SEL in Action: Stories from the Field

A central element of CASEL’s approach to effective implementation of school‐based social and emotional learning is the adoption of an evidence‐based SEL curriculum. The 2013 CASEL Guide—Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs: Preschool and Elementary School Edition describes 23 programs that meet criteria for high quality and evidence of their effectiveness. Here we present stories from the field submitted by colleagues in schools and districts that have adopted some of those programs.

We welcome submissions of similar stories from our partners and colleagues in the field. To submit a story, please write to us at

On the Playground

In the past I had to closely monitor free time on the playground. Since we have only five riding toys and 16 children, I often found myself timing the children to tell them when their turns were over. I felt like a police officer! Now with Al’s Pals in the classroom, the children are much less self‐centered. They care about each other, and I hear them asking each other if they’d like a turn on the bike. They are sharing, cooperating and taking turns much more than my children did in the past.

(Al’s Pals)

What Kind of Teacher Are You?

Recently a parent asked me this question, and here's the answer I wish I had given. I plan to post this on my classroom wall to serve as a reminder.

I am a Responsive Classroom teacher. I believe every child can succeed, but I don’t assume that they already know how. I teach in ways that help them develop cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self‐control. I guide students to learn to self‐monitor their behaviors and to understand that their actions, words and choices affect others as well as themselves.

I am a Responsive Classroom teacher. I believe the words I use can be a valuable tool for conveying to children and parents that each child is unique, important and able to make progress. I believe the way I communicate can support or poison a classroom and that my students are listening — all the time.

I am a Responsive Classroom teacher. I believe that children want to learn and that it's motivating when classmates and the teacher are excited about learning, too. Whether we’re

practicing spelling or hypothesizing about why apple slices weigh less each day we leave them out in the air, I strive to make learning meaningful.

(Submitted by Suzanne Wright, first‐grade teacher in Sarasota, Fla. — Responsive Classroom)

Fifth‐Graders Solve a Problem by Working Together

Erica Welch, a fifth‐grade teacher at the Boston Teachers Union Pilot K‐8 School in Boston, Massachusetts, began the year by challenging her students to solve an important problem: safely arranging chairs for Open Circle, a social and emotional learning program centered on twice‐weekly, 15‐minute classroom meetings covering lessons from the Open Circle Curriculum.

“After Open Circle training,” Ms. Welch explains, “I was enthusiastic about bringing the program to my class. However, with 26 kids, me, and an open chair symbolizing that there’s always room for another participant or voice in the circle, it was hard to orchestrate that in a crowded classroom.

"So I decided it would be best to ask the kids. On the first day of school I asked the students to divide into small groups and come up with proposals of how to get into Open Circle. The students generated ideas, obstacles they might face and how to overcome them. The next day they gave each other feedback on their ideas. They were solving a real problem together and building community.”

(Open Circle)

Creating the Conditions for Academic Learning

It’s the second week of school, and a first grade teacher of predominantly ELL students pulls me into his room to show me his students’ writing. He is enthusiastic about the district’s new writing curriculum and the impact of SEL on his students’ work. He tells me that as a result of having daily Caring School Community (CSC) “check‐in” meetings, his students were able write, revise and expand on their “small moments,” writing at a level he found remarkable. This was true for both his most advanced writer as well as the most reluctant.

A key to this success, he explained, is an activity in the CSC curriculum called “Turn to Your Partner” in which students practice how to ask a simple follow‐up question in a dialog with a partner. During Writer’s Workshop he would have the students share their writing and ask a follow‐up question with their partners. For example, one student wrote that she went to the park with her family and had ice cream.

The follow‐up question her partner asked was “What flavors?” That prompted her to go back to her writing and add a sentence explaining she had chocolate, her mother had strawberry, and her abuelita had cotton candy.

(Submitted by Mary Hurley, Oakland Unified School District, Calif. — Caring School Community)

Chicago’s Welcome Wagon

Thousands of Chicago children and their families have been asking tough questions in the wake of Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) 49 school closings at the end of the 2012‐13 school year. Fortunately, CPS has been working to address these questions, and they’ve come up with some creative and innovative answers. The 49 schools that are taking in students from the closed schools have been labeled “Welcoming Schools,” and CPS is using SEL to make sure they live up to the name.

Among the Welcoming Schools 45 of the 49 have chosen the Second Step program to help them implement schoolwide social‐emotional learning. CPS SEL leader Karen Van Ausdal explains that “Second Step provides a powerful tool to help our students build the skills of empathy, problem solving and self‐management that will be necessary as they come together to build a new community of learners.”

(Second Step / Committee for Children)


To encourage students to communicate more effectively and develop empathy, educator and MindUP trainer David Andrews facilitates a group activity called FreeZone using the principles of the MindUP curriculum.

Students are asked to get into a circle and step forward if they agree with statements read aloud by the teacher. The statements relate to school climate, student interaction, current events, self‐awareness, and interpersonal challenges and skills. At the end of a series of questions, the teacher moderates a debriefing in which students are encouraged to discuss their opinions and responses.

This exercise helps the students develop self‐regulation, control of their emotions and empathy with others who may have a different perspective.

At the beginning of the year the statements are relatively innocuous, e.g., “Step forward if you believe education is important.” As the semester goes on, they become more provocative and even controversial. Eventually the students are able to facilitate their own FreeZone debriefing while the teacher monitors the activity.

In a school challenged by conflicts related to community violence and poverty, this activity has been highly effective in helping students develop SEL skills.

(Activity based on the MindUP curriculum developed by David Andrews, an educator in Miami, Florida)