Cover: Social and Emotional Learning Is the Cornerstone

Social and Emotional Learning Is the Cornerstone

Exploring Integrated, Schoolwide SEL in Two Innovative High Schools

Published Dec 14, 2021

by Laura Stelitano, Elizabeth D. Steiner

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Research Question

  1. Which factors have supported integrated, schoolwide social and emotional learning practices in two ObD schools?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical for preparing students for college and career success. Integrating SEL into academic instruction in meaningful ways supports students' SEL development. However, research indicates that many high schools have not yet implemented programming that offers explicit SEL instruction and integrates SEL into academic instruction.

This report provides an illustration of two Opportunity by Design (ObD) high schools in which practices for supporting students' SEL were implemented schoolwide and integrated into teachers' academic instruction. The ObD initiative was launched by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to support the design and creation of a network of small, innovative high schools of choice in large, urban districts in the United States. These schools provide a unique perspective on what implementation of schoolwide, integrated, explicit SEL instruction can look like when it is a core design feature from school inception. The findings may provide valuable insight for leaders of other small high schools seeking to strengthen their own focus on SEL.

Key Findings

Four conditions may have enabled schools to implement integrated, schoolwide SEL practices

  • A SEL-focused school mission and clear structures provided opportunities for teachers to support students' SEL skill development.
  • Personalized learning approaches helped teachers build positive relationships with students and cultivate students' self-awareness.
  • Mastery-based learning offered teachers a structure in which they could regularly assess SEL competencies and encourage a growth mindset.
  • Professional development offered before the start of the school year helped teachers focus on and understand students' experiences.


  • School leaders should embed SEL into the core school mission.
  • School leaders should develop a clear, well-defined vision for SEL and build a shared understanding of SEL within the school.
  • High school leaders should incorporate SEL competencies into the school's expectations for students and teach and assess SEL competencies alongside academic competencies.
  • Teachers and school leaders should consider instructional models—such as personalized learning—that complement and reinforce SEL practices as part of academic instruction.

Research conducted by

This research was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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