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Looking into the 2021 SEL Telescope

Edited by Nick Yoder, PhD


One of the pictorial metaphors I have appreciated the most in 2020 is the vision of multiple boats who are all in the same storm—with high waves and lightning—each attempting to reach the shore. However, the boats are different sizes, have different numbers of people and resources on board, and are made of different materials. So although each is endeavoring to reach the shore, their ability to make it is inequitable.

The “unprecedented” 2020 is finally over—what many of us saw as the shoreline. Although we have been striving to get to January 1, 2021, in hopes of a new horizon, we still have quite a few rogue waves to navigate before we finally make it to shore. And even then, a huge amount of work exists to tackle the inequities that became so clear in 2020. And while we do not know exactly what the future holds, it is critical to take a deep breath, celebrate making it to 2021, mourn those who did not, and acknowledge the differential experiences we each had over the past 10 months. To move forward, we must first reflect on what we have learned, what has worked, and what has not as we continue our journey to the shore. As the great Rafiki from Lion King stated, “Yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it—you can either run from it or learn from it.”

One thing we definitely learned was the critical importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). Whether being on Zoom all day, caring for family members, worrying about friends, being concerned about having enough food on our table, or mourning loved ones, we all felt an additional strain on our social and emotional well-being, using skills and knowledge we never knew that we had. But what does that mean for the future? If we were going to look into the 2021 SEL telescope, what skills, knowledge, and attitudes will we leave behind and which ones will we carry forward? Which SEL practices and skills helped us conquer the storm and reach the shore? How can we leverage that learning to create more equitable systems and practices?

In this article, we asked five of our Harmony SEL colleagues and national experts to weigh in on what they saw as five key areas that will be important for 2021: distance learning, culturally responsive practices, adult SEL, academic integration, and SEL assessment. We also asked our district partners to elevate their stories about what they have done and how they will continue to connect SEL with these key areas of effective SEL implementation.


Distance Learning 

By Doug Fisher, PhD

Schooling comes in many forms, especially this year. Children and youth are Zooming, Teaming, and hanging out virtually with their peers and teachers. Many of the students enrolled in school today are engaged in meaningful tasks and developing a wide range of competencies. Who would have thought that second graders would be developing presentations, sharing their screens, and problem solving technology?  And yet there are some students who have not been able to connect in these ways and need additional support to be successful.

Distance learning has provided educators with an opportunity to rethink what is important and to design new teaching, learning, and assessing opportunities. There are students all over the world who are now using asynchronous learning time to preview vocabulary and develop background knowledge before a synchronous lesson. And there are students who are engaged in meaningful review, practice, and application tasks that solidify their learning. That’s not to say they all are engaged in these types of learning, but that it’s possible. Teachers are doing amazing things, ensuring that students are learning, and they, themselves, are learning a set of skills that will serve us well, long after the pandemic.

As we begin to turn the corner, school is likely to change again. Now is the time to reflect on the lessons learned during the pandemic to make permanent changes. We learned that we can use technology in new ways to learn, but also that relationships—with students, with families, with colleagues—are central to the learning experience. As we move forward, we need to ask ourselves, what will be the role of families in the future? What role will technology play? And how can we create learning environments that ensure our students are future-prepared? We must take the time to learn from our experience and begin to test and research these new learning opportunities to create more equitable learning experiences for all students.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A. Unified) seeks to support the needs of all our students, families, and employees. Social and emotional learning has always been a priority for L.A. Unified— along with academics—as they recognize the importance of addressing the whole child. When schools closed, L.A. Unified jumped into action to continue to support students and families during this unprecedented time. Harmony at Home is one resource that L.A. Unified provides for educators to connect with and support families’ engagement in SEL efforts. Through this tool, teachers help parents learn how to create Harmony Goals for them to use with their children at home. Another way Harmony at Home is utilized is through continuing the practices of Meet Up and Buddy Up with their family members. Furthermore, educators are having success in using Harmony’s Distance Learning Guide, which provides them with tools helpful in modifying and supporting their daily practices through digital platforms.  As L.A. Unified moves forward on their SEL journey, particularly through blended learning, they will continue to engage with their partners to identify research-based practices to support students in all settings.


