State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

A Brief Overview

  • Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process through which children and adults effectively manage emotions, reach toward goals, experience empathy, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
  • In school, all students participate in SEL as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Specific SEL instruction can also be part of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members.
  • A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status.
  • A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

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A child’s ability to understand, communicate, and manage emotions is critical to learning. So are skills that enable a child to socialize, self-motivate, empathize, and work collaboratively. Schools call this area of education Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

SEL is not just for children. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Students with disabilities may qualify for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in social and/or emotional areas of learning as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Eligibility for SDI is determined through evaluation, and schools use various instruments to assess whether a student has a disability affecting social or emotional skills to an extent that education is significantly impacted. If so, the student’s IEP will support learning in those social/emotional areas, and goal-monitoring will track skill growth.

Students with IEPs are not the only ones who receive SEL instruction, however. Schools may use curricula to promote emotional understanding, social stories, mindfulness programs, communication circles or other strategies as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a framework for improving school-wide social, emotional, and cultural climate. Schools that adopt an MTSS framework deliver SEL to all students (Tier 1) and generally offer Tier 2 and Tier 3 programming to targeted groups or individual students.

Parenting Tip: Ask whether your school uses an MTSS framework

Family caregivers can ask school staff and administrators whether the district operates within an MTSS framework.

  • If the answer is no, ask how school climate is addressed and how SEL is integrated into school-wide programming.
  • If the answer is yes, ask what SEL instruction looks like in the general education classroom (Tier 1) and how specialized lessons are provided to students with higher levels of need (Tiers 2-3). Note that a student who does not qualify for an IEP could demonstrate the need for social/emotional instruction beyond what is provided to most students. Family caregivers can ask for detail about how the school’s MTSS system supports any specific student.

State adopts six SEL standards

Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to all public and non-public educational agencies in the state, provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members. Included is a link to the official letter in which State Superintendent Chris Reykdal adopted the standards, and a collection of resources to support SEL implementation and to further understanding about how families and communities can participate.

A primary document is the 24-page Social Emotional Learning Standards, Benchmarks, and Indicators, which defines the six SEL learning standards and various benchmarks under each. An extensive chart offers practical guidance for assessing each standard for students in Early Elementary, Late Elementary, Middle School, and High School/Adult. The SEL learning standards include:

  1. SELF-AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to identify their emotions, personal assets, areas for growth, and potential external resources and supports.
  2. SELF-MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
  3. SELF-EFFICACY – Individuals have the ability to motivate themselves, persevere, and see themselves as capable.
  4. SOCIAL AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  5. SOCIAL MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to make safe and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions.
  6. SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to consider others and show a desire to contribute to the well-being of the school and community.

Developmental milestones are charted with a variety of statements that might demonstrate the skill or disposition within an age range.  

  • For example, a late elementary age student might show self-awareness this way: “I can identify and describe physical symptoms and thoughts related to my emotions and feelings (e.g., hot, shoulders tight).”
  • A middle-school student might demonstrate self-efficacy this way: “I can identify specific human and civil rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled and can understand how to advocate for myself in healthy ways.”

Tip for Parents: Promote SEL at home

Included on the SEL website page is a list of learning activities for families and educators. The eight-page guide includes links to videos, websites, and ready-to-use resources to encourage positive behavior support and helpful communication at home and at school.  Resources are sorted by age and marked to indicate whether they are best suited for family caregivers, teachers, or both.

  • For example, parents of children K-5 might want to click on SEL Games to Play With Your Child to find a resource from Understood.org. One game, Starfish and Tornadoes, helps kids notice how much energy they are feeling inside and when they might need to use their calming skills or ask for help from a trusted adult.
  • A suggestion for grades 5-12 is to Practice Loving-Kindness for Someone you Care About. That exercise from Greater Good in Education provides adaptations for students with disabilities and suggests ways to make the project culturally responsive.

