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The Biggest Challenges To Implementing Social Emotional Learning

9 Dec 2022


Social emotional learning (SEL) is growing in popularity thanks to its positive impact on student outcomes — including academic success, college and career readiness, better mental health, and greater equity.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend toward implementing SEL initiatives — a report by Tyton Partners found that district spending on SEL implementation grew from $530 million to $765 million between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years — an increase of around 45%.


This growth in interest around SEL during a global crisis that has touched everyone’s lives demonstrates the power of SEL for helping students cultivate resilience and overcome challenges.

In spite of this, educators face a number of challenges that may prevent them from implementing interventions that support students in their social and emotional development.

This article will cover five of the most common obstacles preventing widespread SEL implementation and suggest some possible solutions.

1. Lack of Knowledge

The CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) framework is one of the most widely-used SEL frameworks. It proposes five SEL core competencies as follows:

Other popular SEL models include the Emotional Intelligence Model and 21st Century Skills.

According to Tyton Partners, 90% of school administrators and teachers report being aware of SEL.

However, familiarity with specific SEL frameworks remains a barrier to implementation since only 40% of teachers and 60% of district administrators are familiar with the most popular SEL frameworks.


Possible Solution: Increase Familiarity with SEL Frameworks

To avoid the implementation of ineffective or low-quality SEL measures, district administrators, school leaders, and educators must increase their knowledge of SEL frameworks.

Comparing the frameworks will show them their overlaps, differences, and terminology. Knowing the overlap between frameworks can help educators form a common definition of SEL that informs the areas on which to focus their interventions.

Understanding these differences and overlaps can assist educators in determining which framework is most suitable for different schools and districts. It can also help them identify opportunities for collaboration between schools.

District administrators and school leaders can also explore where the emphasis of each framework is, which elements all frameworks emphasize, and what areas may need further development. With this information, they can make informed decisions about what frameworks best serve the needs of their schools.

2. Lack of SEL Supports

In a poll by Education Week on LinkedIn, 79% of the 1,386 respondents said there are too few SEL supports.

While most teachers recognize the inherent value of SEL and enjoy teaching it, planning and preparing SEL activities requires time and can create an additional workload for teachers — who are often already overwhelmed.

Since SEL teaching often falls outside traditional professional teacher training, implementing SEL requires teachers to carry out extra research and preparation if they don’t have the necessary supports. This can leave them feeling demoralized and burnt out.

As one respondent in Education Week’s poll put it, “The problem is time.” She went on to highlight that for many teachers, fitting SEL around an already packed schedule is the biggest challenge.

She added that while many teachers want to teach SEL, they focus on academics because that’s what assessments evaluate. Finally, she called it a “messed-up broken system” and drew attention to the mental health of teachers who have been “holding on through the pandemic.”


Possible Solution #1: Implement Schoolwide SEL programs

School and district leaders need to find ways to prioritize SEL skill building among educators. For example, schools that have implemented Lessonbee as a schoolwide SEL solution have been able to build teachers’ SEL skills and integrate SEL teaching into the curriculum.

Possible Solution #2: Provide Educators with SEL Resources and Supports

With the support of district leaders and school administrators, schools should ensure that educators can implement SEL efficiently, for example, by using centralized toolkits or ready-made resources from platforms — like Lessonbee — that simplify SEL integration into learning instruction.

Possible Solution #3: Prioritize Teacher Well-Being

Schools should empower and encourage teachers to raise concerns and challenges and provide safe spaces for them to do so. This will help school leaders monitor teacher workloads and ensure they’re not at risk of burnout.

Prioritize staff well-being by holding regular staff meetings and one-to-one check-ins. If a teacher feels overwhelmed due to pressure to implement SEL, schools can look for ways to ease their burden or support them with additional resources or training.

3. Lack of Educator Skill Development

Many school districts do not provide adequate time or resources for teacher professional learning.

This may be because they don’t acknowledge the critical importance of developing teachers’ own social and emotional competencies.

But how can we expect teachers to teach SEL successfully unless they also walk the talk and act as SEL role models for students?

Possible Solution: Strengthen Teacher SEL Skills

District leaders should prioritize and actively encourage adult SEL and well-being at both district and school levels and provide educators with continuous professional learning opportunities and resources.

4. Standardization vs. Personalization

Standardization is common throughout academia. To achieve the best results, educators should implement a curriculum with fidelity — in other words, running the program exactly as it was designed, with little to no deviation.

Standardization works for academia because it is the best way to produce measurable results through rigorous assessments. While a certain amount of standardization is also necessary for measuring SEL outcomes, it can sometimes prevent educators from personalizing SEL programs and tailoring them to the unique needs of each district, school, and student.

Teachers may have ideas about how to teach specific lessons differently to cater to their students’ needs. So how can educators reconcile the need for standardization with the need for personalized programs?

Possible Solutions: Balancing Standardization and Personalization

Balancing standardization and personalization may require creating approaches that allow for customization within instructional design parameters.

It may also be beneficial to actively promote culturally relevant SEL. This will ensure that while teachers follow the standard, they also have room to be flexible and adapt to the various backgrounds, cultures, and identities represented in their classrooms.

5. Inability to Define Success Criteria

Another issue that challenges teachers is a lack of clearly defined SEL success criteria. Because of the many different social-emotional learning frameworks available,  standardizing SEL success criteria across a school or district can be difficult.

Also, according to the Tyton Partners report’s survey, only 37% of SEL implementers conduct third-party quantitative studies into the effectiveness of their SEL interventions.


Without such quantitative evaluations, schools and districts can’t effectively determine which success metrics to use.

Examples of success metrics include:

  • Student self-efficacy
  • Student ability to foster and maintain positive relationships
  • Student problem-solving skills
  • Student approaches to conflict resolution
  • Student decision-making skills

Possible Solution: Set Unique Success Criteria for Each School

School and district leaders should collaborate with educators to set success metrics for their specific SEL programs.

This is important since each school has different learners, needs, and goals, which should be accounted for when setting success criteria.

Overcome SEL Implementation Challenges with Lessonbee

Finding ways to help teachers implement SEL programs using relevant and standards-aligned curricula is essential for the health, well-being, and success of your students.

Lessonbee provides resources for schools and districts that can help educators implement SEL while improving the effectiveness of SEL instruction — including curricula, teacher guides, professional development resources, and more.

Visit our Resources for Schools & Districts page to access free resources and learn more about how Lessonbee can strengthen SEL instruction in your school or district.

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