Culturally Responsive Practices 

By Tyrone Howard, PhD

The concept of culturally responsive teaching was introduced by Education Scholars Gloria Ladson Billings and Geneva Gay. They both state that culturally responsive teaching is an approach to teaching that incorporates attributes, characteristics, or knowledge from a student’s cultural background into the instructional strategies and course content in an effort to improve educational outcomes.  One of the primary ideas behind culturally responsive pedagogy is to create learning environments that allow students to utilize cultural elements, cultural capital, and other recognizable knowledge that they are familiar with to learn new content and information in order to enhance their schooling experience and academic success.

When thinking about cultural responsiveness there are three key ideas that educators must keep in mind: 

  •  Academic success should not have to come at the expense of cultural integrity. In other words, students’ cultural ways of knowing, being, thinking, and communicating should not have to be compromised as they learn new information. 
  • Teachers must have a sociopolitical consciousness. Being aware of contemporary and historical factors that influence minoritized populations are critical in curriculum. Embracing discussions around issues pertinent to a given community are salient. 
  • Educators must have a dynamic repertoire of instructional practices. Recognizing that students learn, think, and process in a myriad of ways requires that teachers structure instruction using whole-group, small pods, visual- and performing-arts-based approaches, individual tasks, skits, technology enhanced teaching—all of these methods help include diverse learners.

In the past 10 months, we have not found a model of teaching and learning that works for everyone. Although many students and adults are succeeding, many students have been struggling with remote learning. Thus, in the virtual format teachers must continue to find dynamic ways to engage students that can extend into the future. Developing new insights, and learning new information can be exciting when done properly. Especially if the content or information that we are learning about sparks our curiosity, excites our imagination, and piques our creativity. There is nothing more enticing than when new information has a connection to our own world, our own interests, and our own lived experiences.

Let’s be clear, relevance matters. Relevance matters because it allows us to feel as if what we know, see, feel and hear is important, and can help us learn more information. Arguably, there is no more important concept than when learning is connected to our worlds. When information is not reflective or connected to who we are, there is a tendency to disengage, disconnect, become frustrated, and turn off possibilities for learning. Our students are no different from us as adults. When they can engage in relevant and stimulating content the possibilities for their learning can be endless. Effort can improve, participation may increase, and most importantly learning can grow. Let’s continue to identify strategies that afford students opportunities to engage in tasks that are relevant to them.  

Washoe County School District

Washoe County School District (Washoe) is committed to SEL in service of equity, aligning their Equity Framework and SEL Standards. One approach taken by Washoe included using Harmony lessons as a tool to better understand the SEL practices for multilingual learners. Through funding from Ed First, Washoe brought together a team of educators to engage in an action research process that included teaching an initial Harmony lesson, soliciting feedback on the lesson from a student panel, adapting the lesson with culturally responsive practices as well as recommendations from the students, reteaching the lesson, and debriefing with students once more. Through this project, teachers learned that it was important to bring in students’ home languages, use metaphors as a strategy to engage students, and ensure the goals, concepts, and language are clear for students, among many other lessons. Further, they want to look at their SEL indicators, define how to teach them, and understand where they show up and should fit in the curriculum.  Moving forward with SEL, culture, and equity work, educators will continue to focus on their equity elaborations, as defined by CASEL, ensuring that their SEL standards afford all students to bring in their cultural assets.


Adult SEL 

By Richie Ressel

The pandemic has created one of the biggest disruptions to education in history, and this has impacted educators’ well-being and the degree to which they feel valued by others.  Teachers have been presented with the options of potentially putting their health at risk by teaching in person, developing skill sets in a whole new approach to teaching through remote learning, or doing the impossible: teaching virtually and in-person simultaneously. A recent survey shows that 27% of teachers are considering quitting due to COVID-19 and 77% of teachers state they are working more now than a year ago. So as we look to 2021, supporting adult SEL has to be on the forefront of our minds.

Adult SEL includes developing educators’ own social and emotional competencies, effectively utilizing self-care strategies, collaborating and building relationships with colleagues, and modeling SEL practices for students. As we look at the educator experience in 2020, effectively utilizing self-care strategies rises to the surface as being critical. This could look like establishing structures to reflect on what is causing educator stress and how it is impacting them, and then taking a moment to reflect on the strategies that may support educator well-being. Would practicing nutrition and exercise help you the most? What about relaxation techniques or positive self-talk? Spending the time to reflect and identify what educators need for self-care will be a critical part of the educator profession in 2021.

By creating a work environment that focuses on adult SEL, educators will learn how to identify stress symptoms they are experiencing and possible causes of that stress. It will also cause leaders to pay attention to the emotional environment in the school for adults and for students. As we continue to a new vision of education, we cannot forget the great work that leaders did to focus on adult well-being, while also recognizing we can always do more to create the environments where all adults and students feel successful and able to cope with stress.  

Dallas Independent School District 

When starting their SEL efforts, Dallas Independent School District (ISD) knew that they had to start with their adults. Adults need to understand what SEL is, how SEL applies to their own lives, ways to support SEL through culturally adaptive practices, and how to support student social and emotional development before educators should begin SEL instruction with their students. Because teachers really understood SEL instruction, teachers were more easily able to implement a comprehensive instructional program, including morning meetings, explicit instruction through programs like Harmony, and integration into academic instruction. Given the success with adult support with in-person instruction, Dallas ISD knew they had to support their adults once distance learning began. They provided multiple opportunities for adults to engage in self-care training; and ensured that the adults were taking care of themselves and their families as needed. They even provided weekly mindfulness sessions for their teachers. As Dallas ISD looks ahead to 2021, they know that continuing to focus on the needs of the adults will be a priority so that they can meet the needs of all their students.


Academic Integration 

By Frances Gipson, PhD 

Educators across the country are engaged in a collective and urgent call to action for social and emotional learning (SEL).  While many school systems were accelerating the importance of SEL, 2020 underscored and boldly marked this as an imperative for all.  The needs and evidence are not understated—from the fast-food parking lot to the few brick and mortar schools still open—it is in the multiplicity of these varied learning settings that the need is evident, not only for students, but for the adult community too.

In addressing the priority, academic integration is the ideal space for supporting SEL practice. CASEL colleagues share that the integration of SEL and academics involves three interdependent components: (a) fostering academic mindsets, (b) aligning SEL and academic objectives, and (c) using interactive instructional practices and structures to promote SEL.

Integration has expanded even more in our thinking during this year with new ways of leading, learning, and liberating.  Many years ago, a great mentor shared that we need a braid of content, reflection, and quality group development to strengthen high-quality instruction and development.  Now we know that we must ensure the emotional competencies are explicit in this braid, and perhaps it is the core of what should be even more common for all of us in our academics.

Looking through the kaleidoscope, districts are engaged in the important and meaningful struggle to determine what counts for academic priorities. In this environment, hope is on the horizon, as dispositions towards mastery and deeper learning are expanding in our contemporary mindsets.  SEL is no longer a nice to have, it is a must have. Now academically integrated, with an even stronger understanding of a JEDI-mindset (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion), we are seeing the SEL practices that are needed to match who we need to be for our learners.  Perhaps, this evolved version is the truer definition of our SEL goals and outcomes for academic integration. What do you think? 

