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How can social and emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed practices (TIP) help us right now? Risks and Recommendations

By Mara Schanfield - February 16, 2022

What do you do if a bear claws its way through the front door of your school? I don’t know either, but it reminds me of that nursery rhyme about a bear hunt: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it …”

“…got to go through it!”

And indeed, educators are going through it today.

So, how do you catch a bear? Maybe we are asking the wrong question; maybe the question is really “How can we all survive right now?” If faced with a bear terrorizing our halls—even though SEL and TIP have much to offer in the way of survival skills—it would be impractical to invite everyone in the moment to the cafeteria for a training. When confronted with a bear, we would prioritize well-being. We would take everyone’s needs into account. We’d make sure we were all on the same page, and we’d stick together.

There is a certainly a time and place for trainings to deepen stress management techniques and resiliency skills - an opportunity that everyone can benefit from. In fact, we are never really done working on our social and emotional competencies. However, skill-building for individuals is distinct from the promotion of safe and supportive conditions that often require those in power to initiate substantial changes to systems and structures at the organizational level.

A recent National Comprehensive Center event on the integration of SEL and TIP examined how both approaches, when integrated, help to build safe, supportive conditions. When integrated together, schoolwide SEL and universal trauma sensitivity can prevent school-related trauma and lead to transformative outcomes that cannot be achieved by either alone (Osher et al., 2021). The roundtable event featured district leaders from Fulton County, Georgia; Juneau, Alaska; and Metro Nashville, Tennessee. Each leader shared their district’s SEL and TIP implementation journey. They offered lessons learned for the systems and structures that are necessary for coherently integrating of social, emotional, academic and behavioral supports to foster success for all students. Although each district’s approach varied, all the districts emphasized starting with the adults.

Three lessons learned from districts integrating SEL and TIP right now

Variability exists across implementation strategies and local contexts. Even so, the following lessons learned from three districts may be more widely useful:

1. Start with equity at the center.

“Educational equity means that each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.” —National Equity Project

Common wisdom teaches you to tackle challenging tasks earlier in the day so you don’t run out of energy. By the same logic, if we don’t start with equity, we may never get to it. SEL and TIP together can boost equity because they are more likely to benefit students when they are integrated and enacted not as a means of behavioral compliance, but rather to activate student agency and equip students, individually and collectively, to stand up for their beliefs. Ensuring identity and agency are key areas of focus in the implementation of SEL and TIP. This can assist in healing from trauma, and can help us readjust to new ways of being in person together in schools.

This work looks like eliminating microaggressions and biased discipline practices, while examining assumptions about students and families that compromise engagement, connection, and community so that schools become places of healing and repair rather than (re)traumatization. Educators can start with acknowledging students’ lived experiences and how those might be different from their own. It would also be helpful to make a habit of starting with strengths: When thinking about a particular student, push yourself to identify one thing they do well (see the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets to prompt your thinking). This will make it easier—and more habitual—to use an asset-based approach in giving academic feedback and having a corrective conversation about behavior.

For resources on how to encourage centering on individual and social identities and experiences, please see the following:

2. Prioritize adult well-being.

“Without well teachers, we will not have healthy schools and successful students.” – Mark Greenberg

Supporting the well-being of educators can have a positive impact on everyone in their building. Strategies for supporting educator well-being at an individual level may include reassurance that the expectations are to put yourself first; provision of information on the effects of stress and trauma on educators; and support to address the stressors associated with the work (e.g. counseling services, unstructured time and space for processing and/or semi-structured protocols for reflection). By providing time, space, and guidance for staff with trained professionals, educators are allowed to process their own experiences (including secondary trauma). When educators themselves share trauma-informed experiences among peers, they are better able to serve students.  

Supporting adult well-being includes providing opportunities to strengthen individual practices as well as organizational approaches that will foster well-being. In addition to supporting educators in their own wellness practices, leaders can act on broader systems and structures that support everyone’s wellness. A safe, supportive, engaging, and equitable school is one where students, families and staff feel welcome and are universally supported and cared for as human beings.. Examples of organizational wellness practices include regular time for planning, sufficient and supportive supervision and mentorship, inclusion of staff voice in planning and decision-making, and a commitment to time for mental health (e.g. mental health days in or out of school).

3. Find an entry point to build a shared vision.

School and district leaders know that buy-in is important. Tying a new effort to something familiar and using straightforward language can help constituents from across the district relate to and see themselves as a beneficiary as well as a contributor. They can start to build a shared vision for SEL and TIP by seeking a relevant entry point (e.g., a pressing need or existing initiative). For example, an initiative such as standards-based grading or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) could be used as an entry point. A leader might offer prompts in a discussion of how SEL and TIP can enhance the existing MTSS (for talking points, please see the SEL MTSS Toolkit For State and District Leaders).

Integrating TIP and SEL promotes a continually expanding vision for schools. It also can include adopting other trauma-sensitive, relational approaches that foster well-being and reduce inequities, including restorative practices and other positive approaches to discipline and school climate. Another way to build ownership and a shared vision is to consult state priorities. Becoming aware and an early adopter of their state education agency’s plans has helped district teams position themselves strategically so they are ready to receive support and sustain momentum for integrating SEL and TIP.


Today, the need has never been greater for an integrated approach to SEL and TIP to transform learning environments and begin to heal. Like so many health care professionals, frontline educators are also going through overload in their professional lives. And as a friend of mine says, "We are human beings, not human doings."

In fact… this integration is so important that you should read the event summary from October 2021

The way forward is together. Let’s take care of each other. And watch out for bears.

Contact your Regional Comprehensive Center for support.


Additional Resources:

  1. Trauma-Sensitive Schools and Social and Emotional Learning: An Integration
  2. Education decisionmakers can strengthen investments in integrating SEL and trauma-informed practices through implementation evaluation.
  3. Integrating Social and Emotional Learning Throughout the School System: A Compendium of Resources for District Leaders
  4. Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center issue briefs on future directions in SEL and education  

Osher, D., Guarino, K., Jones, W. & Schanfield, M. (2021). Trauma Sensitive Schools and Social and Emotional Learning. Edna Bennet Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University. 


Mara Schanfield leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s teacher retention project with Chicago Public Schools and is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Schanfield, a licensed school counselor, has more than 15 years of experience supporting students, educators, and social and emotional learning in school and out-of-school time settings.