Principals and school leadership teams play an important role in fostering the culture and climate of their schools. Intentionally or not, school leaders influence norms and priorities through their interactions with staff, students, and families.
Modeling by school leaders is a critical part of creating a positive school environment and supporting staff in building SEL skills and mindsets. Principals demonstrate SEL leadership when they intentionally use social and emotional competencies in their daily interactions, position themselves as learners alongside other staff members, and talk openly about their learning process.
In the 2019 issue brief Principals’ Social and Emotional Competence: A Key Factor for Creating Caring Schools, Mahfouz, Greenberg, and Rodriguez provide a conceptual model of a prosocial school leader and outline ways a school leader with strong social and emotional competence impacts school effectiveness and climate. The report also describes emerging strategies for supporting school leaders’ emotional well-being and SEL leadership capability—with important implications for what school districts can do to support and retain leaders. Their model describes a school leader who:
How can school leaders can lean into the five SEL competencies to advance equity and excellence?
SELF-AWARENESS → with a focus on identity
“I know I can and choose to act to improve conditions for myself and others. I will intentionally make room for others to act as well.”
Example: A school leader who feels and values agency invites feedback and leadership from staff, students, and their families, and channels what they learn into making change. For example, an assistant principal introduces a protocol for groups of staff, groups of families, and groups of students to explore school climate data together and develop recommendations for improvement. They share out the priorities that emerge and support staff-family-student working groups to develop clear goals and action steps over the summer.
SOCIAL AWARENESS → with a focus on belonging
“I am best able to contribute when I feel I am valued, welcomed, and an essential part of this community. It’s important to support others to feel this way, too.”
Example: A school leader may demonstrate their commitment to the community with their presence and participation throughout the school day and at community events, relationships with community members, how long they have been at the school, and through their dedication to multiyear efforts. A deeply-rooted, connected, and well-supported school leader leads to lower teacher turnover and greater student gains (Jensen, 2014). For example, one principal sets the tone right away for new staff in the way they prepare onboarding experiences. To model the value of knowing the community, they work with students to plan a tour of the neighborhood. They eat at a restaurant and visit community spaces where they see and introduce new staff to other students who attend the school and their families.
RELATIONSHIP SKILLS → with a focus on collaborative problem-solving
“I am more effective when I listen to others to understand problems and share ideas to develop solutions. The process of sharing power and working together is important.”
Example: A school leader who is truly open to the views of staff, students, and families seeks to partner, not just communicate, with the community to improve the school. For example, a principal is making plans for fall professional learning and the few discretionary professional learning days they will have throughout the year. They present staff with options and also invite them to present new ideas to help determine learning objectives, logistics, and structure for learning and follow-up.
RESPONSIBLE DECISION-MAKING → with a focus on curiosity
“I lean in with courage and choose to learn about myself, others, and the world. It is important to be open to and seek new information and perspectives when making decisions.”
Example: When a school leader is willing to question their own knowledge and assumptions, they can become aware of inequities and obstacles that staff, students, and families may face (Mahfouz et al., 2019). Curiosity leads to new knowledge and more informed decisions. For example, a student who has been sent to the office for discipline states that their teacher and the whole school is racist. Rather than dismissing this comment and moving the conversation toward assigning a consequence, the dean of discipline shows concern and asks questions to better understand their experience of racism at school, their relationship with the teacher, and the context leading up to the day’s incident.
The strategies below provide ideas for school leaders and leadership teams to build relationships and show staff, students, and families they are cared for and appreciated. Suggestions are modified from a resource developed by CDI partner, Chicago Public Schools.