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Empowering Regional Leads to Customize Social-Emotional Wellness Supports

Mid-Atlantic | March 05, 2024

A group of people looking at sticky notes on a glass wall

The social-emotional wellness of students and school staff has been a longstanding concern—a concern that schools across the country have been working to address with an unprecedented sense of urgency since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Office for Safe Schools (OSS) recognized this time as an opportunity to strengthen the 29 Intermediate Units (IUs) across the commonwealth, building their capacity to deliver evidence-based technical assistance and professional development to districts in their regions to improve social-emotional wellness in schools.  

The IUs provide ancillary services based on the needs of the locally controlled school districts within their catchment areas. OSS tapped into this existing service structure and is allocating state funding to support a dedicated social-emotional wellness lead (SEW lead) in each IU. These new IU SEW leads act as regionally based conduits for OSS, offering districts tailored technical assistance to create safe, healthy, and supportive learning environments for all students and staff.

OSS and REL Mid-Atlantic are working together to implement this vision.

One of our joint efforts focuses on building OSS's capacity to support IU SEW leads and building IUs' capacity to support the specific needs of districts. We co-developed a logic model, describing the initiatives and key players that support social-emotional wellness in Pennsylvania—and identifying measurable outcomes, such as the resiliency and self-efficacy of students and the professional well-being and job satisfaction of staff. OSS will eventually incorporate these social-emotional wellness measures into an existing dashboard to track outcomes.

We then co-developed a planning guide to help the IU SEW leads plan and deliver evidence-based professional development and technical assistance to the districts in their regions. The planning guide aligns with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Accelerated Learning Framework and the cycles of continuous school improvement shown below. The resources included in the guide build IU SEW leads' capacity to help districts identify social-emotional needs, plan and deliver comprehensive, evidence-based supports, and measure outcomes in their schools. Though still in draft form, it's helping us promote a strategic, consistent, and evidence-based approach to addressing student and staff needs.

The cycles of continuous school improvement

We don't want the IU leads to push a specific social-emotional wellness initiative; the last thing people in the field want to hear is that they need to implement a program that doesn't fit their needs. Instead, we want IU leads to select from the comprehensive menu of tools, informational resources, and reflection questions in the planning guide as they coach district leaders to use a data-informed approach to identifying and addressing social-emotional wellness needs in their schools. The guide empowers IU SEW leads to work systematically with districts to identify their needs, their capacity to address those needs, and the evidence-based programs that best fit their context. 

One of our favorite tools in the guide, which helps IU leads develop a solid foundation, is the social-emotional wellness capacity assessment tool (resource 1.e, p. 12). It is used in step 1 of the continuous improvement cycle—set the direction. Any state, district, or school across the country looking to promote social-emotional wellness can use this tool. It prompts users to systematically identify the assets and resources they can leverage and the gaps they should address. Capacity is organized into four dimensions: human, organizational, structural, and material.

Human capacity, for example, includes the staff, knowledge, and skills needed to deliver social-emotional wellness supports, and the interest and buy-in from staff and community members needed to engage with those supports. District-level assets could include training for educators to boost their own mental health or to encourage positive peer-to-peer relationships. Regional assets could include the different actors who provide related services and supports—which vary across the 29 IUs. In one IU, for example, there might be a staff member focused on bullying prevention, another person focusing on school climate, and yet another concentrating on mental health. These three people all work on initiatives that fall under the supportive learning environments umbrella, but they may not be collaborating as much as they could be. The capacity assessment tool helps the IU lead identify opportunities to bring individuals together, break down silos, avoid duplication of efforts, and foster collaboration and shared learning.

The learning environment includes students' physical spaces and experiences alongside the social and emotional experiences that support learning.

When we divide our work into separate buckets (physical health, mental health, behavioral health, bullying prevention, school climate, truancy, and so on) we often end up duplicating efforts and exhausting staff. Combining these efforts by working toward a supportive learning environment that encompasses physical health and safety, mental health, school climate, and social-emotional wellness breaks down these silos—something OSS has been working hard to do.  

The IU leads build relationships with districts and demonstrate how we can support them in improving social-emotional wellness for students and staff. But we also want the IU leads to work with one another to identify commonalities and opportunities for collaboration and joint problem-solving across the commonwealth. The planning guide includes reflection questions to discuss with other IU leads and OSS staff. These can be brought to monthly statewide meetings that occur between IU SEW leads and IU safety leads, for example, or other job-alike group meetings.

Piloting the planning guide starts now.

The REL and OSS are working closely with 11 SEW leads as they use the planning guide to work with districts. They'll take a deep dive into the planning guide with one or two districts each, paying close attention to how district staff react to the approach and whether the language and tools resonate with them and help them identify their needs and next steps. We'll use their feedback to improve the planning guide before we roll it out statewide. The next phase of the pilot will begin in fall 2024 and will include familiarizing the remaining 18 IU SEW leads with the guide and supporting its ongoing use.

We'd love to hear how you're aligning social-emotional wellness efforts across your school communities and what tools you've found helpful along the way. Email us at

To follow our progress as we continue to improve Pennsylvania's statewide strategy for fostering supportive learning environments and social-emotional wellness, subscribe to the REL Mid-Atlantic newsletter and follow us on X (formerly Twitter) @PADeptofEd and @RELMidAtlantic.


Scott Kuren

Scott Kuren
Director, Pennsylvania Department of Education Office for Safe Schools

Megan Streeter

Megan Streeter
REL Mid-Atlantic

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