Ch. 5: Guidelines for Selecting Evidence-Based SEL Programs

  • When school and district planning teams oversee the careful selection and effective implementation of evidence-based SEL programs, the children they serve benefit socially, emotionally, and academically. This chapter 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 SEL programs.

    Principle 1: School and district teams should engage diverse stakeholders in the program selection 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

    (Durlak et al., 2011; Kam, Greenberg, & Walls, 2003)

    Principle 2: Implement evidence-based SEL programs in the context of systemic district and school programming.

    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. Chapter 2 briefly described CASEL’s district and school theories of action to provide readers with a broader context about where a CASEL SELect program might fit within overall district and school priorities. School and district level 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.

    Principle 3: Consider local contextual factors to better understand your resources and challenges.

    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 this review, 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?

    Selecting an Evidence-Based Program

    Some schools may prefer to develop their own approach to SEL, rather than adopting a SELect program identified in this Guide. We believe it is better to start from a foundation that is evidence-based. A SELect program can serve as a base from which to coordinate school-wide SEL, family partnerships, and community programming. The benefits of using programs that embody years of scientific program development, evaluation, and evidence are worth the effort. Assuming your team agrees with this perspective, we have organized this chapter according to principles derived from research and practice about the components of effective programs. Below we present several strategies. This information can jumpstart your selection of appropriate SEL programs. We recommend the following:

    • Use Rating Tables to identify program candidates.All CASEL SELect programs meet three main criteria: they are well-designed programs that promote students’ social and emotional skills; they provide quality professional development to support implementation; and they are research-based. Given that these are all effective programs that have a variety of virtues, we provide a set of considerations your team can use to identify program candidates that may best address your priorities for selection. Your team’s first step is to determine whether you are looking for a preschool program, an elementary school program, or both.
    • Review the program descriptions to narrow your search. Use the program descriptions to learn more about the programs that interest you. These descriptions provide more detailed information about each program including the full range of grade levels for which the program is designed and the skills the program teaches. The summaries include an overview. Cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of SEL programs are extremely important factors to consider. It was beyond the scope of this review to assess the appropriateness of each program for every possible cultural or linguistic context, but we note in the program descriptions if there is content within each program that helps teachers implement or adapt activities based on the cultures or linguistic needs of their students. Based on your review of the descriptions of the top candidates, you should narrow your search to three or four programs you will explore more deeply.
    • Gather additional information about your top program candidates. Visit the websites of the SELect programs you have identified to learn more about your top program candidates. A few things you should look for are an overview of the program, a scope and sequence, sample materials, videos of the program in actual classrooms, research reports, professional development and technical assistance supports, and costs. Once your team has settled on three or four programs that appear to meet your needs and support the goals of your SEL plan, you will need to explore these programs more deeply and gather information related to your particular situation. Consider contacting the program provider. Key concerns include securing information about program costs, training and other implementation supports such as on-site coaching and consultation, available guidance and tools for monitoring implementation and evaluating student outcomes, and the extent to which the program is culturally and linguistically appropriate for your student population. You should also ask to review program materials and contact others who have used the program.
    • Assess the cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of the program. Research in social and emotional learning, and in child development more broadly, has consistently found that children learn best when education is relevant and appropriate to their cultural and linguistic context. The same is true with regard to materials and programming for families and caregivers. This creates special challenges when selecting programs, since many schools are multicultural, with unique combinations of different cultures and with different levels of acculturation. In our review of SEL programs we have paid careful attention to whether and how programs have made adjustments for different cultural contexts. For example, when programs indicate that they are designed for use with particular ethnic/cultural groups, or if they suggest how content or activities can be adapted for use with different groups, we note this in our comments in the program description. As part of our review of evaluations we note which geographic and ethnic/cultural groups were represented in the study samples for each program. In future iterations of the CASEL Guide we plan to go deeper. For example, we will ask experts with different cultural perspectives to help us assess programs. We will also ask authorities on linguistic responsiveness to help us review program content and activities.
    • Contact and visit schools using the program. To complete the selection process, contact and visit one or more schools using the programs you are considering. Speak with teachers and others who have experience with the program. Observe how the program works in action. Most programs can identify individuals or schools for a visit. At a minimum, and if distance and travel are problems, try to arrange extended telephone interviews with others who have used the program. If you are able to arrange visits, prepare carefully with a set of questions and discussion topics.

  • Note: programs selected after 2013 will not be in the PDF