Practices for School Leaders

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:

  • Is able to manage the significant stress of their role. Leaders who effectively manage stress model more caring and supportive behaviors with staff and students.
  • Prioritizes and attends to their own well-being. When a leader shows that they prioritize well-being, their behavior gives “permission” for others to do the same. Their personal well-being contributes to more positive relationships and effective partnerships with others in the school community, which further advances well-being.
  • Ensures that staff, students, and families feel safe, cared for, respected, and valued. Supportive interactions with a school leader are associated with better teacher job satisfaction and ability to regulate emotions (Brackett et al., 2010, Price, 2012), sense of collective responsibility, and stronger school climate (Louis et al., 2016).

SEL and Equity in Action

How can school leaders can lean into the five SEL competencies to advance equity and excellence?<…More

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. 

To explore ways in which your leadership practices center equity, use the tool Reflecting on Equity-Centered SEL Leadership Practices.

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.

  • Plan for individual check-ins.
    Begin all conversations, visits, and meetings with a brief personal check-in. For example, with staff you might ask that they “Share a highlight and a low point” of the week or month. Keep track of what is shared to check-in later; e.g., “Last time we talked, you mentioned that your son was ill. How is he doing?” Take the time to ask how they are doing and listen actively to their answers. Here’s a five-minute check-in tool CASEL developed with NAESP. Ensure you are connecting with all staff by using a check-in calendar. Plan daily or weekly check-ins (depending on the size of your staff) and check in with the assigned person to see how they are doing by visiting the classroom, calling, or emailing. Try to limit conversations to good news and personal check-ins; don’t use them to share work reminders.Use the same strategy for students and families, noting students who have recently undergone major changes or life events or those who have been having challenging interactions with classmates or teachers. Take a few minutes to check in with the student and/or family.
  • Use staff meetings to strengthen relationships, collaborate, and learn together.
    Information and reminders can be shared in writing. In-person time is a valuable opportunity for staff to talk and share experiences, gather input to shape a plan or make improvements, and work together to accomplish something. You can model SEL competence as you build in time during meetings for dialogue and relationship-building, invite feedback and staff agency, and position yourself as a learner alongside staff.
  • Communicate appreciation.
    Acknowledge time, participation, effort, growth, and the great work you observe among staff and students. Staff and students should hear from you more often about what they are doing well than what they are doing wrong. When individuals believe their school leader has a positive opinion of them, they are better able to receive and use critical feedback.
  • Be visible outside of your office.
    When you are often present in classrooms, common areas, and at community events—positively interacting with staff, students, families, and community members—you have greater influence over the climate and relational trust in the building.
  • Welcome input and spotlight other leaders in the school community.
    Invite and use input from staff, students, and families in decision-making. Empower teacher leaders to pilot new practices or discuss new ideas in a focus group. Acknowledge the experience and institutional knowledge of veteran staff members. Work with parent and community leaders to organize and gather input from the widest range of families and caregivers to learn from their experiences and expertise.
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