The State of SEL in Massachusetts

“Social-emotional learning should not be just an ‘add-on.’ When we say education, we should understand that it includes social, emotional, and academic development.” –

Chad d’Entremont, Executive Director of the Rennie Center

panel of speakers
Source: The Rennie Center

For two decades since passing an ambitious reform plan in 1993, the Massachusetts public school system has been widely seen as the one of the best in the country. Yet, as reflected in Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley’s latest updates, ensuring a bright future for education in the Commonwealth will require districts to move beyond a continued adherence to federal frameworks and the state’s approach to accountability.

Instead, the Commissioner is calling for the education community in Massachusetts to “embrace a shift to applied, deeper learning; engaging students in interdisciplinary tasks… where students use critical thinking skills and work collaboratively to solve problems with relevance to their lives.”

This movement to “go deeper” in public education was on full display earlier this month. On May 1, the Rennie Center [in partnership with Transforming Education and the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts (SEL4MA)] hosted a full day summit that focused on the past, present and future of social-emotional learning in Massachusetts. The sold-out event – Social-Emotional Learning: Lessons Learned and Opportunities for Massachusetts – convened over 350 educators, district leaders, researchers, and community organizers across the state to hear from 50 speakers across 15 different breakout sessions, each providing a unique perspective on SEL (from equitable expectations to teacher development to school-community partnerships).

The Inside SEL team was fortunate enough to be in attendance to cover the event. Read on to learn more about the symposium and our top takeaways.


Organizations can work together to help districts get started with the work of introducing SEL into their schools and (simultaneously) generate examples for other districts to follow.

In 2017, the Rennie Center, Transforming Education, and the exSEL Coalition teamed up to launch the exSEL Network, an initiative to help districts in Massachusetts integrate social-emotional learning more deeply into their classrooms and school practices. The network’s first cohort included nine districts and grew to 19 in 2018, representing almost 100,000 students (about 50% of which are designated as “high needs” by the state).

Through joining the exSEL Network, district teams are exposed to the latest knowledge, resources and best practices regarding how the effective implementation of SEL can positively impact students’ learning and behavioral outcomes. Furthermore, the districts are empowered to communicate and collaborate, learning from each other as they explore how to best support the development of specific SEL competencies through changes in policies and practice.

The exSEL Network serves as a model for how to scale social-emotional learning throughout a region or state while breaking down the many silos that typically exist in public education. During the next school year (2019-2020), districts that are new to the work of SEL will be eligible to apply for a “learning group” cohort to learn about the basics of implementation and planning, while returning districts that have worked with exSEL in the past will be offered ways to go deeper within specific areas, such as integrating social-emotional learning into academics or choosing and using SEL assessments.

Several districts in Massachusetts are investing significantly in social-emotional learning and innovating to advance the development of the whole child. (And the list is growing.) Throughout the event, districts working with the exSEL Network were given opportunities to share their insights, learnings, and recommendations with regards to implementing social-emotional learning. From choosing a SEL framework to developing an implementation plan to leveraging data, district leaders from across the state spoke about their efforts to support the development of SEL competencies in their students.

Across all the districts that presented throughout the symposium, a few overarching themes emerged:

  • Multiple individuals spoke about how the capacity to use actionable data to assess and guide the development of students’ social-emotional learning skills is crucial. For instance, the Monomoy Regional School District created its own survey for students and partnered with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to analyze the data, while many other districts partner with organizations such as Panorama Education to help their educators use data to support each student’s needs.
  • School leaders unanimously agreed that there are many ways to develop an implementation plan for SEL, but just getting started (and deciding what to focus on at the beginning) is the biggest key.
  • If there are pockets of SEL work occurring in your district, they are likely siloed. But leaders can identify that work, share it, and help expand it to become district wide. Steering committees can help to aid in these efforts, as the people involved in the group will become shepherds of SEL. If schools begin to invest in social-emotional learning and see success, others will want to get involved.
  • Determine staff needs and invest in training and workshops for educators. Helping teachers to better understand and develop their own SEL competencies better equips them to support their students. At the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District, district leadership created a new series of monthly professional development workshops, each covering a different SEL competency or topic. These training sessions allowed educators and administrators to discuss social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making with their colleagues and think critically about how these skills manifest in their specific contexts.
  • There are gentle, non-threatening ways that you can continuously remind teachers that SEL is more than just a curriculum; that it is something that occurs 24/7 in the classroom.
  • Taking the time to select a SEL framework (e.g., CASEL), agree upon common language for SEL, and craft a vision helps to give all stakeholders and educators a common entry point.
  • Ensuring that there is true, authentic buy-in from the most senior levels within your district can go a long way in helping to accelerate the adoption of new policies and practices. The support of the superintendent, first and foremost, is absolutely paramount, as it reflects the importance of SEL for the entire district.
  • In order to inspire teachers, who are already stretched thin and stressed, school leadership needs to work to make social-emotional learning less abstract. This involves both showing them data that reinforces why investing in SEL is necessary as well as providing them with help and guidance for integrating SEL into the existing academic curriculum.

