It is vital, therefore, that districts endeavor to teach and strengthen SEL competencies/skills as part of their basic educational mission. Although SEL competencies are not the same as mental health status, they clearly provide some of the building blocks for mental wellness, with strong SEL skills providing protective factors that can mitigate mental health symptoms, and/or hasten the recovery from mental health disorders.

The Relationship between SEL and Mental Health Services

In consultations with school districts around the country, Effective School Solutions (ESS) staff have found that there is significant confusion about the difference between the provision of onsite student mental health services and SEL programming. Some school professionals have even begun to use the terms interchangeably. But these are two distinct, although inter-related, student support services that are integral parts of an optimal, “whole child” approach. While there can be significant overlap between deficits in SEL competencies and student mental health issues, not all students with clinically diagnosable mental health conditions have identified deficits in SEL competencies, and not all students with specific SEL deficits have emotional or mental health needs.

There are numerous factors that contribute to the development of a mental health disorder, starting with genetic and biological factors. Individuals are born with varying degrees of vulnerability to anxiety, depression, psychosis, ADHD, and other mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. A child’s family environment, including the level of family stability, parenting effectiveness, and the presence of parental mental health or substance abuse problems, interacts with biology to either increase or decrease the expression of mental health symptoms. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), including medical problems, traumatic losses, abuse and/or neglect, and exposure to poverty, racism, or violence, further contribute to the development of mental health disorders.

Mental health treatments include medication and various types of psychotherapeutic interventions, including individual, family, and group therapy administered by licensed mental health professionals. SEL programming is not mental health treatment, and yet the strengthening of SEL skills can have a tremendous impact on mitigating the severity of mental health symptoms. In other words, poor SEL competencies can affect a student’s ability to effectively manage mental health symptoms, and in turn, moderate to severe mental health symptoms can interfere with a student’s ability to learn both academics and SEL skills.

Teachers play a crucial role in both the development of SEL skills and in ensuring that at risk students access necessary mental health services. Using SEL curricula, school professionals directly teach and strengthen these essential, building-block skills. They also use their knowledge of mental health warning signs to identify and refer students for mental health assessment and treatment, and for helping parents and mental health practitioners monitor students’ progress once treatment has commenced. Considered within an MTSS (Multi-Tiered Levels of Support) framework, teachers help to direct students to those who can assess the need for, and provide, Tier 3 and Tier 2 services. At the same time, they play an important role within the delivery of Tier 1 services, by fostering school-wide mental health awareness, and by directly teaching SEL competencies that support mental wellness and build resilience.

Enhancing School-Based SEL Support

School districts around the country are preparing to build capacity to support students returning to in-person learning. As such, it is the ideal time to choose and implement a SEL curriculum, or to refresh/strengthen existing SEL programming by increasing staff training and support. Districts often get lost in their attempts to maintain fidelity to evidence-based SEL models, sometimes watering down a curriculum to the point of ineffectiveness, and sometimes rigidly trying to implement every detail of the chosen curriculum to the point where staff abandon it in frustration. As part of its consultative services, ESS helps districts to deliver whatever curriculum they’ve chosen, and/or to assess options and select the model that best fits their schools.

ESS can also help districts maximize their opportunities to access and efficiently use the various sources of COVID-19 relief funding that the federal government has provided for K-12 schools to address pandemic-related challenges. There are 12 approved uses for this funding, ranging from strategies to address learning loss, to the purchasing of PPE, to the provision of a wide range of services to support student mental health. The funding laws are written in broad terms, so in addition to implementing SEL programming, ESS recommends that districts follow a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model for onsite mental health services.

An MTSS model includes: Tier 3 intensive in-school clinical programming for students with the most severe challenges; Tier 2 flexible therapeutic support to address the needs of students with mild to moderate challenges; and Tier 1 universal supports, including professional learning for educators on mental health related topics, and mental health awareness initiatives.




Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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Effective School Solutions

Effective School Solutions

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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