Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Selecting an SEL Program

When school and district planning teams oversee the careful selection and effective implementation of evidence-based social and emotional learning programs, the students they serve benefit socially, emotionally, and academically. This page links to guidelines SEL teams can follow to ensure they ultimately adopt the best programs for their particular school community.

To begin, three key principles support the effective selection, implementation, impact, and sustainability of evidence-based SEL programs.

Principle 1: School and district teams—rather than an individual—should engage diverse stakeholders in the program adoption process to identify shared priorities.

Principle 2: Implementing evidence-based SEL programs within systemic, ongoing district and school planning, programming, and evaluation leads to better practice and more positive outcomes for students.

Principle 3: It is critical to consider local contextual factors (e.g., student characteristics, programs already in place) when using the CASEL Guide and gathering additional information in order to make the most effective decisions about which programs to implement.

Some schools may prefer to develop their own approach to SEL, rather than adopting one of the evidence-based SELect programs identified in this Guide. We believe it is better to start from a foundation that is evidence-based. A SELect program can serve as a base from which to coordinate schoolwide SEL, school-family partnerships, and community programming. The benefits of using programs that embody years of scientific program development, evaluation, and evidence are worth the effort.

Selecting an Evidence-Based SEL Program

Within the context of the three principles above, we have organized the following steps for selecting an evidence-based program based on research and practice.

Step 1: Use the SELect Tables to identify program candidates.

Step 2: Review the program descriptions of each of the possible candidates you identify to narrow your search.

Step 3: Gather additional information about your top program candidates.

Step 4: Assess the cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of the program.

Step 5: Contact and visit schools using the program(s) you are considering.

Step 6: Completing the selection process and beyond.

Step 1. Use the SELect Tables to identify program candidates.

The 2015 Guide presents SELect middle school and high school programs separately. Review the ratings on the three tables (“Program Design” “Implementation Support” and “Evidence of Effectiveness”) that correspond to the grade levels for which you want to select a program. Click on “Learn about Review Methods” at the top right of each table to learn more about what the ratings mean and how to interpret them.

As you scan the list of programs, look first to see if you recognize any programs that are already being implemented in your district or school. If the program your school or district is using is a SELect program, well-received by your school community, and beneficial for students, you will be ahead of the game. On the other hand, many districts or schools currently implement programs that CASEL has not identified as SELect. If this is the case in your school or district, it’s a cause for reflection but not necessarily for concern. We have also identified complementary programs that can help support a broad plan for SEL. A program you are familiar with may not be listed as SELect or Complementary for a variety of reasons. One possibility is that we have not yet reviewed it.

If your district or school has programs that are not on either list, we recommend several courses of action. First, align your program to the CASEL SELect criteria so you have a better sense of whether it appears to be well-designed, offers adequate training and support, and provides evidence of its impact and effectiveness. Second, contact the program provider to get a direct report on the extent to which the program meets our criteria. Third, please contact CASEL to inform us about the program. We will continually update the Guide, and we want to be sure we are reviewing all the programs schools may be thinking about.

When using the Program Design Table, here are some considerations to guide your discussions and decisions about program adoption:

When using the “Implementation Support” Table, here are some factors to consider as your team reviews program.

As you look at the Evidence of Effectiveness Table, consider the following:

Step 2. Review program descriptions to narrow your search

Use the program descriptions to learn more about the specific programs that interest you. These descriptions provide detailed information about each program including the full range of grade levels for which the program is designed and the skills the program teaches. The summaries include an overview of each program followed by a grid with the findings in Tables 1 to 6. Also included is a link to the program’s own website, where you will be able to find additional information.

Because social and emotional competence is ultimately dependent on one’s culture, the cultural relevance of SEL programs is an important factor to consider. Although all the programs we reviewed made efforts to be neutral and respectful to different cultures, we note in the program description if a program made specific efforts to adapt to particular cultural contexts, or if there is content within the program to help teachers implement or adapt activities based on the cultures or linguistic needs of their students.

Based on your review of the descriptions of the top candidates, you should narrow your search to three or four programs you will explore more deeply.

Step 3. Gather additional information about your top program candidates

Once your team has settled on three or four programs that appear to meet your needs and support the goals of your SEL plan, you will need to explore these programs more deeply and gather information related to your particular situation. Consider contacting the program provider at this point. Key issues to discuss include program costs, training and other implementation supports such as on-site coaching and consultation, available guidance and tools for monitoring implementation and evaluating student outcomes, and the extent to which the program is culturally and linguistically appropriate for your student population. Following are questions you may want to ask in exploring each of these issues.

Step 4. Assess the cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of the program

Research in social and emotional learning, and in child and adolescent development more broadly, has consistently found that young people learn best when education is relevant and appropriate to their cultural and linguistic context. The same is true and with regard to materials and programming for families and caregivers. This creates special challenges when selecting programs, since many schools are multicultural, with unique combinations of different cultures and with different levels of acculturation.

Your colleagues, parents, and students are the experts on the cultures and languages represented in your school or district. Questions you will want to ask related to a program’s cultural and linguistic appropriateness include:

To further help you select a program that meets your community’s needs, we also recommend:

Step 5. Contact and visit schools using the program

To complete the selection process, contact and visit one or more schools using the programs you are considering. Speak with teachers and others who have experience with the program. Observe how the program works in action. Most programs can identify individuals or schools for a visit. At a minimum, and if distance and travel are problems, try to arrange extended telephone interviews with others who have used the program. If you are able to arrange visits, prepare carefully with a set of questions and discussion topics. With all the information you gather, your team will be well-equipped to complete the selection of a SELect program to support your SEL plan.

Step 6. Completing the Selection Process and Beyond

Once you have selected a program, there’s work to do to ensure the program is well-implemented. As part of planning, you will need to develop strategies for supporting implementation. Your committee should explore at least three kinds of on-site support: observation and feedback to teachers by program staff; meetings where teachers can discuss challenges and successes with colleagues who are more experienced with the program; and peer coaching by experienced teachers. Your school may also want to consider relatively new approaches to professional development such as incorporating the program into the school’s daily routines. Teachers might be given time to meet with one another and reflect on how things are going. Ideally, you will be able to use self-assessment tools provided by the program that can assist with this type of reflection.

Your team should also develop a plan for monitoring progress and impact by using implementation and student outcome data. Although there is strong evidence suggesting SEL programs can improve students’ behavior and academic performance, it is always important to monitor a program’s effects in each local context. Meeting regularly to discuss and identify challenges to overcome and successes to celebrate should be an important priority.

Once you have selected the program, you will also need to develop a plan for first-year implementation. It may make sense to start with a modest effort and build on solid success. For example, you might decide to pilot a program in one school, or in several grades in several schools. You will also need to develop strategies for supporting implementation. Going forward it will be important to continue to evaluate and assess whether the selected program is well-received and also achieves its goals in promoting SEL in students.