Broward County

Broward County recognizes the importance of integrated social and emotional learning supports. In their SEL work, they developed CASEL-aligned SEL standards with the goal of incorporating an evidence-based curriculum, such as Harmony, but also integrating it throughout academic instruction. Oftentimes teachers see SEL as something extra, but Broward County is helping educators identify ways in which it enhances and complements what they are already doing—recognizing that all learning is social and emotional.  One approach to do that is through the social teaching practices identified by Dr. Nick Yoder. These practices help educators infuse the language of SEL throughout their interactions with students. As Broward County continues their SEL work, they will continue to identify ways to bring all students into the curriculum by enhancing their social and emotional skills and creating the environments that all students deserve.


Data for Continuous Improvement 

By Clark McKown, PhD

“Prediction is difficult—particularly when it involves the future.”

–Mark Twain

I agree with Mark Twain that predicting the future is difficult. Still, as someone who has spent many years focused intensively on SEL assessment, I do have some ideas—a mix of prediction and aspiration, really—about what SEL assessment will look like in 2021.

This first idea is more prediction than aspiration. There is growing recognition that high-quality SEL assessment can and should guide instruction and measure learning in response to instruction. To that end, I predict that we will see more school districts adopting methods of assessing social and emotional learning, and more states encouraging school districts to do so. In particular, I predict that performance-based competence assessments, particularly for the elementary grades, will be increasingly adopted to support instruction and measure progress.

My second idea is more aspiration than prediction. Educators differ in what they think should be assessed. Should we measure student competencies? If so, which ones? Should we measure climate? Should we measure adult practices? In my view, SEL assessment will be in the best position to support teaching, learning, and student outcomes when: (a) educators assess competence, climate, and implementation in the context of an integrated system, (b) competence assessments measure skills that are the targets of instruction and reflect state standards, where such standards exist, and (c) school districts adopt and support high-quality data review practices that result in data-informed decisions about practice, and that chart the impact of those practices on climate and student competencies.

The third idea is an expansion of this last point above about data use and is equal parts aspiration and prediction. Educational leaders and decision-makers increasingly recognize that SEL assessment involves more than administering an assessment and getting back score reports. For assessment to support effective practice, educators must spend time with the assessment reports, interpret their meaning, and use the data to make decisions about what to do. In 2021, I predict that more educators will participate in professional learning experiences designed to help them use SEL assessment data to maximum benefit.

My final idea is aspirational, but I see signs that things are moving in this direction. The field of SEL has evolved in such a way that SEL assessments and SEL programs and practices are largely offered separately. Assessment will be more useful to educators if it is integrated more closely with programs; conversely, programs will be more effective if high-quality assessment guides their use. I predict that 2021 will witness more collaborations between assessment providers and curriculum providers to create more integrated assessment and program offerings. 

Metro Nashville  

Metro Nashville Public Schools (Metro National) has been working on systemic, comprehensive social and emotional learning efforts for years. A large part of their work is the use of innovative data sources to understand how SEL implementation is working throughout their district. One approach that they are using is their Walkthrough Tool, which attunes to the degree to which schools exhibit SEL practices across the school, the environments educators create in classrooms, and classroom instruction that explicitly teaches and reinforces social and emotional competencies. In addition, the district has a School Climate Survey, which includes topics such as safe and trusting relationships, high expectations, civility and equity, and student-centered classrooms. Metro Nashville continues to push their use of data, bringing together students and educators to help solve some of their most critical problems. For example, to help analyze the data, Metro Nashville is piloting a project to help bring student voice into data analysis sessions with the principal leadership.



As 2020 closes and 2021 begins, we are still looking into the telescope—wondering what will come, how will we better engage students, engage adults, and heal individually and collectively. If we can leverage the power of social and emotional learning to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, to show compassion and empathy for those who may be experiencing this differently from us, we can begin to heal and ultimately evolve into a more caring and just society. As our experts and districts have noted, we have to be intentional in doing this. As an educational community, we need to create the teaching and learning conditions that allow all students to thrive in a way that is meaningful to them and prepares them to succeed in their futures.