The Austin Independent School District (AISD) has succeeded in developing a model for systemic social and emotional learning (SEL) for all of its 83,600 students that focuses on explicit skills instruction, SEL integration, school climate and culture, and family and community engagement. SEL coaches funded by local and federal sources are deployed throughout the system. AISD’s SEL strategic plan, first approved in 2011 and revised for 2015-2020, drives SEL implementation. Using a vertical structure, Austin started with two high schools and their feeder schools. As of 2015-16, all 130 schools in the district are implementing SEL.
SEL in Austin
Programs. Evidence-based SEL programs are an important part of AISD’s implementation strategy. Elementary and middle schools are using explicit instructional materials from Second Step, a CASEL SELect Program. In elementary schools lessons are generally taught weekly by the classroom teacher and reinforced in all areas of the school. In middle schools lessons are taught during advisory or as part of a core class such as English or social studies. High schools are using School-Connect as their instructional resource. In several high schools ninth-graders attend a Methods for Academic and Personal Success (MAPS) class to develop SEL skills and study skills to help with their transition to high school. In other high schools explicit SEL instruction is provided in advisories or core content courses.
Climate and culture. In addition to explicit SEL skills instruction, SEL has become central to academics and school climate and culture. For example:
- All schools are implementing the district’s Whole Child, Every Child initiative, a collaborative effort that frames SEL as a districtwide effort, not an isolated program.
- All teachers and principals receive targeted professional development in SEL.
- Master teachers and content specialists now integrate SEL objectives and instructional methods into all exemplar lessons in all subject areas.
- The athletics department is implementing a character education program in collaboration with SEL.
In the community. The focus extends beyond the school buildings into the community. For example, through the citywide Ready by 21 Youth Services Mapping program, students and families can locate services and supports that address academic enrichment and support, as well as social, emotional, and behavioral health. The district has also provided training in SEL to multiple out-of-school time providers.
Sustainability has been a priority from the start. As the SEL initiative has been scaled to include all schools, budgets have risen as well — from $690,000 to more than $2 million in the past four years. The district has supplemented local funding with federal funding for its coaches, a central part of the implementation strategy. A local philanthropic matching program yielded $2.4 million in three years. The district has a dedicated fund development team comprised of internal and external leaders. AISD has taken multiple steps to communicate about the importance of the work with all stakeholders — from the board and cabinet to parents, students, and the community.
The AISD Research and Evaluation Department, which includes a staff member dedicated to SEL, has issued three SEL implementation reports, and leaders and staff are using them to guide ASID’s SEL planning.
- After controlling for baseline ratings of school safety, students in elementary schools where “peace areas” were implemented into classrooms were more likely to say “I feel safe at my school” than students in schools where peace areas were implemented with less fidelity.
- Attendance rates at secondary schools with more years in SEL improved more than attendance rates at other secondary schools.
- Secondary SEL schools with more years in SEL showed a greater reduction in campus discretionary removals than did schools with no years in SEL.
- Secondary schools participating in SEL for three or four years experienced a greater decrease in chronic absenteeism than did schools participating in SEL for one or two years.
- Teachers’ ratings of their third-grade students’ SEL competencies were positively related to students’ performance in state reading and math tests.
- Seventh-grade students’ ratings of the SEL competency item “I have strong self-control” were positively related to their performance in state reading and math tests.
- Elementary school students with fewer disciplinary infractions received higher teacher ratings of the SEL competency items “respects the property of others” and “gets along well with adults” than students with more disciplinary infractions.
“The way we’ve implemented SEL instruction happens every single day in the classroom, not something we do separate and apart.” Paul Cruz, Superintendent
“It teaches you how to be empathetic, how to listen, how to care.” Paul, sixth-grade student
“She [my daughter] is able to focus and calm herself down… so she’s able to take risks needed to learn new things, and that is really making a difference.” Sarah Stone, parent