Another document accessible through OSPI’s website is a three-page guide for parents and families, which includes resource linkages to free online training, parenting cue cards with quick answers to typical concerns, and access to other websites with tools and advice specific for various stages of child development. Also included are tips to promote SEL at home by encouraging a child to:

  • Identify and name their emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
  • Identify positive and negative consequences of actions.
  • Demonstrate the ability to follow routines and generate ideas to solve problems.
  • Create a goal and track progress toward achieving that goal.
  • Identify feelings expressed by others.
  • Identify ways that people and groups are similar and different.
  • Demonstrate attentive listening skills without distraction.
  • Identify and take steps to resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.
  • Demonstrate a sense of community responsibility

SEL guidance supports equity and inclusion

  • Principles listed throughout the state SEL guidance include:
  • Equity: Each child receives what he or she needs to develop his or her full potential.
  • Cultural responsiveness: Culture is viewed as a resource for learning, not a barrier.
  • Universal design: Learning differences are planned for and accommodated.
  • Trauma-informed: Knowledge of the effects of trauma is integrated into policy and practice.

State guidance that describes the SEL standards and benchmarks includes this statement: “Social emotional learning (SEL) happens over the course of a day, a lifetime, and in every setting in which students and adults spend their time.… Effectively supporting social emotional development in schools requires collaboration among families and communities. It also involves building adult capacity to support a school climate and culture that recognizes, respects, and supports differences in abilities, experiences, and ethnic and cultural differences, and celebrates diversity.”

A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status. “A white, middle-class model of self that values independence dominates schools,” the brief states. “Students of color and students in low-income communities often experience ‘cultural mismatch’ in education settings that expect forms of expression and participation not aligned with their culture.

“Without explicit attention to equity and cultural diversity, prevalent SEL frameworks, models, and curricula may not adequately reflect the diverse worldviews of students and families.”

Parenting Tip: Attend your local school board meeting to influence decisions

The state’s SEL implementation guide is intended for local districts to use in developing their own school- or community-specific plan to meet the needs of all learners. Because Washington is a local control state, each district is responsible for policy development.

Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.

HB 2816 promotes positive school climate

A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

The model policy and procedures for its implementation includes specific elements to “recognize the important role that students’ families play in collaborating with the school and school district in creating, maintaining, and nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.” In addition, districts “must provide information to the parents and guardians of enrolled students regarding students’ rights to a free public education, regardless of immigration status or religious beliefs; and school districts must provide meaningful access to this information for families with limited English proficiency.”

In accordance with HB 2816, the WSSDA website will post the model policy and procedure by March 1, 2021. School districts are responsible to incorporate the guidance by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year: “School districts may periodically review policies and procedures for consistency with updated versions of the model policy for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

SEL is linked to research about Adverse Childhood Experiences

A national movement to incorporate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is informed by knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first report about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Vincent Felitti, then the CDC’s chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

The data inspired researchers and educators to seek new ways to help children cope so they can manage themselves at school—and in life. A variety of new evidence-based practices were developed to support childhood resiliency. The National Research Council issued this statement in 2012: “There is broad agreement that today’s schools must offer more than academic instruction to prepare students for life and work.”

The 2015 Washington State Legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and Senate Bill 6620 in 2016 authorized development of a free online training module in SEL for school staff. The bill states that, “In order to foster a school climate that promotes safety and security, school district staff should receive proper training in developing students’ social and emotional skills.” Development of the state SEL Standards furthers that work.

Parenting tip: Work on your own SEL skills

Family caregivers play an important role in fostering SEL by working on their own self-regulation skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides a wide array of resources, including some related to stressors from COVID-19. “We need to pay close attention to our own social emotional needs in order to be the community of adults who best serve our young people,” CASEL advises. “Practice continued self-care strategies, including eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, and finding time to take breaks.” CASEL provides a checklist to reframe your thinking, including ideas about “all-or-nothing” or overgeneralization, for example.

PAVE provides a series of short mindfulness videos for all ages and abilities and offers additional mindfulness and parenting ideas in an article, Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

Parents are a child’s primary SEL teachers

Family caregivers can help foster SEL skills by collaborating with the school. OSPI’s guidance includes this statement: “Parents and families are a child’s first teachers of SEL. As children grow, parents and families continue to support the social emotional lives of their children in the home.”

