Selecting the Right SEL Program

A comprehensive guide to 25 top programs, to help schools find a model that fits their needs

By Leah Shafer, on June 20, 2017 5:03 PM
Selecting the Right SEL Program: A comprehensive guide to 25 top programs, to help schools find a model that fits their needs #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

As the benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) have become clear, schools have seen a blossoming of programs that aim to equip students with fundamental executive function, emotional, and interpersonal skills. But with so many areas of focus under the SEL umbrella, how can system leaders choose which program will be effective in their specific settings?

For the first time, a new guide takes a deep dive into 25 evidence-based SEL programs, outlining and comparing their curricula and programmatic features. System leaders can use the report to select from among the top SEL programs and find the one that will work best in their settings.

What Makes a Strong SEL Program?

The guide, created by developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones and her research team, acknowledges that for an SEL program to be effective, it must work to develop key skills across the many domains of childhood development, and — importantly — it must promote and support teachers’ own social and emotional competencies as well. The program should also set reasonable short- and long-term goals and build partnerships with the family-school community.

But implementing such a comprehensive program can be challenging. Teachers may face difficulties finding sufficient time to devote to SEL lessons, integrating those lessons into academic content, or extending them to hallways, the cafeteria, recess, and out-of-school time. It can also be tough for administrators to thoroughly train all faculty and staff and to make them feel the program is relevant — and not burdensome. And many schools struggle to use data to pinpoint their specific needs and to monitor the effectiveness of the program.

How to Choose the Right Program

The report outlines how, and to what extent, specific programs address these challenges, parsing out each program’s strengths. To find a strong SEL program that incorporates the components that best fit your school’s needs, review the report’s longer profiles of individual programs, which include each program’s components as well as the SEL skills targeted and instructional methods used. 

These are the variables you can assess, to help you determine which program is the right fit for your district. Certain SEL programs may:

  • Suggest ways to connect skills to academic content and recommend related reading materials and projects.
  • Support community-building initiatives (such as schoolwide projects and assemblies), and adult practices (such as caring, respect, and engagement in learning), that foster a positive learning environment.
  • Include lessons that can be used in afterschool settings.
  • Adapt to local contexts. It may specify which components are mandatory and which can be modified as needed, or provide resources for working with English language learners, students with special needs, and other specialized student populations.
  • Offer continuing professional development for staff, and opportunities for building their SEL skills.
  • Provide implementation support, such as checklists, tool kits, scripted lessons, and/or best practices.
  • Provide assessment tools that allow the school to evaluate student progress.
  • Provide assessment tools that allow the school to evaluate strength of implementation and staff buy-in.
  • Describe activities and events (such as family nights, caregiver letters, and take-home worksheets) that incorporate families into students’ social-emotional learning.
  • Explain initiatives (such as community service projects and career nights) that build connections between students and their community.

Additional Resources

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Faculty in this article

Stephanie M. Jones

Stephanie Jones researches social-emotional problems and competencies in childhood and adolescence focusing on issues related to inequality and stressed, vulnerable contexts. She also designs, implements and evaluates strategies and programs that integrate social-emotional and academic learning.