Over 12 years ago I got my start in public education working as a community-organizer in Denver Public Schools. In essence, my job was to coach students in identifying and addressing issues in their community to create positive change. Effective community organizing, as it turned out, was a lot more about building relationships and listening than it was about ‘organizing.’ Even the greatest plans or ideas were useless if I did not have student (stakeholder) ­buy-in.

Generating this buy-in required trust, time, and a deep understanding of the hopes, fears, needs, wants, and dreams of the community I was working with. Without this understanding of what made my students tick - what made them angry, what excited them, what they felt passionately about, what they desired for their own community – I was just another authoritarian figure with an agenda that did not match their own. Once they felt understood, however, students were motivated to act out of their own self-interest.

These concepts of buy-in and self-interest are also critical to the successful implementation of Social & Emotional Learning (SEL). Many well-intentioned administrators and teachers attempt to implement SEL by purchasing the most ‘evidence-based’ curriculum, handing it to their teachers, and then wondering why it backfires.


If you are still wondering “What is the right curriculum to purchase?” then you’re not asking the right question. Instead, SEL can be approached from a community-organizing lens, asking:

  • Who are the key stakeholders?
  • What is their self-interest?
  • How do I leverage that self-interest to generate buy-in?

In the case of SEL, the key stakeholders are typically teachers, administration, students, family, and community partners. Perhaps the most pivotal among these is teachers. Yale researcher and SEL expert Marc Brackett identified teacher attitude, or buy-in, as the single most critical factor for high-quality SEL implementation.

In other words, even the most evidence-based programming will be ineffective if teachers do not personally believe in what they are teaching. This is particularly true for mindfulness – another study on teacher attitude demonstrated that student outcomes actually got worse when teachers taught mindfulness but did not believe in it.

National SEL expert Maurice Elias echoed this sentiment at a recent statewide SEL conference, stating, “Teachers do not need more training, they need more understanding.” When partnering with a school the first thing he does is to ask questions and listen. What do teachers want for themselves, for their students, and for their classrooms? What are their greatest moments of joy as educators? What are their greatest moments of frustration?

From this place of understanding, teachers are motivated to engage in SEL out of their own self-interest. Teaching skills like compassion, empathy, and self-awareness almost invariably aligns with teachers’ own values and desired outcomes. When teachers believe in what they are teaching their students will respond in-kind.


Effective SEL is about so much more than any lesson or curriculum. It is inherent in every interaction in the building and in the very culture of the school. It is not enough for teachers to be bought-in if the school administration does not provide them with the time, coaching, incentive, and support to deliver high-quality SEL instruction. It is not enough to provide high-quality instruction if school culture and discipline practices do not reflect social-emotional competence, or if parents and caregivers are not included in the conversation.

Empowering Education utilizes a unique partnership model that requires the creation of a school-based “SEL Team” inclusive of teachers, administration, school mental health staff, and even student-voice. This team assumes leadership and responsibility for high-quality implementation of SEL across all domains of the school system, and ensures that any programming aligns with the personal and cultural values of community stakeholders. Over the years, we have found that this level of teamwork and personal commitment is absolutely necessary to successfully implementing and sustaining school-wide SEL.

If you are seeking to implement SEL at your school you would do well to invest your time in understanding the needs of your community and buildling strong relationships and buy-in before unveiling a new curiculum. Create a team with voices from all key stake-holders represented, and engage this team in the entire process from curriculum selection to implementation strategy. Provide the time, resources, and support needed for teachers to make SEL a priority. And remember that SEL extends well beyond the explicit skills instruction to include academic integration, teacher instructional practices, school culture and discipline policies, and family * community partnerships. When it comes to SEL, no one succeeds in doing this work alone.