Asking the Right Question:

One of the most common questions I am asked by educators in regards to social and emotional learning (SEL) is, “How do I generate buy-in at my school?” Given that buy-in has been established as one of the single most important factors for the success of an SEL program this is an important question. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are asking the wrong question.

Here’s why: the overwhelming majority of educators are already bought-in to social and emotional learning. I have now asked well over a thousand educators (from teachers, mental health staff, administrators, and more) the same question: “What do you want for your students by the time they graduate?”

In the thousands of responses I have received, I could count on one hand the number of people who have said anything related to academic outcomes. The other 99.9% want outcomes like empathy, independence, the ability to make responsible choices, compassion for others, confidence and belief in their own abilities to succeed, and perseverance in the face of adversity. In other words, most educators already value social and emotional outcomes over academic outcomes.

The issue, then, is not one of establishing buy-in but of creating change in a system that has long prioritized performance, test scores, and academic achievement over basic human happiness and well-being. A more effective question, then, would be “How do I affect systemic change?”

Parallel Examples

To further understand the process of change in a system as complex and unwieldy as our educational system, we can look to a parallel example in the healthcare field. Chris Kresser, a specialist in functional and integrative medicine who is doing innovative work in re-imagining our approach to healthcare, says pointedly “information alone is not enough to change behavior.” If it were, there would be no need for therapists, coaches, and consultants.

There are, however, well-documented and evidence based approaches to creating behavior change. Here is an example that Chris provides:

Imagine an overweight and pre-diabetic patient who visits their doctor and is told simply, “You need to eat healthier and get more exercise.” Given what we know about behavior change, about 1% of people will actually take this information and implement long-lasting changes – despite the fact that they are already “bought-in” to losing weight and being healthier.

Imagine the same patient is approached with an understanding of effective behavioral change. In this case, the doctor might be able to help them link their current behavior to long-term motivations (i.e. staying healthy enough to play with their grandkids) and to emphasize their strengths and what they are already doing well rather than focusing on what they’re doing wrong. Even further, a doctor supported by a proactive system could say, “Here’s what we’re going to do: we’ve set you up with a health coach and a nutritionist who are going to create meal plans and recipes for you, go shopping with you, and help you clear out the unhealthy foods from your home. We’ve also set you up with a meal planning service, a gym membership, a personal trainer, and an online course in sleep hygiene. And, good news, this is all going to be covered by your health insurance.”

While this second scenario may seem a long way off from where we are currently, it would be hard to imagine a person not creating successful change given this type of support. The downstream economic and societal benefits to this type of proactive approach would also be tremendous. Notice that effective change requires support on both individual and systemic levels. We need both bottom-up support for individuals as well as top-down interventions to create change at a systemic level.

These same principals hold true for our educational system. It is well-established in the scientific literature that implementation of school-wide SEL leads to an average 13% increase in academic performance, significant decreases in behavior problems, increases in high school and college graduation rates, and an overall economic benefit of $11 for every $1 invested in SEL. Simply telling people this information, however, is not sufficient to affect systemic change.

5 Principles for Creating Effective Change

So how do you go about creating real change? While it’s not a small task, we can begin by applying some of the well-known principles for effective behavioral change.

  1. Shrink the Change:In behaviorism, this approach is known as successive approximation. Rather than trying to implement a large scale change of behavior all at once, we reward incremental changes that approximate the long-term desired outcome.

    If someone wanted to implement a regular mindfulness practice, for example, it would be self-defeating to start with 1 hour per day of sitting meditation. A more achievable approach would be to start with 1-2 minutes of mindful breathing per day and gradually build on these successes until larger scale change can be sustained.

    In the same way, rather than reinventing an entire school-culture overnight, successful implementation of SEL can leverage small changes along the way to lead towards widespread change. These small changes can truly be incremental – start with simple coaching on effective communication skills and emotional vocabulary, build in a few minutes each day for relaxation and focusing, emphasize positive student-teacher relationships and design posters and spaces that reflect SEL skills as a school value. Over time, these changes will catalyze a school-wide shift in priority.

    In my experience, successful implementation of a school-wide SEL program is a change that takes anywhere from 2 – 5 years of dedicated focus to do well.

  2. Don’t Go it Alone: 

    Anyone who has ever tried to change a longstanding pattern of behavior knows that it is easier to do so with the support of a community. There is a reason that addiction recovery groups, weight loss groups, exercise groups, and other support groups are so popular and successful. Change is easier in a community.A growing axiom in the field of SEL is “You will not succeed in doing this work alone.” Too often I meet with well-intentioned mental health staff, teachers, or administrators who personally assume the responsibility of creating a school-wide culture shift towards SEL. More often than not, these same people end up burned out, disenchanted, and largely unsuccessful in their attempts to create lasting change.

