SEL Programs Are Critical During COVID-19. Here Are 3 Steps to Help Districts Choose Wisely

Opinion 

As we head into the 2020-2021 school year, social-emotional learning will be more critical than ever as teachers and students transition back to school after experiencing the collective trauma brought on by the COVID-19.

District and school-wide social-emotional learning initiatives have a bigger impact on students than individual efforts because they provide educators and parents with consistent resources and a common language to support students. More than that, district and school-wide initiatives help to support the mental and emotional health of teachers, staff, and parents, which leads to happier and safer school communities.

It takes time and thoughtful planning to identify, evaluate, and select SEL programming to support your initiatives. Without organization-wide buy-in, initiatives can easily fall flat and programs will go unused.

A recent study found that a whopping 67 percent of educational software licenses went unused last year, so district leaders are looking for better ways to evaluate and select tools and programs that will be used regularly and make a meaningful impact. 

Getting Started: Identify Your Team

Identifying the team that will oversee the planning, evaluation and selection process is your first step in not only evaluating but generating buy-in for your social emotional learning initiatives. When creating your team, it’s important to ensure different perspectives will be well represented in order to best understand needs and to generate buy-in from the start.

Consider including the following roles: district administrators overseeing curriculum and instruction, student services and social-emotional learning, principals and school administrators, counselors and social workers, teachers, parents, parent coordinators, and students, as appropriate. 

In order to get a social-emotional learning program off the ground for the start of the new school year, the evaluation process may need to be expedited. Asking for staff members to volunteer to be a part of your SEL team and being clear about expectations is a good way to ensure that your team will be passionate and dedicated to getting initiatives in place for back to school. 

Break Down Roles and Responsibilities 

It’s unlikely that your entire team needs to be a part of every component of the process. As a matter of fact, this likely isn’t the best use of your team’s time.

Take some time to think about who is best suited for each portion of the process. For example, as you begin to analyze your current needs and set goals, you might want to conduct a needs assessment and interview stakeholders in the community. School administrators might be best suited for this task. As you begin researching programs, counselors and social workers may be best equipped given their knowledge of trauma-informed practices, emotional management techniques, and social skills.

Reflecting on who will be best suited for particular points in the process for your individual district or school will help speed up the process and honor people’s time. 

Explore Needs, Set Goals and Define Your Criteria 

It’s important to get a clear view of what is already happening and gauge the community’s knowledge about SEL in order to identify gaps and truly understand needs. Some questions to explore are:

  • What programs, curricula or initiatives are already in place that teach social and emotional skills?
  • In what ways are current initiatives successful? In what ways could current initiatives be improved upon?
  • What do your teachers and staff already know about social-emotional learning?
  • What would social-emotional learning ideally look like in your school community?

After you’ve strengthened your understanding of the state of SEL in your community, you’re ready to define your goals moving forward.

Your goals now will likely look very different than what they did before. COVID-19 is a large-scale reminder that we never know what challenges the world will throw at us or at your students. Helping students developing coping skills and emotional management strategies in order to become more resilient is an important goal.

As students return to schools with new social distancing guidelines in place, we’ll need to take another look at how we make our schools feel safe, supporting, and inviting. Providing students with time and space to identify, process and express their emotions and feelings should be a priority. 

Articulating your goals will help you identify your “look-fors” in an SEL program. The questions below can help you identify criteria you want to consider as a part of your evaluation:

  • What SEL competencies and skills does the program teach?
  • Are there opportunities for practice?
  • Will the program help build a common vocabulary?
  • What work will be required of teachers?
  • What type of support is provided throughout the school year?
  • Is there a digital component?
  • Can the program be used at home?
  • Are there opportunities for family and community engagement?

Again, your criteria for an SEL program likely will look different now than pre-COVID19. Offering students and educators intentional time and space to consistently focus on social-emotional learning and their overall well-being may require programming to have offerings that can successfully take place both at home and at school.

Take a look at the various school models that are being considered for your community heading into the 2020-2021 school year and be honest about what you need to best support the teachers, students and family members within your community.

Once you have a clear picture of what that is, you’ll be ready to select a program and will be helping your students transition back to a supportive school community in the fall. 

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