5 Steps to Implementing Social and Emotional Learning in High School

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After the turbulence we faced with the advent of covid, our excitement was nearly palpable when we could finally put hybrid learning behind us and return fulltime to our classrooms. While we knew there would be an adjustment period for students, we were hopeful things would soon fall into the typical “normal” school rhythm. What we quickly discovered was the profound impact that the previous years’ trauma had on our community. Students were struggling with mental, emotional, and social wellness on a scale that we’ve not seen before1. This was not going to just fade away with a return to campus and community.

With no precedent to learn from, we had to pause and ask ourselves, “Now what? How do we best support the wellbeing of students?” It wasn’t about how fast we could try to “fix” things; this wasn’t something we could put a bandaid on and everything would be a-okay soon. We knew the work would take time, and we had to be mindful and methodical in our approach whatever that would look like. 

Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to go back to the basics. We had to create the space for our students to learn/remember/practice the skills that not only make them great La Jolla Country Day community members but will also allow them to thrive outside of our school. We decided to use the framework of social and emotional learning (SEL) as our guide to better wellness and increase student success in behavioral, societal, and even academic areas.

SEL involves those skills and mindsets needed for emotional intelligence and prosocial behaviors. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five key parts to SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. There are no concepts here that are new or shocking, but by naming it and being more intentional with SEL on our high school campus, we believe we can build bridges and support a safe and welcoming community that helps our students grow not just as scholars but as potential leaders of current and future communities. 

There are many ways to approach bringing SEL work into schools, and what we did may work well for some and not as well for others. For us, we wanted a formalized approach and program that would meet our community where they were and to work on building a strong foundation instead of introducing everything all at once.

1. Partner with a pro

We were intentional in partnering with someone who had the experience needed to guide us as we created our SEL program. We didn’t want a plug-and-play program; we were focused on addressing our specific community. The Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL) has become an incredible partner who aligns with our school’s commitment to the dignity model and supports our SEL efforts. As the Upper School lead on this work, I have found my monthly meetings with IFSEL, and the knowledge that I can reach out whenever I have a question, to be invaluable.

2. Make the time for training 

While time is one of our most valuable resources and difficult to carve out, we knew that providing support for our faculty was integral as they are on the front lines of our SEL work. We had already done some piecemeal SEL training because of prior advisory programming, but we wanted everyone to understand the shift to having an intentional SEL program. With that, we prioritized providing our faculty with as many tools as possible, to practice activities, and to explore topics in-depth. We have IFSEL on campus at least twice during the year; we didn’t want to do a one-off training and send everyone on their way. The continuity of our SEL training keeps things fresh and allows us the chance to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what more we want to learn or discuss. 

3. Start small

We were intentional with not trying to tackle a huge rollout all at once. Our SEL programming began in 2021-2022 with a focus on advisory, a place where SEL topics such as healthy relationships, empathy, gratitude, and goal setting were already being discussed. We created scaffolding that centered on/around SEL skills. We will continue our SEL advisory work even as we expand to new areas. This year we’ve focused on practices to activate SEL in every classroom, having an all-Upper School faculty training at the start of the semester followed by a subject/department specific training mid-semester. Next year we’ll continue to tweak and improve our advisory and academic programs while adding another area of focus.

4. Keep following your north star. Schools can often get excited about new ideas and begin to implement programs, and then things peter out for whatever reason and a new topic or concept comes in and new programming is created. This creates a cycle where the time needed for true change isn’t met. We make it a point to regularly circle back to our SEL purpose, whether through trainings, discussions, or programming. In between our work with IFSEL, we have division meetings throughout the year to keep our goal at the forefront and discuss our SEL work, be it at the micro or macro level. 

5. Know that change doesn’t happen overnight. This was/is the hardest one for me. I am an impatient person; I want to rush ahead and see results immediately. I want our students to be better NOW. That isn’t how positive change happens though. It is important that we are able to take small steps that will then build and lead to larger change. Take the time to introduce SEL programming, practice, reassess, and add/alter/change as your community grows. Soon enough, there will be cultural shifts that strengthen our community to better support our students’ wellness.

Our students need us now more than ever, even while we acknowledge that many of us are also processing the trauma and dealing with the exhaustion from these past few years. SEL work isn’t always easy, but the positive outcomes that come from this work make it worth it. While the road will be a long one, we have our map that will help us and our students in the months and years ahead.






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