July/August 2020

Policy Page: Addressing SEL Needs of Students and Stakeholders

By Boyd Fergurson

As a youngster, I remember the stories told by my grandmother, who was a teenager during the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Who could have known that more than 100 years later we would be dealing with a similar crisis? 

What we face currently is similar from the standpoint of the fear, emotional toll, tragedy, and isolation such a widespread emergency brings to our lives. Our current situation is dissimilar from the era of the horse and buggy, early automobile, and the rural conditions of the one-room schoolhouse, in that we have remote electronic capabilities and well-developed educational systems to address the needs of our students, teachers, parents, and communities.

How can we most effectively utilize those available resources to serve the needs, including social and emotional needs, of our students and stakeholders?

Evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) has had advocates from across the nation for some time. In a March 26, 2020 article in Phi Delta Kappan, authors Timothy P. Shriver and Roger P. Weissberg state they are delighted to see just how quickly the SEL movement has grown over the last several years. Citing findings from multiple research studies conducted from 2013 through 2019, the article says the principles and goals of SEL have been widely embraced by parents; schoolteachers and administrators; employers; and young people themselves. In addition, they tell us “eighteen states have introduced K-12 SEL standards or competencies and 26 states have produced guidance documents or websites designed to support SEL implementation.” In 2019, they note more than 200 pieces of legislation referencing SEL (or language with similar content) were introduced in that year alone. As a result, many district superintendents and boards of education have expressed strong interest in developing SEL strategies and curricula for their schools. The authors further indicate, “the Federal Commission on School Safety, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has described SEL as a key component of efforts to improve school climate and safety.”

Recent efforts from the California Department of Education (CDE), with additional funding provided by a private educational foundation, have resulted in guidance and resources for supporting SEL during distance learning. These are specifically designed for educators, educational leaders, and families/guardians of students in K-12 schools for use in a remote learning situation and are available on the CDE website. The CDE premise is that SEL reflects a critical role of positive relationships and emotional connections inherent to the learning process. These relationships and connections assist students in the development of a range of skills they need for success at school and in life. These skills include the ability to set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and understand and manage emotions. 

Information about SEL in Illinois can be found at the website of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Featured are the Social/Emotional Learning Standards developed in response and accordance with Section 15(a) of Public Act 93-0495. In Illinois, student social and emotional development is required to be covered by board policy by the Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003, at 405 ILCS 49/15(b). The statute also required districts to submit the policy to ISBE once by August 31, 2004. For districts who are members of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) and are subscribers of the Policy Reference Education Subscription Service (PRESS), language in Policy 6:65, Student Social and Emotional Development, addresses requirements. The policy defines SEL as the process through which students enhance the ability to integrate thinking, feeling, and behaving to achieve important life tasks. It characterizes students who are competent in SEL as those who are able to recognize and manage emotions, establish healthy relationships, set positive goals, meet personal and social needs, and make responsible and ethical decisions. Policy 6:65 also incorporates the three goals for SEL as stated in the Illinois Learning Standards. It states the superintendent will incorporate SEL into the district’s curriculum and other educational programs consistent with the district’s mission and the goals and benchmarks of the Illinois Learning Standards. 

The policy includes a non-exhaustive list of programs, activities, and actions designed to incorporate SEL objectives into the district’s curriculum and other educational programs. Suggested activities include classroom and school-wide programming to foster safe, supportive learning environments; staff development and training to promote students’ SEL development; parent/guardian, family, and community involvement to promote SEL development; early identification and intervention to enhance student school readiness, academic success, and use of good citizenship skills; treatment to prevent or minimalize mental health conditions in students; and assessment and accountability for teaching SEL skills to all students.

Also available to districts subscribing to IASB’s PRESS are Policies 6:270, Guidance and Counseling Program, and 7:250, Student Support Services, which speak to the requirement of districts, as mandated by the Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003, to develop protocols for responding to students with social, emotional, or mental health needs that impact learning. If a board has adopted Policy 7:250, Student Support Services, the accompanying administrative procedure 7:250-AP2, Protocol for Responding to Students with Social, Emotional, or Mental Health Needs, is available for implementation. 

ISBE’s guidance Considerations for Closing the 2019-2020 School Year and Summer 2020 (Part 1 – Transition Plan) notes the importance of considering students’ social-emotional needs during this crisis. ISBE recommends that “districts’ Social Emotional Standards board policy may need to be revisited, publicized, communicated, and broadly applied.” 

PRESS sample Policy 6:65, Item No. 7 provides that one way SEL objectives can be incorporated into a district’s curriculum and educational program is by “Assessment and accountability for teaching SEL skills to all students. This may include implementation of a process to assess and report baseline information and ongoing progress about school climate, students’ social and emotional development, and academic performance.”

Some school districts are planning to use this strategy at the start of the 2020-2021 school year by taking a baseline assessment of every student’s social-emotional status (in contrast to simply assessing students’ academic status at the start of a school year). This will gauge students’ present social-emotional needs and know how best to meet those needs moving forward. And, if a social-emotional status assessment reveals that a student needs more support, districts may follow the steps set forth in 7:250-AP to address those needs, for example by referring students to a building-level Student Support Committee, which may then recommend coordinated educational, social work, school counseling, and/or student assistance services.

My daughter just completed her first year of teaching. And what a year it was! She, too, will have stories to tell future generations about what life was like during the pandemic of 2020, just as my grandmother had stories from her experiences during the influenza pandemic more than a hundred years ago. On a daily basis, I listened to how she and her colleagues interacted with each other, their pupils, administration, and parents/guardians. Amazing resources and technology facilitated that communication. I saw other marvelous examples on social media of teachers connecting with students and parents, not just for subject matter communication, but for out-of-the-way, over-the-top connections to show students they were missed and valued. 

As the education community makes decisions regarding what will happen when and how schools open next year, we should not lose sight of how impactful this whole experience is and will be for everyone, particularly for young people whose characters and personalities are still being formed. The repercussions on young people’s mental health are likely to be significant and long-lasting, and far in excess of simply losing a few months of education. The good news is that PRESS subscribers are already equipped with the policy tools needed to address these repercussions. School boards now need to examine these tools to identify the best ones to use.

Boyd Fergurson is a consultant in the Policy Services Department for the Illinois Association of School Boards. Resources associated with this column can be accessed via