Here are a few questions parents might ask school staff to collaborate on SEL skill development:

  • How are you helping my child learn from mistakes?
  • If behavior is keeping my child from learning, what skill is lacking?
  • What is a best-practice strategy for teaching the skill that my child needs to learn?
  • Do you have a tool for understanding and regulating emotions that we can use at home also?
  • How is my child learning to “name and tame” emotions? (Dan Siegel, neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, suggests that recognizing and naming a feeling gives a person power to regulate the emotion.)
  • What positive reinforcement is being provided when my child demonstrates a new skill? How are those positive reinforcers tracked through data collection?
  • What is the plan to help my child calm down when dysregulation makes problem-solving inaccessible?
  • Would a Functional Behavior Assessment help us understand what my child is trying to communicate through this unexpected behavior?
  • Can we collaborate to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan so that we are using the same cues and language to support expected behavior?
  • What adult at the school is a “champion” for my child? (Dr. Bruce Perry, whose research supports trauma-informed initiatives, says, “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”)

Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe

A Brief Overview

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Big feelings are happening. We feel them, and we care for others who are having them. Times of uncertainly cause stress that makes big feelings feel bigger. Emotions might seem to run away with all the energy we had left. It can feel hard to breathe, and it’s easy to lose a sense of control over what happens within the span of a day.

Taking time to pause and organize the days ahead can help, especially if mindfulness and breath practices are built into the schedule.

Here’s a to-do list for every day

  1. Have a plan
  2. Be real with big feelings
  3. Breathe

The rest of this article provides ideas about these three strategies. Please note that resources included are not affiliated with PAVE, and PAVE does not recommend or endorse these programs or services.

Organize the day to create predictability

Getting organized with a clear routine is helpful because predictability calms the nervous system, suggests the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL offered a webinar in early April to help parents and educators explore Social Emotional Learning (SEL) during the stay-home order related to COVID-19.

A key presenter was Jennifer Miller, founder of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, which  provides an article for parents: Setting up for Homework Success. Miller offers a video describing how to establish a morning routine to give each day a predictable jump-start. She advises families to schedule intentional moments for loving connection throughout each day. For example, one of her family’s rituals is a hallway hug first thing out of bed.

To support children in feeling safe, confident and in control, Miller recommends that adults plan-ahead to speak out loud when they notice children taking care of business: “I notice you are getting dressed…brushing teeth…feeding the dog… all by yourself.”

Predictability, contribution and accomplishment are all feelings that calm the brain and can be part of making and maintaining a family schedule. Miller advises that all members of the family work together to design the plan.

The family’s daily schedule can include a wake-up routine, movement, nature time, academics, rest time, meals and shared cooking/cleaning, screen time, art time, chores, reading, bath time, bedtime…. The schedule can have words and/or pictures and should be posted where everyone can refer to it.

Generally, children respond well to having some built-in choices and a variety of brain breaks. Sample family schedules are easy to search for online; families might prefer to design their own format, just for them.

Here are some places to look for ideas:

  • Mother.ly shares a mom’s family schedule that “went viral” during the pandemic.
  • Get-Organized-Mom.com offers printable forms and samples for how to use them.
  • Adding Homeschool to an online search brings up a wide selection of options, some for free and some with a small cost.

Feel big feelings, and let others feel theirs too

Generally, humans are emotional. We feel, and we respond to what we feel. Squished emotions usually don’t go away but loom larger. Here are a few strategies for being with big feelings:

Talk openly: Big feelings can be more manageable when they are spoken and shared. Ask another person, What are you feeling right now? Listen without judgment or analysis. Here’s one way to respond: Wow, that’s a lot to feel. Tell me more. A Sesame Street program called  Here for Each Other offers a 90-second video posted to YouTube to help adults talk to children about Big Feelings. To help families discuss feelings specifically related to COVID-19, PBS.org provides toolkits in English and Spanish.

Name it to tame it: Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist, recommends calling out emotions in order to manage them. Here’s a short video: Name it to tame it. To make brain science practical, Siegel talks about an upstairs brain and a downstairs brain. When the downstairs brain (emotion) controls the show, the upstairs brain (learning/problem-solving) clicks offline. Here are some ideas for what to do if someone is overwhelmed by emotion:

  • Create a safe physical space: Offer a drink of water, a blanket, a stuffed animal.
  • Keep a kind voice, move slowly, and back away/get low if your energy might feel like a threat (if you are a bigger or have more power, for example).
  • Turn down lights or turn on music if that makes sense for the other person.
  • Say something to simply acknowledge the big feelings: “I understand that (this is hard, makes you mad, scares you…).”
  • Allow enough time for the brain finds a way back “upstairs.”
  • When things are calm, work together to describe the big feelings and the experience of being with those feelings. 

Use pictures to identify emotions: Charts to help identify emotions are easy to find. Here’s a link on Pinterest with dozens of examples of printable or hand-made options. Making a chart together can create learning on many levels. A teacher might have a feelings chart to share.

Notice that feelings aren’t who you are: This strategy is from a meditation technique called Integrative Restoration (iRest.org). Notice a feeling as separate from the bigger picture of who you really are. Here’s a statement to sort that out: I have feelings, but I’m not my feelings. What happens when that statement is made? Is it possible to catch feelings in the act of forming or changing? This can be a conversation you have in your own mind or with another person.

Explore feelings through the body: This technique is common in yoga. Ask someone else or yourself: What feelings are happening right now, and where is the body feeling them? Talk about how a feeling seems to “live” in a certain place—or travel around the body. There is no good, bad, right or wrong way to feel. Give yourself or a family member permission to move around and maybe make sound in a way that safely helps the emotion express itself.  GoNoodle.com offers additional strategies for children to explore movement and mindfulness.

Schedule mindfulness: Make sure that big feelings have time to be seen and heard. According to an article for parents from the Child Mind Institute, “Designating time to practice mindful activities as a family will help everyone feel less anxious. It could be a daily family yoga session, or a quiet walk in the woods as a group, taking time to focus on the way the air feels, the sound of the birds and the smell of the trees. Another good family mindfulness idea is asking everyone to mention one good thing they heard or saw that day over dinner.” The Child Mind Institute provides access to live video chats with clinicians, telemedicine and more. The agency provides guidance in English and Spanish and offers parents an opportunity to sign up for a COVID-19 tip of the day.

Breathe with trees and plants

A calming breath works like a life vest when it feels like emotions are rushing us downriver and threatening to take us under. The basic goal is to regulate the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream and to make sure that carbon dioxide is being expelled in a balanced way. Here’s one idea for a breath that might boost relaxation:

  • Find a place where you can see a tree or a plant. Notice details about the leaves, needles or branches.
  • Note that trees and plants release oxygen into the air.
  • Breathe in gently and feel like the plant or tree is giving oxygen to you.
  • Breathe out gently and consider that your carbon dioxide is the food the tree or plant needs.
  • Experience a moment of being grateful that nature is breathing with you. Say thank you if it feels good to say it out loud.

PAVE provides a 5-minute video to help you breathe with trees and plants!

Feeling panic? Breathe easy and smooth

When anxiety causes feelings of panic, easy is the magic word for breathing. Some evidence suggests that a stressed-out person might feel more anxious by taking breaths that are too slow or deep. Dizziness, shortness of breath and feelings of suffocation can be signs that the gases exchanged during a breath aren’t balanced well. Here’s one source for information about why even breathing might be more calming than a really big, deep breath: LiveScience.com.

Here’s something to practice regularly to help your body find its calm, easy breath:

  • Notice your breath and just watch it for a little bit.
  • Start counting as you inhale and notice how long that lasts.
  • Start to match the inhale count and the exhale count.
  • Don’t try to slow your breath down, but gently try to make each breath about the same, counting the same time on the inhale and the exhale.
  • Don’t work to fill or empty your lungs all the way. Keep it easy.
  • Try breathing evenly for at least a minute—longer if you enjoy it.

Bonus Ideas: Consider whether there’s a young person in your house who could learn this breath, practice and then teach it to someone else. Another idea is for a child to practice breathing with a stuffed animal. On their tummy, the stuffed animal goes for a ride. Being hugged, the animal can feel the breath too.

PAVE hopes the ideas in this article might help your family members organize themselves around days and weeks at home that might nourish everyone with moments of peace, personal growth and learning. Understanding how to be with big feelings and breathe with ease can take a bit of practice, but the result can build emotional resilience. We hope all can find simple ways to make emotional learning and self-care part of each day to support the well-being of all.

If you need direct support in caring for children with special educational or medical needs, please click Get Help from our home page, wapave.org.

For serious conditions related to mental health and to find a professional provider, contact the Washington Recovery Help Line: 866-789-1511.