Step 1: Frame the overall SEL effort
Research shows that promoting the SEL competencies of all students requires a systematic approach that goes beyond the classroom and implements SEL schoolwide or districtwide. Implementing systemic SEL requires a range of activities that build capacity and commitment for SEL; cultivate a positive, supportive, and equitable learning environment; and explicitly promote competencies in students. To support the success of this kind of multifaceted implementation, two foundational activities are important:
- Adopt an SEL framework.
- Develop a theory of change (ToC).
Adopt an SEL framework.
SEL frameworks are important tools for organizing plans, communications, and actions related to SEL. They can be used to align SEL instruction to standards and assessments, develop a plan and system for professional learning, and ultimately, guide implementation. Read more about SEL Frameworks.
A high-quality SEL framework provides practitioners with:
- A set of competencies to consider or emphasize.
- Consistent language that ties to theories and empirical studies and helps communicate with stakeholders.
- Clarity about how its SEL competencies develop over time in children (i.e., developmental sequence).
- Guidance, tools, and resources to support implementation in practice (e.g., theories of action, implementation rubrics, other tools to foster implementation).
- Available curriculum/programming and assessment tools. See the AWG brief Ten Criteria for Describing and Selecting SEL Frameworks for more.
By choosing an SEL framework to adopt and implement, schools and districts can ensure that essential elements of SEL implementation (instructional programming, learning standards or guidelines, assessments) will align as part of a cohesive approach.
The Challenge of Choosing an SEL Framework
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) introduced one of the field’s earliest set of SEL competencies in 1997, identifying a set of five core competencies that schools could promote in their students that are keys to academic and life success.
As the field of SEL has grown, additional SEL frameworks have emerged. This growing number of frameworks presents a challenge for educators trying to decide which framework to use with their students. A few ongoing efforts underway are seeking to help with this challenge.
Led by Stephanie Jones, Harvard University’s EASEL Lab is developing an online tool as part of its Taxonomy Project. The emerging online platform should be available in spring 2019. It will allow users to compare frameworks and competencies from different frameworks in a visual way that showcases the points of alignment and divergence—enabling users both to identify common ground and to see what is distinct within any particular framework.
Members of the AWG, led by Roger Weissberg, Stephanie Jones, and Dale Blyth, are also seeking to help educators with this challenge. The group is publishing a series of briefs focused on helping educators learn how to select and effectively use SEL frameworks. Learn more about the AWG’s Frameworks effort. These briefs will summarize what frameworks are and why they are useful, discuss key issues, describe commonly used frameworks, and define criteria for reviewing and selecting an SEL framework.
Develop a theory of change (ToC).
A theory of change (ToC) articulates what improvements will occur as a result of implementation or intervention actions. Often created by teams at the system level (e.g., district-level SEL team), ToCs can be used as a blueprint for bringing stakeholders together, program and research planning, program implementation, assessment, and evaluation.
While creating a ToC, stakeholders are compelled to think through how their long-term goals will be achieved, starting with the specific implementation actions and following through the subsequent changes expected over time leading to long-term goals. A ToC should guide the choice of assessments to evaluate and foster practice improvement.
Using a ToC from a widely known SEL program called RULER as an example (see Figure 2), we see that several kinds of assessments are required to continuously improve implementation and monitor progress toward achieving outcomes.
Figure 1. RULER Approach Theory of Change 
First, implementation measures for the three intervention strategies shown are needed. Next, measures for two medium-term (proximal) outcomes are needed: (1) adult and student emotional literacy skills (SEL competencies) and (2) classroom, school, and home emotional climate. Finally, measures for three kinds of long-term (distal) outcomes are needed to determine if implementation achieves its ultimate goal: (1) academic performance, (2) relationship quality, and (3) health and well-being.
It is critical to assemble stakeholders to develop a ToC during planning to establish a shared understanding of actions to be taken, what subsequent improvements are expected, and what data are needed. Connecting data to be collected to a ToC is one way to ensure that these data have a clear purpose and role in understanding how improvement is occurring. This clarity of purpose is increasingly important in the face of concerns over “survey fatigue” and “overtesting.”
 Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, & Gullotta, 2015
 Nathanson, Rivers, Flynn, & Brackett, 2016