The Symbiotic Relationship between SEL and School Climate

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

The Symbiotic Relationship between SEL and School Climate

Susan Zelinski, Manager of Research and Evaluation at NSCC at RFC
Christian Villenas, Senior Director of Research, Evaluation, and Measurement at NSCC at RFC

Today is International Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Day. On this day, we are a nation reeling from several crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation, gun violence, institutionalized racism, and socio-political divides. In this post, we address how schools can address these issues within their school community using a renewed approach to SEL.

What value does SEL have in helping schools navigate these complex and seemingly insurmountable social issues? 

SEL has a lot to offer in terms of supporting resilience, cooperation, and post-traumatic growth for students of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. While schools previously focused almost exclusively on instruction in academic content areas, a burgeoning recognition in the field that all learning is inherently social has pushed SEL to the forefront of new initiatives being adopted in recent years. However, for it to be aligned and meaningfully incorporated within the unique characteristics of schools across the country, SEL must be understood within the context of its integral relationship to school climate.

Over the last few decades, the school climate framework has provided a mode for understanding how SEL is always happening, as well as how to more effectively integrate and scale formal SEL instruction. School climate is comprised of the structural and relational elements that make up each school’s learning environment. The mission and vision, rules, policies, daily practices, and the ways that educators and school staff engage with students and each other all contribute to a school’s climate. Sometimes, school climate is referred to as how a school feels when you enter its space. Just like the weather, everyone is aware of how they are impacted by the quality of the physical, social, and systemic conditions at work and play in a school at any given moment. That is the school’s climate. Through this lens, it becomes clear that all elements of school life are dynamically interwoven and constantly interacting with each other, and therein lies the intersection of school climate and SEL.

How well a school supports each student’s ability to understand and own their individual strengths and interests, take on academic challenges, collaborate and enjoy nurturing relationships with others, and contribute as members of society are strong indicators of the school’s dedication to creating a positive school climate. Everyone needs to feel safe, included, and engaged to lead a healthy and fulfilling life. SEL requires explicit instruction and modeling by adults in the school of the intra- and interpersonal skills required to achieve this, including self-awareness, self-management, compassion, conflict resolution, and social problem solving.  The natural extension of the teaching of these skills are values that are grounded in respect and appreciation for each other’s identities and perspectives. Because school climate is grounded in the experience of every person in the school community, it is also centered in supportive relationships and an open embrace of all of the differences that school community members bring, across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, gender, and ability status. The pursuit of equity, in terms of both academic outcomes and how the school operates, is essential to a positive school climate.

How can schools integrate and scale SEL in these challenging times? 

Studies in both SEL and school climate show:

  • When students feel a sense of belonging and community, their ability to accept feedback and persevere in the face of challenge improves.
  • A positive school climate is correlated with higher academic achievement, and even better health outcomes for students.

To maximize the benefits that SEL instruction offers, schools must invest in improving their learning environment. Seeking the perceptions of all community members and utilizing that data as a precious resource for whole school improvement is an important first step in aligning the goals of SEL and school climate- to support students in becoming their best selves through self-reflection, meaningful learning opportunities, and community building. Moreover, the measurement of a school’s climate relies on assessing the perceptions of all members of the school community, which acknowledges that each person has something to contribute. The school community must be understood as its own greatest resource in guiding students to learn, grow, and thrive as individuals and collectively.

The school community must be understood as its own greatest resource in guiding students to learn, grow, and thrive as individuals and collectively. 

Affirming students’ identities is only the beginning. CASEL has put forth a framework for transformative SEL which they define as “the process by which young people and adults build strong, respectful, and lasting relationships that facilitate co-learning to examine the root causes of inequity, and develop collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community, and societal well-being.” Simply put, all students deserve to be uplifted as agents of change in their own communities. For this to happen, adults, too, must be invested in understanding and breaking down the power structures that have perpetuated inequities in institutions across the nation, including schools. Beyond cultural responsiveness, this is a clarion call for schools to transcend their histories through a wholehearted effort to engage with all members of their communities as assets and experts on what is best for their students’ futures.

In a similar vein, our work has uncovered the avid desire of students to engage with educators about current events. Civic learning and engagement is indeed a pillar of social-emotional competence, a higher order SEL skill that high schools sometimes seek to cultivate through curriculum about voting and other civic duties. It is difficult to overstate how current events are already instructing and impacting students in this realm, however. What they perceive loud and clear is the silence with which their schools have responded. Time and again, we have heard from students that they want to grapple with the difficult topics of bias, racism, gun violence, and politics, but many state they have not found a forum to do so at their schools. Whether or not administrators and staff can tackle these topics with students relies heavily on their own social-emotional competence, and their willingness to be vulnerable in a classroom setting. If educators can rise to the challenge of taking on these uncomfortable conversations with students, they can provide a model for deconstructing the power dynamics that have allowed hatred, racism, and ableism to flourish.

Whether or not administrators and staff can tackle these topics with students relies heavily on their own social-emotional competence, and their willingness to be vulnerable in a classroom setting.

So, today, as we think about the best path toward effective SEL implementation, the question is, how committed are we to transforming? The answer will be found in how deeply schools embody the process of inquiry and continuous improvement that school climate offers, and how carefully they calibrate their SEL instruction to meet the needs and honor the identities of their students and community at large.


  1. Collaborative for Academic and Social-Emotional Learning (CASEL):
  2. Osher, D., & Berg, J. (2017). “School Climate and Social and Emotional Learning: The Integration of Two Approaches.” Edna Bennet Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University.
  3. Robert J. Jagers, Deborah Rivas-Drake & Brittney Williams (2019) Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Toward SEL in Service of Educational Equity and Excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032
  4. Villenas, C., & Zelinski, S. (2018). Creating School Communities of Courage: Lesson from the Field. New York: National School Climate Center

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