Although SEL is considered one of the hottest topics in education, there is still a need for educators to understand why it is important. In a world full of increased uncertainty and trauma, many students are coming to school unprepared for learning.  Preoccupied with the dangers they face in their everyday worlds, more and more students are living in a constant state of fight or flight.  As caring adults who are a consistent presence in their lives, our job is to assure them that they are safe and they belong in our classrooms.  When these basic human needs for safety and belonging are met, then our children can turn their attention to learning. 

Despite this logical and compassionate approach to the classroom, there are some educators who think that SEL is beyond the scope of their job description.  They may be overly focused on academics and test scores, or they may feel that addressing the social and emotional needs of students is beyond their expertise.  However, as Durlak (2011) notes, time spent on SEL, which includes culture, climate and relationships, improves achievement.  Therefore, in order for SEL implementation to be successful, it must be schoolwide and comprehensive.

Schoolwide means that it needs to be adopted by all stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, staff, students and families.  Comprehensive means that it must be an integrated and intentional approach to the way school is done.


How can administrators set a positive example of SEL leadership so teachers can follow?

The job of the administrator is to lead his team and champion new initiatives.  As Leman and Pentak (2004) point out, a good leader is like a shepherd who “leads people in a manner that makes them want to follow” (112).  Being a leader who others want to follow means investing in relationships. 

In the demanding world of education, we must remember that people are more important than our never-ending to-do list.  When administrators invest time to get to know people and what is going on in their lives, then the staff wants to follow.  The old saying is true, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

How can you, as an administrator, demonstrate care and concern for your staff?  Do you celebrate the small wins?  Do you publicly acknowledge individual accomplishments?  Do you give thanks to your team in words and actions?  Once this culture of honor and appreciation is established, then teachers are more likely to follow.  


What must administrators say and do to gain teachers’ buy-in for SEL initiatives?

Not only must a solid foundation of strong and healthy relationships among administration and staff be created, but there must also be clear communication about the vision and mission of the school.  The vision is the big picture – what we want to become; the mission is the work – what we do, who we serve, and how we serve.  Articulating the vision and mission of the organization provides a focus for everyone on the team.  The first step to creating buy-in for SEL is to include it in the vision and mission statements.

The second step for gaining and increasing buy-in for SEL is follow-through.  Once there is understanding and agreement about incorporating SEL into the teaching and learning, then there must be actions to support that intention.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Continuous professional development about integrating SEL with academics
  • Ongoing coaching sessions on SEL practice
  • Schoolwide SEL curriculum adoption
  • Scheduled time for intentional SEL instruction, such as morning meeting or advisory period
  • Revision of disciplinary practices from punitive to restorative

After SEL implementation is initiated it must be sustained.  Since SEL requires time and emotional energy, teachers need to be reminded that it is a priority.  They need to hear regularly that teaching children is more important than teaching material.  Additionally, teachers must be encouraged to attend to their own self-care, knowing that they can only give what they have.

Likewise, students and families need clear communication about the school’s focus on SEL.  Utilizing a common language for SEL competencies sets behavior expectations for students and creates stronger family-school partnerships. 


Three things every administrator must know how to explain about SEL

  1. Focusing on SEL will impact the culture – the what we do -- and climate – the how it feels -- of school.
  2. Attention to SEL requires a paradigm shift in the way we do school.  People do not serve data; data serves people.
  3. Change takes time.  Successful SEL implementation requires a long-term commitment. 

Education is the business of helping people grow.  SEL empowers people, students, teachers and families, to identify what is going on in their heads and their hearts, so they can use their hands to build up and not tear down.  We, therefore, must attend to the needs of the whole child – academically, physically, emotionally and socially.  In many areas, the school is the center of community life.  School leadership, including administrators, teachers and staff, are responsible for advocating for the needs of children and families. 


About the Author


Tamara Fyke is an educator and creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical, and also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world.


Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter .