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Building Districts' Capacity to Implement Equity-Focused SEL

By Julie Petrokubi and Sarah Pierce | June 1, 2021


Julie Petrokubi
Julie Petrokubi is a senior researcher at Education Northwest. She provides evaluation, training, and technical support for diverse initiatives focused on issues of equity in youth development, school-community partnerships, and systems change.

Many districts want to help schools implement high-quality, equity-centered social and emotional learning (SEL), but few district-specific resources exist to support these efforts. Eighteen states have developed statewide SEL guidance or frameworks, but research has not yet shown how this guidance affects district-level implementation.1,2,3 In the meantime, district leaders are translating state SEL policy to fit their local context.

Washington is one state that has defined SEL, developed a framework, and issued guidance in the form of K-12 SEL standards, benchmarks, and indicators and an implementation guide for schools. However, in a statewide landscape scan on SEL practices and priorities, district leaders said they needed more district-specific resources and strategies to successfully implement SEL across their schools.4

To address this need, REL Northwest worked with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to build districts' capacity to support high-quality, equitable SEL. Our yearlong Washington SEL Capacity Building Training Series drew on existing research to provide district leaders with concrete strategies they can use locally.

Sarah Pierce
Sarah Pierce is a senior advisor in Indian education at Education Northwest. Her work focuses on ensuring all students have access to a quality education through systemwide school supports.

Below, we highlight key takeaways on implementing high-quality, equitable SEL districtwide. All supporting research for the strategies we share can be found in the training slide decks. Review the slide decks from each training session to explore more on each topic.

Engage families and community partners in SEL

Families and community-based organizations can help districts set SEL goals that are culturally relevant and grounded in community priorities. They also provide important contexts and support for students to develop and practice SEL skills outside of the typical school day.5,6,7

District staff can center family and community voice by inviting families and community members to join SEL planning and leadership teams. District leaders can also engage families and community partners in implementation by selecting SEL programs that offer tools and techniques that can be used at home and in expanded learning settings.

Ground SEL in equitable, culturally responsive, and trauma-informed practices

SEL strategies should affirm each person's racial and cultural identities; promote physical, social, and emotional safety; and foster a positive learning environment for all students.8,9,10

Not all SEL curricula are culturally responsive.11 District leaders can work with parents and community members to select SEL curriculum and strategies that resonate with their students' cultural identities. District leaders should also ensure that their discipline and SEL policies and practices are aligned. For example, leaders could replace exclusionary practices with restorative practices grounded in culturally responsive SEL.

Districts should also build adult capacity for equitable SEL by providing districtwide learning opportunities on topics such as addressing microaggressions, bias, recognizing student strengths and trauma, and understanding students' cultural backgrounds.

Build educators' interest and capacity to implement SEL

SEL can be a powerful tool to help educators to strengthen their relationships with students, increase student engagement, and improve classroom management.12,13 To leverage this power districtwide, all school staff should understand the purpose of SEL and actively teach, model, and coach SEL throughout the school day.

District staff can start by helping educators see that SEL does not stand alone, but instead connects to other district goals and initiatives. Educators should receive training and coaching on specific SEL skills, explicit and embedded SEL strategies, integration of SEL into academic and nonacademic school time, and building positive relationships with students. This training and coaching should be ongoing—not just a one-time event—so educators can refine these skills over time with feedback.

Integrate SEL across all aspects of the school day

Fragmented or siloed implementation, such as only teaching SEL in the classroom, can limit the potential impact of SEL instruction.14,15 Instead, students should experience opportunities and support for practicing SEL skills across content areas and in social situations both within and beyond the classroom.

This means SEL can become part of everyone's role, from building administrators to bus drivers to paraeducators. For example, administrators can help de-escalate problematic situations and reinforce systemwide positive interactions, while bus drivers can encourage a positive start to each student's day.

Build systems to support consistent quality implementation across the district

District leaders should help educators pursue the same vision, implement SEL with fidelity, and measure outcomes to understand impact.16 A core district team can help maintain the SEL vision as well as supporting practices and policies. This team and other district leaders should review available data often to ensure that SEL implementation supports students, educators, families, and academic and social development. In addition to attendance or discipline data, districts can collect important information through student and educator surveys, focus groups, or implementation monitoring tools.

States, educational service districts, school districts, and schools all play a role in high-quality, equitable SEL implementation. Districts can lead by creating supportive system conditions through policy and infrastructure; building adult capacity to teach, model, and coach SEL skills; and grounding these efforts in authentic family and community collaboration. Working together, we can build effective SEL systems that support all students.


1 Dusenbury, L., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Social emotional learning in elementary school: Preparation for success [Issue brief]. State College, PA: Penn State University, & Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Retrieved July 24, 2019, from https://www.rwjf.org
2 Eklund, K., Kilpatrick, K. D., Kilgus, S. P., & Haider, A. (2018). A Systematic Review of State-Level Social–Emotional Learning Standards: Implications for Practice and Research. School Psychology Review, 47(3), 316-326.
3 Jones, S. M., & Bouffard, S. M. (2012). Social and emotional learning in schools: From programs to strategies. Social Policy Report, 26(4), 3–22. http://eric.ed.gov
4 See Johnson, M. M., Hertel, R., Chauvin, R., Petrokubi, J. & Pierce, S. (2019). Social emotional learning in Washington's K–12 public schools (Report to the legislature). Olympia, WA: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Retrieved September 12, 2019, from https://www.k12.wa.us
5 Christenson, S. L., & Reschly, A. L. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of school-family partnerships. Florence, KY: Routledge. https://eric.ed.gov.
6 Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6–36.
7 Reyes, J. A., Elias, M. J., Parker, S. J., & Rosenblatt, J. L. (2013). Promoting educational equity in disadvantaged youth: The role of resilience and social-emotional learning. In S. Goldstein & R. B. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (pp. 349–370). New York, NY: Springer.
8 Berg, J., Osher, D., Same, M. R., Nolan, E., Benson, D., & Jacobs, N. (2017). Identifying, defining, and measuring social and emotional competencies: Final report. Washington, DC: American Institutes of Research. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.air.org
9 New York State Education Department. (2018). Culturally responsive-sustaining education framework. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from http://www.nysed.gov
10 Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2017, Spring). Social and emotional learning and teachers. The Future of Children, 27(1), 137–155. http://eric.ed.gov
11 Barnes, T. N. (2019). Changing the landscape of social emotional learning in urban schools: What are we currently focusing on and where do we go from here? The Urban Review, 51(4), 599–637.
12 Brackett, M. A., Reyes, M. R., Rivers, S. E., Elbertson, N. A., & Salovey, P. (2011). Classroom emotional climate, teacher affiliation, and student conduct. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 46(1), 27–36. http://eric.ed.gov
13 Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. https://eric.ed.gov
14 Cavioni, V., Grazzani, I., & Ornaghi, V. (2020). Mental health promotion in schools: A comprehensive theoretical framework. International Journal of Emotional Education, 15(1), 65–82. https://eric.ed.gov
15 Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140. https://eric.ed.gov
16 Elias, M. J., O'Brien, M. U., Weissberg, R.P. (2006). Transformative leadership for social-emotional learning. Principal Leadership, 6(4), 10-13. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu