Coming Together to Spread Social-Emotional Learning

How a network of educators is teaming up on SEL 

Educators know that academic skills are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the success of their students. Understanding math and science is important, but to be prepared for life after graduation students need to understand how to navigate relationships and make healthy decisions too. In fact, research finds that social-emotional skills like these are more indicative of success than IQ. Teaching these skills is especially important in educating the most vulnerable students, who may not have access to the same out-of-school social and emotional learning experiences as their peers. That means social-emotional learning (SEL) can help us reduce achievement gaps and prepare all students for success.  

Despite this knowledge, making SEL part of everyday learning is not easy. While many teachers work on these skills in their classroom, the education system as a whole is not yet set up to support widespread implementation of SEL practices. So how can we do this? The Rennie Center’s research has uncovered plenty of recommendations based on success stories we’ve seen in Massachusetts and across the nation. But no single solution will work for all schools. Teachers, principals, and district leaders know best what will work for their students.  

That’s why we are launching the second year of the Excellence through Social Emotional Learning (exSEL) Network. Last year, we teamed up with Transforming Education and the exSEL Coalition—whose members include the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives, and Massachusetts School Administrators Association—to form a network of districts looking to expand SEL in their schools. This year, we have grown from nine to 19 districts. The 2018-19 exSEL Network represents a diverse group of districts across the state that together serve nearly 100,000 students.

Each of these districts is working individually to find ways to integrate SEL in their schools. By bringing this group together we can harness the power of peers, giving the districts the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t work in similar districts. This network approach allows the districts to multiply their expertise, knowledge, and resources.

Several districts, including Brockton Public Schools, will return for a second year in the network. In Brockton—where 68 percent of the more than 17,000 students are considered high needs—there have been pockets of success in SEL and behavioral health in recent years, including a focus on trauma-sensitive schools. Now the district is looking to build these pockets of success into an overarching approach and is working with the exSEL Network to find ways to develop a districtwide consensus around SEL.

 “The exSEL Network has deepened our understanding of social-emotional learning and has provided an effective structure for planning SEL work in our district,” said Salvatore Terrasi, Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services, Brockton Public Schools. “The quality of the sessions has been excellent and the opportunity to discuss issues and brainstorm solutions with other districts has been very productive. I believe that the network is doing much to further the cause of social-emotional learning in schools.”

In addition to Brockton, the network includes Attleboro Public Schools, Blackstone-Millville Regional School District, Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District, Brookline Public Schools, Grafton Public Schools, Fitchburg Public Schools, Lowell Public Schools, Marshfield Public Schools, Mendon-Upton Regional School District, Millbury Public Schools, Monomoy Regional School District, North Andover Public Schools, Norton Public Schools, Shawsheen Regional Technical School, Shrewsbury Public Schools, Tantasqua Regional School District, Weymouth Public Schools, and Whitman-Hanson Regional School District.

The impact of this network will stretch beyond these 19 districts. We hope the group’s findings can benefit schools across the Massachusetts and inform state policy at large. This spring, we’ll be hosting a statewide summit on SEL to share lessons learned from the exSEL Network districts and discuss the future of SEL in Massachusetts. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about the power of networks like exSEL, join us on October 3 in Boston to hear about successful networks across the nation.