Learning settings that give students the opportunity to directly practice social, emotional, and cognitive skills are the most effective. In her keynote address, Dr. Stephanie Jones from the Harvard Graduate School of Education — a leading researcher in the field of social-emotional learning — spoke about how safe, supportive environments in which social, emotional, and cognitive skills are deeply intertwined with academic work drives a level of engagement that is linked to a plethora of positive life outcomes. For instance, cognitive neuroscientists and researchers are finding that non-academic skills such as self-control and social competence in early childhood predict labor market success and better physical health 20 to 30 years later.

It is clear that we cannot assume all children arrive in a classroom with their social-emotional skills fully developed. Students need opportunities to practice and develop their SEL competencies in a supportive environment that gives them room for mistakes and learning. We don’t remove a student from the classroom for getting a math problem wrong, yet too often the same developmental spaces for academics are not given for social awareness, self-management, and relationship skills.

Jones continued to describe a “new paradigm” for research in SEL, one in which everything starts with practice. She called for educators and school leadership to continue to embrace a “learn as you go” mentality, always experimenting and integrating research, practice and policy together.

Cultural humility and transformative SEL can help to dismantle barriers to equity and create an inclusive environment in which everyone is supported.


Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, Director of Open Circle, is one of the leading experts in the country on the topic of equity in social-emotional learning. In a breakout session on this topic, Drummond-Forrester spoke about how what we see is not simply a function of our eyesight. Instead, we see with our minds. In other words, we are walking into every situation with lenses that are tinted with embedded narratives we already have and previous experiences.

Drummond-Forrester went on to explain two key terms:

  • Transformative SEL: a process whereby students and teachers build strong, respectful relationships grounded in an appreciation of similarities and differences and learn to critically examine root causes and work together to build collaborative solutions.
  • Cultural Humility: a process-oriented approach to learning about others that starts with an examination of our own beliefs and cultural identities in order to build trustworthy relationships.

Together, transformative SEL and cultural humility call for lifelong self-reflection, redressing power imbalances, and engaging in advocacy for systemic change. In tandem, these two concepts can help educators to think about equity in SEL as equitable access to resources, adapting to the unique needs of each student, and working towards liberation.

Districts cannot rely solely on standalone programs for SEL if they want to truly integrate SEL in their classrooms. There are many ways to teach students directly about SEL, but how do you infuse and embed social-emotional learning into the content that students are already learning in a time-efficient, low-cost, curriculum-aligned manner? In a workshop designed to help districts explore frameworks and strategies for integrating SEL and academics, Kim Gilbert from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom and Stephanie Hurley from Transforming Education shared two approaches for achieving “SEL integration.”

Commonalities and actionable insights from the CFCC and Transforming Education frameworks include:

  • Putting students at the forefront and inviting them into the conversation.
  • Find spontaneous opportunities to help students recognize SEL in context and engage in metacognitive reflection with peers or adults.
  • Social-emotional learning has to happen throughout the entire school-day, not just in 15 or 20 minutes of explicit instruction.
  • It’s not enough to just offer professional development to teachers; districts need to create a programmatical approach that allows teachers (and students) to carry on practices after they leave the building
  • Adults and ones peers can be thoughtful, intentional models of SEL. Teachers in particular can provide a model for students to see — their thinking, actions, and thought processes.
  • If you want to integrate SEL, 60% if just being more intentional about your existing pedagogy. The other 40% of integration is looking for ways to create change by identifying new practices to try and creating a plan to collect formative data. It’s about subtly tweaking the way you are doing things, not completely overhauling your approach to teaching.

“SEL integration is achieved when students and teachers can transfer the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they’ve learned through direct instruction to practical environments such as home, community, and the workplace. The more varied the contexts… the easier it will be for them to generalize the approaches they’ve been taught.” — David Adams, Urban Assembly

Categories SEL in K-12

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