Selecting Evidence-Based SEL Programs

When school and district planning teams oversee the careful selection and effective implementation of evidence-based social and emotional learning programs, the children they serve benefit socially, emotionally and academically. The CASEL Guide shares principles, information and guidelines that teams can use to adopt the best programs for their context. 

Three key principles support the effective selection, implementation, impact, and sustainability of evidence-based social and emotional learning programs:

1. School and district teams — rather than an individual — should engage diverse stakeholders in the program adoption process.

The CASEL Guide is designed primarily for school and district teams focused on establishing systemic approaches to SEL program implementation. District planning teams often involve central office leaders, including the chief academic officer; supervisors and staff from curriculum and instruction, professional development, student support, research evaluation and finance departments; school board members; building administrators; teachers; parents; students; and community members. 

School teams typically include building administrators, teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, nonprofessional staff, parents, students and other important stakeholders.

Teams should represent a spectrum of views and concerns, yet be small enough to ensure action. 

It is especially important that building principals and teachers participate actively in the program selection process. "If we are not on the plane when it takes off," goes the saying, "we will not be on it when it lands." Research indicates that SEL programs are implemented better and produce more positive benefits for students when they are delivered by classroom teachers who have the support of their principals.

2. Implementing evidence-based SEL programs within systemic, ongoing district and school planning, programming, and evaluation leads to better practice and more positive outcomes for students.

The best evidence-based SEL programs provide practitioners with clear research-based guidance on practices that foster improved social and emotional skills development. They also help school communities establish a unifying framework, common language and coordinated approaches for promoting SEL. Nevertheless, although CASEL SELect programs are an important part of the district or school SEL puzzle, they are not the entire puzzle.

The CASEL Guide provides readers with a broader context of where a CASEL SELect program might fit within overall district and school priorities. School and district teams using this Guide should consider four activities that will help in their adoption of SELect programs:

  • Assess the district or school's current SEL programs and policies to evaluate their quality, and build from strengths as you deepen the work.
  • Build systems to provide ongoing, embedded professional development in SEL for school administrators, teachers and other stakeholders. 
  • Link evidence-based SEL programs and practices with student-centered instruction, curriculum and assessments; SEL standards that specify what students should know and be able to do in the social-emotional domain; and school-family-community partnership activities. 
  • Use data on SEL program implementation, student social-emotional competence, school and classroom climate, and school performance to guide school improvement plans and to inform the district of needed resources for SEL.

3. It is critical to consider local contextual factors (e.g., student characteristics, programs already in place) when making decisions about which programs to implement.

Effective needs and resources assessments rely heavily on data related to student behaviors and the perceived needs of students, staff and parents. It is critical to have accurate information about both the student body as a whole, as well as subgroups of students (e.g., boys and girls, students at each grade level, students from different racial and ethnic groups, special education students and English language learners).

Every district and school has a variety of curricula, special services, policies, programs and activities related to social and emotional learning. Systematically reviewing them will identify strengths and gaps in current programming. If your school or district already uses one or more of the SEL programs included in the CASEL Guide, it is important to know how well such programs are working, how many students they reach, how they integrate with each other and other school priorities, and the extent to which they support family and community involvement. 

The readiness of the school or district to take on SEL programming is another critical factor to assess. Are there sufficient financial and human resources to address SEL systemically, or is it preferable to start small and build the program? Is there sufficient enthusiasm, support and leadership, or will these need to be cultivated? Is there a high level of cooperation among teachers, administrators and other staff, or will this need to be developed? Is there capacity to provide professional development that supports SEL?