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The One Thing Schools Get Wrong About Implementing SEL.

Former Principal, Lana Penley, shares her thoughts on where to start with SEL. July 27, 2021

For many schools, now is the time to implement Social and Emotional Learning.

Wouldn’t it be terrible if some schools, through no malintent, are getting something seriously wrong, about this implementation? And that is, where to start. How do I know? As a former principal, I made the same mistake.


A Lesson from a School Crisis

November 10, 2009 was the day my life changed forever. I was the principal of a school that had a fire, during the school day. When the fire alarm sounded, I thought it was a drill, like countless others I had experienced. But, as I walked out of my office, into the hallway, it was filled with smoke. We had to do an immediate evacuation as our beloved Marysville School was up in flames.

The good news was everyone escaped, all 450 students and 50 staff, without physical harm. The bad news: we did not escape harm on the inside. Though we were removed from our neighborhood school for three years during the rebuilding process, we knew we had to rebuild our community from the inside out. We decided to focus on student SEL through the lens of mindfulness to help us heal.

We made some small shifts right away, but our teachers were really struggling. It showed up in a lot of different ways, from absenteeism to negative tone and body language. It soon became apparent, how could we ask teachers to teach kindness and gratitude, when inside they felt anything but kind and grateful?

We had to move upstream and tend to the heart of adults. And that is what we did. We broadened the lens of SEL to include everyone and that made all the difference. Through the process of creating an ecosystem of care for all, we transformed our school, reduced referrals and suspensions, increased teacher retention, and had the highest scores in both reading and math of all K-8 title 1 schools in Portland, Oregon. This transformation was not overnight as it was a multi-year process. But each year, we got stronger and stronger as did the wellbeing of the adults. So the big take-away, reimagining schools is possible, but we must "get smart about where to start"© with SEL-and that is with the adults.


Why SEL Now?

Now is the time for schools to make a full on push with SEL. A pandemic, social isolation, political and racial unrest, in addition to many other factors, have led to an America that has been profoundly affected by stress. In fact, according to Stress in America 2020, “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”

SEL as Medicine

If we know we are facing a mental health crisis as a country, we must do something about it. This is where SEL comes in. According to CASEL, Social and Emotional, (SEL) is defined as the process through which both students and adults learn about their emotions and ways to manage them. The key phrase here is students AND adults.

At our school, we used SEL to help create the conditions for learning. We wanted everyone to feel a sense of belonging. We did this through teaching specific SEL lessons on a weekly basis and integrating the practices into the very fiber of the classroom. We shifted the thinking, from a deficit model--our kids are behind, to, let’s wrap them in a container of love, and from that foundation, we teach them. We moved from a platform of compliance and consequence to one of care and compassion. This shift required regulated, calm, and caring adults.


Why Start with the Adults

When schools turn to student SEL as the answer to school social and emotional issues, there can be an assumption that those who would implement this SEL, the educators, are in a good place themselves. And that is simply not true. According to RAND, researchers found educators burnout rose from 25% to 57% during the pandemic. In addition, morale has fallen sharply and is getting worse. According to APA, nearly 80% of adults say the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life, while 67% say their stress has increased.

Supporting Adult SEL

How educators feel translates to their classroom’s conditions through emotional contagion. How I feel can significanly affect how you feel. The same is true for both teachers and principals. When a teacher feels cared for, listened to, appreciate and a sense of belonging, they will be like a conduit transferring all of this to their students. Educators deserve to work at a place where they are happy just as students deserve to be in a classroom where they are happy.

So I say again, now is the time to implement SEL. However, schools need to pause, practice “upstream thinking” and include the wellbeing of the educator in their SEL planning. Our teachers deserve it.

Stay tuned for our next blog:

3 Ways to Implement Adult SEL Right Now.


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