Insights for Implementing an SEL Program Agile to Student Needs

Educator Impact

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Social emotional learning (SEL) programs teach students how to build their emotional, cognitive regulation, and interpersonal skills. Implementing an SEL program is something that many schools should heavily consider doing for various reasons.

According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, these programs are most effective when an SEL curriculum isn’t confined to a single class or even to the classroom itself. Instead, it should be implemented throughout the campus: “[A]ll the adults in the building [should be] trained in and familiar with a set of language and practices that they can use in the hallways, in the gym, at recess, in the lunchroom, on the bus—all the times when kids have less structure, and are actually engaging in social interactions, when emotions are more likely to come up.”

This idea is connected to the practice of implementing an SEL program that changes based on what is happening in students’ lives. For instance, some SEL educators think that all SEL curricula should be “trauma-informed” as students cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. School leaders need to be adaptable in creating agile SEL curricula that aren’t standardized, but rather respond to the trauma that students may be experiencing.

Here, we talk about why an agile SEL curriculum is so important and how to make sure you’re tracking students’ feelings and responses to negative stimuli.

What does it mean for SEL to be agile?

At its core, any agile curriculum means it is not standardized and changes based on student needs. In other words, you can implement an SEL program that can be modified based on what students need to learn and how they’re feeling in response to difficult events in their lives.

SEL curricula are less effective when SEL is only taught to students, rather than integrated into their regular routines and structures. For instance, classrooms can be designed with areas where students can sit and squeeze stress balls when they’re feeling anxious. School hallways can be hung with posters giving advice on how to find solutions to disagreements.

Another way to think about incorporating an SEL curriculum is to consider the connection to students’ trauma. Only a few schools implement a trauma-informed curriculum, and typically, schools with a high number of attendees have students who have experienced disturbing events in their lives.

Phi Delta Kappan, a journal for educators, thinks that every SEL curriculum should be trauma-informed and agile: “[T]he fact is that trauma can affect students in any school, at any time, making it impossible to predict which schools will require such a specialized approach. What’s really needed, we believe, is for all SEL programs and activities to be trauma-informed.”

Suppose that a major national event or a lockdown after an active shooter situation has affected students’ emotions. Without learning content geared toward coping with this event, students may start deploying trauma-response survival skills, like shutting down or acting out in defiance. What’s more, if they are constantly fearful, they will have difficulty retaining and using information.

As another example, students may feel traumatized from the COVID-19 pandemic and the events of the last few years. According to Panorama Education, “Trauma-informed SEL practices—such as creating predictable routines and building supportive relationships—can help students build the skills they need to deal with toxic stress and overcome difficult life circumstances.”

How can I implement SEL curricula in response to traumatic events?

There are three major objectives in implementing an SEL program that’s trauma informed.

  • You should create a safe and positive school environment with welcoming faculty and staff. In particular, adults should provide models for appropriate SEL responses, including active listening and emotional regulation.
  • Students who may have emotional stress in their lives or at home need to be helped with focusing on their emotions and learning how to handle them. As Phi Delta Kappan notes, “students who’ve witnessed and been subject to emotional threat and unkindness will have to learn to regulate their emotions in order to handle tests, interviews, and other high-stress situations, as well as to build and maintain close relationships.”
  • All faculty and staff need to buy into agile, trauma-informed SEL curricula. SEL learning should not only be handled by classroom teachers. Instead, it should be part of the campus culture more generally. Faculty and staff need to realize that such a curriculum is meaningful, not a fad.

How can I stay informed about what students are feeling?

Students should learn to keep track of their own emotions, primarily to make informed choices about their behavior. At the same time, school leaders should keep track of the campus climate, especially after traumatic events that might affect many or most students.

Tracking students’ emotions can be simplified with Educator Impact’s Pulse. Each week, in the app, students are asked about their mental wellness and state of being. Students who need more help can also connect with trusted authority figures with the app.

With this automated tracking, school leaders can make their SEL curricula more agile.

Here at Educator Impact, we help school leaders keep a pulse on their students’ wellbeing and empower them with tools that leverage real-time student insights to inform SEL strategies, identify which students need further support, and enable them to continually improve their SEL initiatives.

To see how we can help you do the same for your school community, feel free to reach out to our SEL and wellbeing experts today!