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Leveraging Social and Emotional Learning to Support Adults in the Time of COVID-19


This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

This is the second in a two-part series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in the time of COVID-19. Read Part 1 here.

Throughout the pandemic, the disruption to schools and lives has given us a deeper understanding of the role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in helping students cope with challenges, practice empathy, make healthy decisions, and take collective action.

Adults—including teachers, principals, and family members—play important roles in supporting children’s social and emotional development. But to create the relationships and learning environments that promote students’ SEL, adults themselves need to feel empowered, supported, and valued. This was important before COVID-19, but it takes on particular significance when educators are physically separated, shifting to new instructional practices, and dealing with their own stress.

The well-being of teachers, principals, superintendents, and support staff is not a new concern. Over the last decade, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has worked with district partners who understand the need to prioritize adult SEL as a key learning of their implementation efforts. We’ve heard from superintendents in CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative that top district leaders and school boards also need support and collaboration to prioritize their own self-care and relationships.

The pandemic has added to educators’ feelings of anxiety and stress, emphasizing how attending to adult SEL may be a necessary ingredient for schools to fully support students. Studies have found that teachers with stronger social and emotional competencies are less likely to report burnout and are more likely to demonstrate high levels of patience and empathy and positive relationships with students, all of which contribute to students’ academic, social, and emotional development. School and district leaders who engage in SEL practices can also improve their leadership skills, foster positive staff relationships, and create supportive school and work climates.

The pandemic has added to educators’ feelings of anxiety and stress, emphasizing how attending to adult SEL may be a necessary ingredient for schools to fully support students.

Based on these learnings, CASEL has offered theories of action for schools, districts, and states that identify adult SEL as a core focus area of systemic SEL implementation. Addressing adult SEL includes:

  • Deepening SEL expertise among central office and school staff;
  • Providing opportunities for staff to reflect on and practice their social, emotional, and cultural competencies; and
  • Promoting a sense of trust, community, and collective efficacy among staff.

Many of CASEL’s partner districts are adapting and expanding existing efforts to deepen adult SEL. While adult SEL strategies were previously embedded in face-to-face professional learning communities, community-building routines, or staff meetings, districts have developed ways to continue these efforts through social media, virtual meetings, and digital resources. They’ve also put a greater emphasis on supporting educator’s self-care and emotional regulation.

“The setting has changed, but we’re keeping this work going,” said Kristen Rulison, SEL manager of Palm Beach County School District (PBCSD) in Florida, which works with CASEL to strengthen SEL efforts between schools and out-of-school-time providers as part of the Wallace Foundation’s Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative (PSELI). “SEL isn’t a one-and-done thing. You need to constantly be aware of it and growing in the work. Ensuring strong SEL practices with both students and adults will help as we move ahead," said Rulison.

Adult SEL was one of PBCSD’s first strategic priorities for SEL implementation. Schools start with professional learning on SEL basics, asking staff to reflect on their own social and emotional competencies and how they use adult SEL in their roles. SEL coaches offer mini-sessions on self-care, and the district also partners with SEL program providers to lead mindfulness practices with some principals and district leaders.

Before COVID-19, PBCSD rolled out CASEL’s 3 Signature SEL Practices as part of central office and school staff meetings. These include a welcoming ritual, engaging practices, and an optimistic closure to encourage adults to build relationships and practice SEL at work. After school closures, the district’s SEL team adapted these practices to virtual team meetings. These practices have helped staff check in on one another, collaborate more respectfully and efficiently, and practice greater perspective-taking, said Rulison. The SEL team also curates virtual resources, such as webinars and videos, which share research-based adult SEL practices on an internal site.

Another PSELI member, Dallas Independent School District (DISD), is also continuing to promote adult SEL as part of its remote work. When schools closed this year, the district initially had to cancel its popular staff self-care sessions, but it now provides self-care strategies through a YouTube channel and online tools. They’ve also included resources and outreach to parents in English and Spanish. “We needed to help adults take care of themselves so that they could take care of students,” said Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, DISD’s Executive Director of Engagement Services.

As districts begin planning school reopenings, they’ll need to plan intentionally for welcoming and reengaging staff. Like students, adults will return with a range of emotions and experiences. While it’s unlikely that districts will quickly resume “business as usual,” school and district leaders can help create the conditions that promote the sense of emotional safety and social connections that adults, like students, will need in order to work and learn productively. These may include:

  • Offering time for staff to reconnect before students enter the buildings;
  • Creating opportunities for staff to process and share their emotions and reflect on their own social and emotional competencies;
  • Providing ongoing professional learning on adult strategies for managing stress, responding empathetically to challenging emotions and behaviors from students, building positive relationships, and decision-making that considers the impact on students’ social and emotional development; and
  • Providing access or connections to additional mental health support when necessary.

This may also be an important time for staff to reflect on existing strengths and needs in their school communities and to apply what they have learned from SEL to fully support students and adults in the long term. While this will look different across communities, this shared moment has sharpened our collective focus on the strength of relationships, community, and our own social and emotional competencies.

“Because of the SEL work we invested in and the strong relationships we have among our staff, we’re so much better prepared for this crisis,” said Juan Cabrera, Superintendent of El Paso Independent School District in Texas. Cabrera and his team began working with CASEL in 2016 to create a new vision and strategic plan that infused SEL districtwide.

The district began by fostering a staff community focused on SEL, including realigning hiring strategies to identify socially and emotionally competent leaders and training central office and cross-departmental teams in SEL research and practices. Their work supporting adults helped them to roll out evidence-based SEL programs as part of daily school schedules and to integrate SEL into key academic priorities, such as student-centered learning practices.

“SEL permeates all of our work,” Cabrera said. “It’s not a reaction—it’s part of our culture.”

Justina Schlund is the Director of Field Learning at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).