RTI’s SEL Summit: Scaling Social and Emotional Learning Practices

Children in school working together

Imagine walking into a school where a sense of community pervades the entryway and enlivens the hallways. A collective mission and vision and a set of shared values are evident not only through artifacts and displays on the walls but also, more importantly, through the actions of everyone you meet – students, teachers, and staff. Everyone, including students, feels ownership of the school and everyone shows respect to you, to the school environment, and to one another. No one is singled out or bullied, and everyone has a sense of safety and personal well-being. Students are greeted at each classroom door by cheerful and welcoming adults who usher them into an environment that supports both their academic achievement and their social and emotional needs. In this school, diversity is respected, and all students from all walks of life are valued and exhibit a sense of self-respect and belonging.

The Metropolitan Nashville Public School (MNPS) district is using indicators like these in a walk-through rubric to begin explicit and intentional discussions of social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools throughout the district. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the national leader in SEL, SEL “is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” ( On their website, CASEL shares information about the impact of SEL: in a meta-analysis of 213 schools, Durlak and colleagues (2011) found that involving students in SEL programs improved academic achievement by 11 percent.

The Center for Education Services, a branch of Research Triangle Institute (RTI), recently hosted an SEL Summit during which Kyla Krengel, Director of Social and Emotional Learning with MNPS, presented her team’s walk-through rubric to a group of practitioners. This summit brought together a network of practitioners and national and global guest presenters to learn from one another and focus on scaling effective SEL practices from elementary schools to middle and high schools in order to support academic achievement and overall well-being of our students.

Here are four ideas shared at the summit in addition to the MNPS walk-through rubric that can be used in SEL programs.

  • Teach students how to understand and manage emotions through mindfulness and model mindful practices. When you are frustrated, anxious, or stressed out, Pause – Breathe – and Smile, and explicitly teach the same to your students. Being mindful helps teachers and students identify and manage their emotions, ultimately leading to more responsible decision making as reactions can become more intentional.
  • Use strategies to help students set and achieve positive goals through goal setting, reflection, and visualization. Teachers and researchers in Uganda and Tanzania, where practitioners are also emphasizing SEL in the classroom, shared classroom activities including Helping Hands. In Helping Hands, students write personal goals in the palm of their hands and record on each of their fingers action steps and help and support needed. Teachers also use visualization techniques followed by discussion to help students reflect on situations and visualize appropriate responses. The need for SEL is universal, and its power is evident in its importance across all contexts.
  • Model for students how to establish and maintain positive relationships. Stacey Rutledge and Dan Traeger, both of whom partner with the National Center on Scaling Up Effective schools, shared an ongoing initiative in Florida schools called PASL (Personalization for Academic and Social Emotional Learning). PASL is a system of intentional personalization comprised of 5 components that deliberately attend to students’ academic, social emotional, and behavioral needs. One of these components is Intentional Points of Contact (IPCs). Utilizing the IPC method, individual teachers make contact with an assigned set of students on a regular basis. While many schools encourage staff to engage individually with students on a regular basis, the intentionality in Broward County, which requires recording of each contact, increases accountability, ensures ALL students are included – not just those who are visibly struggling, and provides opportunity for collaboration between teachers.
  • Get to know your students and increase your own ability to feel and show empathy for others through home visits. Home visits allow educators to get to know students and their families. RTI researcher Kathy McKnight further advocates using home visits as a debiasing technique. By nature, all human beings are biased. The danger arises when we are unaware of our biases and when our unexamined assumptions and perceptions of students impact students’ own expectations of themselves and thereby their learning and achievement. Through home visits, students, families, and teachers begin to see each other as individuals rather than a member of a larger group. This process of individuation increases empathy.

It may seem burdensome to add yet one more thing to the already packed schedule of all schools, but we can’t afford not to address SEL in our classrooms. Remember Maslow. If students’ SEL needs are not met—the need for belonging and self-esteem—they will be less prepared to engage in cognitive tasks and to become self-motivated learners. As participant David Schwenker attests, “Everyday parents entrust educators with their most valuable possession: their child.  What steps do we take to know and learn their child? We focus on students learning curriculum, yet the foundation to learning is the relationship between the teacher and the student. It is only once the teachers take the time and initiative to learn about their students that true learning will occur for every child in every classroom.”

For more information on implementing and scaling SEL in your schools, contact us at

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