Collaborating to keep SEL on course: A reply to Josh Starr

Group of kindergarten kids friends arm around sitting and smiling fun


Systemic implementation of SEL, with a commitment to use evidence to make adjustments as needed, is essential.


Thank you, Josh Starr, for your timely essay, “Can we keep SEL on course?” We appreciate your analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing the social and emotional learning (SEL) field.

The issues you raise are ones that keep CASEL leaders up at night, and they form the backbone of our updated strategic plan. We, too, are very concerned about how the heartening embrace of SEL that is sweeping the nation’s schools could easily be undermined by shoddy implementation. We, too, are focused on the equity issues that must be part of any SEL agenda. Finally, like you, CASEL is acutely aware of the dangers inherent in a “quick fix” approach to SEL, which is why we have been such staunch promoters of systemic, strength-based implementation throughout the education system for students and adults alike.

As the organization that introduced and defined the SEL field 25 years ago, CASEL has a special responsibility to address the challenges you discuss, among others. Our multipronged, collaborative initiatives span research (addressing the many issues about evidence and metrics that you rightly raise), policy (ensuring that SEL is supported by the levers necessary to achieve sustainable scale), and practice (where our emphasis on knowledge development and knowledge sharing with our more than 20 collaborating districts and nearly 30 collaborating states helps ensure that we’re all traveling up the same learning curve).

Working with practitioners is necessary but insufficient. Without integrating research and continuous improvement into implementation efforts, the field will not reliably establish or be able to maintain a high standard of quality. Without sound policy, the field will lack important levers to scale SEL and embed it in school systems.

Here are some core CASEL beliefs that align with the excellent points from your essay:

First, we need to resist and reject the false dichotomy between SEL and academics as if they are unrelated. They are not. As science has demonstrated convincingly, all learning is social and emotional from birth — whether it’s a baby learning to navigate the world, a first grader learning to read, a middle schooler learning to resolve conflicts peacefully, or a high schooler learning quadratic equations.

Second, an underlying commitment to evidence-based practice will keep all of us honest. Programs and practices need to be based on research, not wishful thinking or marketing spin.

Third, although some standalone SEL programs have produced beneficial student outcomes, CASEL has collaborated with districts and schools nationwide to implement systemic preschool to high school SEL strategies for transforming all aspects of schooling — from how the central office is organized to how classroom instruction is delivered.

Fourth, the success of SEL will not happen without widely sharing what is known about effective implementation through practical workshops, webinars, and online resources such as CASEL’s Schoolwide Guide to SEL, SEL District Resource Center, CASEL’s Guides to Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs, and the SEL Assessment Guide.

We know how hard this work is. If SEL were as simple as teaching an off-the-shelf curriculum for 45 minutes a day, many more schools and students would already be flourishing. That’s why systemic implementation, with a commitment to use evidence to make adjustments as needed, is so essential. About 10 years ago, CASEL and collaborators, including the American Institutes for Research, began working with eight large urban school districts whose leaders were committed to making SEL central to their work, from strategic plans and budgets to teacher development and classroom instruction.

Based on the experience and challenges of translating theory into practice, we and our collaborators have learned a lot in the past decade. As a result, we have significantly revised our theories of action about district and school implementation. For example, the Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI) partner districts are placing a much greater emphasis on adult SEL, ensuring that teachers, school leaders, and all staff themselves have the self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills to do this work. They are examining their own biases (implicit and otherwise). They are learning to relate to and engage students who in many cases neither look like them nor have had the same life experiences.

Many districts also have become more knowledgeable about how to integrate SEL into literacy instruction, math lessons, and science labs. In addition, we are becoming much more intentional about how SEL intersects with so many other district priorities, from Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports to restorative disciplinary policies.

Of particular importance, we are working closely with researchers and practitioners to explore how SEL, if implemented well, can be a lever to advance equity. Systemic implementation of SEL both fosters and depends on an equitable learning environment, where all students and adults feel respected, valued, and affirmed in their individual interests, talents, social identities, cultural values, and backgrounds.

We believe SEL:

  • Is relevant in all schools and for all students and affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds.
  • Is a strategy for systemic change, not just an intervention for at-risk students.
  • Is a way to uplift student voice and promote agency and civic engagement, not just a behavior management strategy.
  • Supports adults in strengthening practices that promote equity.
  • Requires districts to engage students, families, and communities as authentic partners in social and emotional development.

While SEL alone will not solve long-standing and deep-seated inequities in the education system, it can help school districts promote understanding, examine biases, reflect on and address the impact of racism, build cross-cultural relationships, and cultivate adult and student practices that close opportunity gaps and create more inclusive school communities. In doing so, districts can promote high-quality educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, irrespective of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and other differences.

At the same time, be cautious. The field faces the same challenges in addressing equity as in addressing SEL. Notably, both terms run the risk of becoming amorphous, and can easily be used — or misused — as a catch-all term. Again, careful implementation backed by science is how we can flesh out what truly works for our schools and students.

The United States has 13,000 public school districts, 100,000 schools, 3.2 million teachers, and hundreds of thousands of counselors, social workers, and other support staff. All have something to contribute to our shared knowledge base.

It is up to leaders to listen, to learn, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Supportive but unflinching commentary like yours is exactly what we need to help avoid the kind of complacency that has derailed many promising education improvements in the past.

Together as a field, let us hold ourselves accountable for fiercely focusing on what matters most — high-quality implementation of systemic, evidence-based SEL practice in many more schools, so that all children thrive and develop to their fullest potential.


Citation: Niemi, K. (2019, May 13). Collaborating to keep SEL on course: A reply to Josh Starr (Backtalk). KappanOnline.


KAREN NIEMI is president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), in Chicago, IL.

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