    If, however, that same person creates a community within their school dedicated to supporting school-wide SEL implementation, their chances of success are greatly increased. The accountability, support, encouragement, and shared responsibility we receive in a community become pillars of change.

    If your school does not yet have an “SEL Team” that meets regularly and is composed of a wide variety of stakeholders (teacher, mental health, admin, parent, student, non-classroom staff, etc.) then creating this team is likely the most promising place to start for a long-lasting change.

  1. Remove Barriers to Change and Make it Easy 

    Let’s face it: we are already asking an enormous amount of our teachers. As if attending to the behaviors and needs of 30 children were not enough, teachers are rigorously evaluated on every aspect of their job performance and the stakes to increase academic performance cannot be understated. Administrators are under no less pressure to see their schools succeed – their funding literally depends on the test scores of their students.Barring any unforeseen and spectacular changes in how our system evaluates teachers and funds schools (say, rewarding outcomes like innovation, collaboration, creativity and perseverance rather than reducing the entire equation to standardized test scores), we need to give serious consideration to what we can remove from teachers plates before asking them to add one more thing.

    As we have already highlighted, teachers want to spend more time building positive relationships with their students and emphasizing non-academic skills like compassion and empathy. They understand the need for these skills and realize that spending more time teaching and practicing these skills will ultimately make their jobs easier and more fulfilling.

    By and large, however, the system does not support them in creating this type of change. I have personally witnessed a school principal observing a teacher with a stopwatch and later penalizing that teacher for every second spent on something not directly related to core academic content. This is a systemic issue.

    Yet, there is still plenty we can do at an individual level to support change. If a teacher is overwhelmed with classroom management, can we ensure that there are other adults present during SEL time to help manage behaviors and offer individualized support to students? Can the school schedule be changed to provide dedicated time for teaching and practicing SEL skills? Can we ensure that teachers are given high-quality training and ongoing support in delivering effective SEL? Can we provide lesson plans that are accessible, engaging, and teacher-friendly so teachers do not need to take extra planning time to prepare for SEL lessons? In short, can we offer enough support and remove enough obstacles to make the shift towards SEL an easy choice?

  2. Strengths-Based Interventions 

    Another key principle of effective behavior change is providing support and coaching based on strengths and what someone is doing well rather than where they are weak or failing. Applied to a school setting, the easiest place to begin creating effective change towards high-quality SEL is by starting with what the school is already doing well.Is there a character education program already in place? Great! Try to bolster this and adapt new programs to fit within this context rather than tearing it all down and starting from scratch.

    Has your school already begun to change their approach to discipline to be more trauma-informed and restorative in nature? Perfect! Try to contribute to this effort and ensure its widespread success before attempting something new.

    In essence, focus on what is already good and right about your school setting and expand those aspects first.

  1. Assess Motivation and Level of ReadinessTherapists trained in models like Motivational Interviewing know that people approach change with varying levels of readiness and motivation. Prochaska’s Stages of Change provides an outline of the various states of change, including pre-contemplation (not ready); contemplation (getting ready); preparation (ready); action (making the change); and maintenance (sustaining the change).

    Approaching someone in a pre-contemplative stage with a clear action plan and sequential goals is very likely to backfire because they simply are not yet ready to change. A more effective intervention would be to elicit and highlight the person’s intrinsic motivation for change. Thus, the intervention varies depending on a person’s level of readiness.

    Similarly, we need to first assess our schools’ level of readiness before designing SEL initiatives. If a school has not even considered the benefit of an SEL program (pre-contemplation), your work will largely be in providing education and gathering information rather than implementing wholesale change. If your school is already in the preparation stage, however, you and your team can move much more quickly towards clear action steps.

    The take-home point here is that if our intervention does not match the level of readiness (stage of change) then we are likely to encounter a great deal of resistance. The more that we are able to modify our approach to meet an individual or a system where it is at, the less resistance we will encounter.

Think Upstream

Each of these examples requires a fundamental shift from reactive to proactive thinking. Returning to the example of our healthcare system – currently over a 3 trillion dollar industry per year in the U.S. – imagine the economic and societal benefit possible if we focused on promoting wellness and preventing disease rather than treating illnesses and managing symptoms.

In the same vein, imagine the societal and economic benefit possible if we began to prioritize SEL skills and student wellness. Research already bears out that this yields a dramatic increase in academic performance and graduation rates alongside significant decreases in dropouts, arrests, and physical and mental health disorders.

This requires all of us to think upstream and be proactive about the design of our institutions rather than continuing to react to the crises and pressures at hand.