A Harvard-educated SEL Consultant’s Best Tips for Schools

by Molly Gosline and Mary Pembleton

Molly Gosline

“I don’t think we have to get much buy-in anymore for social-emotional learning in schools,” says Molly Gosline, Ed.M., M.A, executive director of SEL School Consulting and founder of the SEL Summer Institute. “The pandemic and loss of school and social time for students has highlighted the need for social skill development and learning basics of how to do school in a better, more inclusive manner.”

Educators agree. According to a recent survey from EdWeek Research Center, 83% believe SEL “helps students master academic skills.”

The research agrees too. Studies show SEL intervention increases academic performance and improves classroom behavior and student ability to manage stress and depression.

As the dust settles from pandemic learning and social-emotional loss, many schools are eager to embrace SEL to help manage that loss and support mental health.

The rise of SEL in education has sparked some pushback, “but they’re small pockets,” Gosline says, “Sometimes they just have a louder voice depending on the context.”

But when Gosline states that “students need social skill development and access to their emotional intelligence to engage in learning, there’s no pushback. Because everyone agrees.”

Because SEL integration in schools is a fairly new concept, it can be tough to know where to start and what to do,  especially if you’re an educator eager to take action.

Gosline frequently works with schools to “build SEL cultures to positively impact student growth.”

She is the former Coordinator of Social Emotional Learning at Adlai E. Stevenson School District  in Illinois and as a decades long leader in SEL nation-wide,  founded SEL School Consulting and the SEL Summer Institute to support SEL professional development for all educators.

Molly is also working on her doctorate with the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, focusing her research on SEL integration in curriculum, instruction, and assessment  and holds master’s degrees in school counseling as well as in adolescent development research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

With a wealth of experience and education, Molly developed the TIP Model which asks us to be Thoughtful, Intentional, and Purposeful in all SEL integration strategies. Here are her recommendations for bringing effective social emotional learning to students:

1. Decide on a school-wide definition of social emotional learning. Anyone can take the initiative!

Employee smiling at the camera

Gosline emphasizes the importance of defining what social emotional learning means to your school.

“Google it,” she says, “There are like 12,000 definitions! This can be helpful, but also debilitating. Be sure to build a definition that reflects the values, mission, and culture of your school community.”

She suggests bringing up the topic during a staff meeting, a lunch and learn, or with a group of teachers interested in SEL.

“What are the words we should include? What are the words we should not include? What’s the definition that we’re going to hang our hat on?

“It really helps once you have a definition as something to work towards.”

Other considerations in building an SEL culture include teacher and leadership buy-in around SEL integration as well as involving families.

“These are just as important as some of the in-class practices,” Gosline says.

2. Look to these reputable, research-based organizations for SEL resources and information.

CASEL Educating Hearts. Inspiring Minds.

3. Consider the language you use.

Teacher working one on one with student

In the classroom, Gosline suggests using supportive, and meaningful language to build a positive classroom culture.

Spend some time setting this intention individually or as a group. Refer to the CASEL Wheel and think about the kind of language that supports building those competencies.

For example, do you say the words “You matter,” when working on building student relationships? Is that something you’re comfortable saying?

What does it mean to you? What does it mean to your students?

What kinds of words are you choosing to make students feel comfortable in your classroom? What’s the terminology that you’re using to support confidence and growth mindset?

4. Take advantage of professional development.

Gosline emphasizes ongoing professional development as an important part of an SEL-rich school culture.

5. Student Voice.

Young people and education. Group of students in class at school during lesson. Girl raising hand and asking question to professor

Student Voice means seeking out, including, and engaging with student perspectives in classroom and school communities.

Gosline says Student Voice is a crucial part of effective social emotional learning.

“The more students are engaged in their own learning process and know they have a voice in how learning happens can impact how they perceive their strengths and areas for growth,” she says.

Gosline recommends asking yourself the following when considering Student Voice:

  • Are you including Student Voice in the three tiers of the classroom (curriculum, instruction, and assessment)?
  • What does Student Voice look like in your classroom?
  • Have you asked your students if they feel that their voice is included? If so, how, if not what are their suggestions?
  • Do students have a choice in how instruction is implemented? For example, are there ever student-led instructional activities?
  • Do teachers ask questions when they’re grading and ask for students to reply back, changing and updating their answers?
  • Do students get to grade each other’s work?

“This was popular in several divisions when I was at Stevenson,” Gosline says, “For an example, teachers had students grade each other’s work as in intentional social and academic practices, because then students saw what kinds of errors other students were making and seeing that solving math equations can be error driven.

“Really just having fun solving problems and knowing part of the learning is understanding why some paths do not work. The outcome is to appreciate that it’s okay to make mistakes in the learning process.”

6. Model.

Portrait of a School Teacher

“Modeling is everything,” Gosline says, “Whatever you say, set classroom norms that specify positivity and inclusion.. And that’s why language matters.”

Mindful conflict resolution, pausing for moments of self-regulation (and verbalizing it), and asking for feedback are all great examples of modeling SEL in the classroom.

7. Self reflection.

Stressed teacher in classroom looking at laptop

“People ask me what adult SEL is all the time,” Gosline says, “I firmly believe that Adult SEL includes reflecting on how you move through your day with your students.”

She suggests taking five minutes in team meetings, having  informal conversations with colleagues, or a self-reflection journal to assess what areas of strength you are leaning into and identifying areas where growth is needed.

Using the TIP model, these thoughtful, intentional, and purposeful SEL strategies and practices can be implemented successfully from the classroom to counseling spaces to discipline practices and beyond.

“Consider how SEL can be a school-wide culture, inclusive of every space and every voice, Molly says. “Once you open those doors, and appreciate that learning is social, emotional, and academically driven, authentic learning can live and breathe a lot easier for students and adults alike.”