Implementing Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

Dana Minney on implementing quality social and emotional learning.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Dana Minney, used with permission
Dana Minney
Source: Dana Minney, used with permission

Students are not robots. On the contrary, they are complex human beings with infinite variables impacting who they are as people, what they are experiencing, and how they perceive and move forward in the world. To negate the impact that non-academic factors have on students’ school experiences and success, as well as their future success, would be a serious detriment to students.

Hence social and emotional learning (SEL), which means acquiring and practicing skills to manage emotions and navigate social interactions, is earning much-needed attention in the field of education. Yet effective implementation of high-quality SEL practices and programs remains elusive for many schools.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana Minney, M.S., who is an educational researcher with a background in professional development, coaching, and facilitation. After completing graduate work in family and child development with an emphasis on program evaluation, she has much to share about organizational IQ, staff well-being, and the effects on children’s SEL. Here Minney shares how U.S. educators and caregivers can provide ideal conditions for SEL.

Jenny Rankin (JR): SEL has been on the education field’s radar for many years now. The majority of impact evaluations show SEL has many benefits, such as improving children’s well-being and academic outcomes while decreasing high-risk behaviors. However, you’ve mentioned that there are still obstacles to widespread implementation. Why is that?

Dana Minney (DM): Teaching SEL is different in that it requires not just presenting content, but teachers must also model social-and-emotional competence, and do so in an SEL-friendly environment.

JR: What does current research tell us about the link between teacher well-being and quality implementation?

DM: Teachers’ well-being is linked to stress, job satisfaction, and self-efficacy, which are linked to teachers’ social-emotional competence. SEL competence helps teachers implement quality SEL. Which makes sense, doesn’t it? If a teacher is stressed and lacks confidence, you can imagine it will be hard to form warm and caring relationships with students—an ingredient for successful SEL implementation—and model self-awareness and emotion-management (operationalizations of SEL). Yet another important ingredient in quality SEL implementation is context (e.g., well-managed classrooms with positive teacher interactions throughout the day, and a school culture that supports and prioritizes evidence-based SEL).

JR: Is there a difference between how SEL is implemented in school settings versus after-school care settings? If so, what can we learn from that?

An SEL-friendly classroom is characterized by warm relationships between teacher and student, and an after-school care setting is no different. The delivery may need modification to suit environment and time constraints. But when center directors make the effort, it is possible to provide quality SEL and to even conduct low-cost and time-efficient impact evaluation. In an after-school care setting, I conducted pre-and post-tests of elementary school-age children who experienced a high-quality SEL intervention while attending Extend-A-Care YMCA Branch. The children made statistically significant gains in social-and self-awareness measures and in their ability to self-soothe when upset. What’s important here is SEL skills are reinforced in children who experience continuity through exposure in multiple settings.

JR: Equity issues are gaining much-needed attention across the U.S. Have you looked at SEL implementation through an equity lens?

DM: Unfortunately, students who could most benefit from quality SEL are least likely to get it. Children of color or from low-income families are more likely to attend schools with more high-needs students, because with poverty often comes trauma, crime, and chronic stress. High-needs schools typically have more inexperienced teachers and the highest turnover. Not only are the teachers unlikely to have the experience or training, but they are more likely to experience stress and/or burnout, and therefore low SEL. This is found in research but is not always the case. Many wonderful teachers, principals, and districts consistently prioritize SEL. They realize it’s especially important now, due to anxiety and even trauma from COVID and the sudden transition to distance learning.

JR: What do you think would make high-quality SEL implementation more widespread?

DM: Wonderful and impactful work is being done at the grassroots level in schools and centers, and on a national level, too. Like CASEL, the Chicago-based non-profit. Their goal is at least 50 percent of U.S. schools implement evidence-based, school-wide SEL by 2025. Also, U.S. policy-makers proposed the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act in 2011. It never got past committee, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Over 90 percent of U.S. school principals believe assessing SEL is important, and 95 percent of teachers believe these skills are teachable. Organizational and systemic change is possible if educators, administrators, and policy-makers are proactive in supporting quality, widespread SEL. Change requires commitment, not just verbal or written in a document, but a commitment from the heart, to children’s social-and-emotional learning.

JR: Thank you for your time, and for all you do to help youth.


DePaoli, J. L., Atwell, M. N., & Bridgeland, J. (2017). Ready to lead: A national principal survey on how social and emotional learning can prepare children and transform schools. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates for CASEL.

Jennings, P., & Greenberg, M. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of educational research, 79(1), 491-525.

Minney, D., Garcia, J., Altobelli, J., Perez-Brena, N., & Blunk, E. (2019). Social-Emotional Learning and Evaluation in After-School Care: A Working Model. Journal of Youth Development, 14(3), 130-145.

Schonert-Reichl, K. (2017). Social and emotional learning and teachers. The Future of Children, 137-155.

Weissberg, R. (2019). Promoting the social and emotional learning of millions of school children. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(1), 65-69.

Zaslow, M., Mackintosh, B., Mancoll, S., & Mandell, S. (2015). Federal policy initiatives and children’s SEL. Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice, 549-565.