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What Makes SEL Stick? CASEL’s 6 Keys to Sustainable Implementation

What Makes SEL Stick? CASEL’s 6 Keys to Sustainable Implementation

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has gained a lot of traction in the past decade since continuing research proves its efficacy. As more districts move toward an explicit and integrated model of SEL and academics to address the whole learner, it has become increasingly important to understand how to create and implement an SEL plan that lasts and addresses the unique needs of each community. In this post, we look to CASEL’s decade-long study, “2011–2021: 10 Years of Social and Emotional Learning in U.S. School Districts: Elements for Long-Term Sustainability of SEL,” to learn what set of keys unlocks successful and sustainable SEL implementations.

In 2011, CASEL launched the Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI) to see if it was possible to implement SEL systemically in large, urban districts across the United States. Districts demonstrated that it is possible to successfully implement SEL, even with leadership changes and a small budget. When CASEL and CDI community members discussed their SEL implementations, they broke down experiences of success to six key elements for SEL sustainability:

What Makes SEL Stick CASEL’s 6 Keys to Sustainable Implementation

1. Leaders model, cultivate, and elevate a shared vision for SEL.

Superintendents and other district leaders play a crucial role in setting SEL as a priority and creating structures that drive long-term actions. Designing a clear district vision that emphasizes the connection between SEL and the district’s core beliefs, key practices, and student achievement is key. Successful district leaders establish core priorities that can endure through staff changes because the connection between SEL and district priorities is easily identifiable and an already-integrated part of community culture.

With this district vision in place, leaders model and cultivate SEL skills in all interactions with staff, community, and students, and they can communicate this vision to create buy-in. By elevating and continuously communicating a districtwide vision of SEL, leaders encourage action that sustains the work over the long term.

2. Core district priorities connect SEL to all departments and individuals so everyone is invested.

Building from the shared vision, successful districts weave SEL throughout every department, every school, and every role. They do this by explicitly connecting SEL goals with core educational priorities that touch all departments and individuals in the district. Rather than being “just one more thing,” SEL is the foundation and catalyst for shared goals across the district. When this is the case, SEL becomes everyone’s work and a key component in the central work of the district.

3. Schools have resources and pathways to guide SEL implementation, as well as room to innovate and customize SEL for their communities.

Driven by the district vision, leaders offer guidance and support to promote high-quality implementation and also offer flexibility for schools to determine how best to serve their communities’ unique needs. Successful districts encourage schools to follow a districtwide implementation plan and offer professional learning and implementation support with centralized curricular options.

To ensure that SEL instruction is developmentally appropriate and coherent across elementary, middle, and high schools, districts should also create alignment of school programs and practices to state standards, graduate profiles, or other district benchmarks around what students should know and be able to do. Adopting an evidence-based SEL program like BASE Education ensures that all students have consistent, effective opportunities to learn and practice SEL at their level.

4. SEL informs and shapes adult learning and staff culture and climate.

Offering all staff members, including the wide diversity of roles such as crossing guards and principals, opportunities to learn about and experience SEL fosters personal growth, professional skills, and supportive relationships in the work environment. Adult SEL efforts support the well-being and mental health of staff, and adults’ personal experience of SEL becomes a powerful catalyst, promoting student and staff well-being and deepening SEL as an integral part of all district work. Consider BASE Education’s educator PD suite for professional development to help staff understand SEL, identify their own triggers and growth areas, and put what they’ve learned into practice in the community.

5. Students, families, and communities are co-creators of the SEL vision, plans, and practices.

All members of the community are essential to shaping an SEL initiative that reflects the strengths, needs, culture, and priorities of the district. Community partners reinforce SEL in their relationships with students, embedding and sustaining SEL throughout the community. When families see the relevance of SEL to what they want for their students and participate in the district decision-making process, district-family partnerships become an important way to sustain SEL. Districts have found that engaging collaboratively with families helps forge partnerships to advocate for support and funding for SEL. By partnering with students and creating space for their voices, districts use their input to continuously improve learning experiences for students.

6. External and internal communities of practice strengthen implementation.

Collaboration and co-learning across staff members, schools, departments, and larger networks supports innovation, commitment, and deeper expertise. A variety of partnerships and communities of practice, within and across districts, ensures that staff members have others to learn from and problem-solve with. These communities create accountability and a sense of belonging. Staff members don’t feel alone in the work, and they cultivate relationships that nurture both individual and collective growth. 

Through this long-term study, CASEL has shown that systemic SEL implementation is not only possible but has also deepened and grown within and across the CDI districts. This research shows how successful SEL implementation permeates all work in the districts and remains grounded in evidence-based programs and practices, integrated into district priorities, modeled by leaders, experienced by adults, and co-created by all stakeholders, leading to sustainability. For a breakdown of key insights with specific examples and results from the CDI districts at the six-year mark, read the Key Implementation Insights from the Collaborating Districts Initiative.

Learn more about BASE Education’s educator PD suite and about the importance of adult SEL in our blog post, The Importance of Adult SEL in Building Schoolwide SEL Culture.'s picture
Sian Reilly

Sian joined Edmentum in 2019 and serves as a Senior Marketing Specialist. A former teacher and administrator, Sian believes that individualizing education for the whole learner with quality academic and non-academic curriculum and assessment can powerfully transform students, campuses, and communities. Sian is passionate about connecting educators with content to meet their specific needs in an ever-evolving education environment.