SEL leadership starts with sharing the why

In his 2011 book, "Start with Why", Simon Sinek offers powerful advice for leaders: start any endeavor with “why.” Why are we trying something new? Why do we need to make changes? Why should we leave our comfort zone?

As an educational leader investing in social and emotional learning (SEL), you know your “why.” Perhaps you want to offer better support for staff and students while building a proactive system to improve SEL. Maybe you want to increase equity by starting crucial conversations. Whatever your reason, you must have a “why” that is pushing you to find a solution.

Regardless of which tool is used to advance SEL, the best first step for leaders is to build community commitment to systemic SEL by sharing your why. As Sinek so aptly observes, “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

Inspire Action

To be successful, SEL-forward systems and practices must be nurtured across an organization. Without the backing of teachers, students, parents, and the community, SEL programs are likely to fail. Take the time to inspire all stakeholders in the community prior to program roll-out by sharing your reasons for investing money, time, and staff bandwidth in social and emotional learning.

As you tell the story of how the organization can be transformed by smart SEL practices, keep your audience in mind. Here are some of the key benefits of social and emotional learning, as well as the groups of educational stakeholders most likely to be inspired to shift their practices to achieve these outcomes.

The Compelling Whys for School Boards

When school systems focus on SEL, there are many positive outcomes that would speak to the board and community. These outcomes include:

  • Strong ROI: Studies show that evidenced-based SEL programs return $11 for every $1 spent.
  • Future community investment: There is a statistically significant correlation between social and emotional skills in children as young as kindergarten and a decreased likelihood of needing public assistance or being incarcerated.
  • Safer schools: SEL programming decreases conduct problems, which leads to a calmer, safer, and more productive learning environment.
  • Decreased teacher burnout and attrition: Teachers who have developed social and emotional competencies are more likely to stay in the classroom and be more resistant to burnout. For more information about the research behind this statement, read this EdSurge article on SEL and teachers.
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The Compelling Whys for Teachers

In 2013, CASEL's national teacher survey revealed that 87% of teachers believe SEL can help students prepare for life after high school and 80% see SEL as a solution to school climate problems. Teachers are already invested in improving SEL outcomes because improved pro-social behaviors lead to improved conduct, lower absenteeism, and a stronger sense of community.

Unfortunately, teachers already feel overwhelmed by demands on their time. The role of leadership is to find ways to infuse SEL-forward programming into school culture while minimizing the lift for teachers. Some districts and schools have supported teachers by dedicating PLC time to working on SEL assessments, sharing no-prep SEL lessons, and providing an SEL scope and sequence for homeroom time.

Are your teachers wary of change and cynical about the potential benefits of SEL? Here are some compelling reasons that will resonate with teachers.

  • A 2008 AFT survey revealed that 17% of teachers lose four or more hours per week due to disruptive students and 19% reported having lost two to three hours of instruction per week. Those percentages climb in urban districts.
  • Between 1968-2008, discipline was routinely identified by teachers as the most important problem they face. In 2015, student discipline issues were cited as a top reason for teachers leaving the classroom.
  • In 2021, teachers reported depression at a 2.5x higher rate than the general population.
  • Studies have shown that students who participate in social and emotional learning programs show more positive social behaviors and greater academic success. SEL programs are also identified as a protective factor against misconduct, emotional distress, and drug abuse.

The role of leadership is to find ways to infuse SEL-forward programming into school culture while minimizing the lift for teachers.

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The Compelling Whys for Parents

Communicating with parents about the benefits of SEL programming is like preaching to the choir. Most parents are keenly aware of the disconnect between what students are taking away from school and the needs of employers and post-secondary education. Here are some facts that will drive this point home.

  • A 2018 report shows that 83% of high school students from SEL-forward schools identified their schools as having done a “great” or “pretty good” job preparing them for success after high school. Only 13% of high school students from schools with no SEL programming rated their schools similarly.
  •  A 2015 Forbes magazine report showed the top five skills employers are looking for are all skills developed in SEL programming.
  • SEL programs encourage students to reflect on the perspectives of others, practice self-restraint, and develop integrity. All these skills are beneficial in school and at home.

Communication is the Key

Regardless of how you share the message about the benefits of social and emotional learning, the key to building a successful SEL program is making sure all stakeholders support the process. As leaders, it is our responsibility to communicate the benefits of SEL-forward programming in order to generate agency in teachers, parents, students, and the community.

Adams, S. (2015, February 18). The 10 skills employers most want in 2015 graduates. Forbes. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from
Brackett, Marc. “Teachers Are Anxious and Overwhelmed. They Need Sel Now More than Ever. - Edsurge News.” EdSurge, EdSurge, 15 June 2020, 
Casel. “The Missing Piece.” CASEL, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 5 Aug. 2021, 
Gulbrandson, K. (2019, June 27). Trends in social-emotional learning research: What are the outcomes? Committee for Children Blog. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from
Sieberer-Nagler, K. (n.d.). Effective classroom-management & positive teaching - ed. ERIC. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from

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