Charging Forward for SEL

No one knows more than a superintendent or any district administrator that the demand for social and emotional learning from states and school systems is at an all-time high. Action to address the individual needs of our students has never been more urgent.

Let me thank my good friend, Aaron Spence, and his staff at Virginia Beach City Public Schools for recently hosting the Spring 2022 AASA SEL Cohort meeting. After listening to Superintendent Spence’s keynote speech, I appreciated hearing why he is so vested in this critical issue.

“I want our children to feel known, to feel seen, to feel heard and feel loved,” he told the gathering. During his remarks, he shared a story about his own children when he talked about how much he wants them “to feel deeply connected to other human beings where they feel like they belong.”

Shouldn’t every child in every school in America enjoy the same feeling of connection? Not a day goes by when I don’t wish that for my 13 grandchildren.

Meanwhile, let me congratulate Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois for being selected earlier this month as one of our AASA Learning 2025 Lighthouse Demonstration Systems. With respect to its Lighthouse focus area, look at D203’s SEL mission statement: “We cultivate resourceful, resilient citizens by teaching social, emotional and academic skills in a nurturing learning environment.” I say bravo!

I recently had the opportunity to team up with my colleagues Mort Sherman (associate executive director, Leadership Network) and John Brown (writer-in-residence) on our recently published, Leading Social-Emotional Learning in Districts and Schools. The book contains a myriad of reflections from superintendents and support staff in developing and sustaining SEL competencies. For example, Superintendent Luvelle Brown shared the following SEL structures and processes currently underway at Ithaca City (N.Y.) School District:

  • Student-led conferences
  • A culturally responsive school and district calendar
  • Clearly articulated equity policies and practices
  • Validation and affirmation of the home
  • Emphasis upon validation, affirmation and support for all learners
  • In-class SEL strategies (e.g., attention signals, disruption protocols, movement, active and visual vocabulary acquisition activities)
  • Encouragement of culturally responsive respective, and sensitive practices
  • Focus on alternative forms of assessment and progress monitoring
  • A learning environment that is patient, caring, loving, forgiving and trusting.

As the three of us point out in the book, there is no question that we are living in challenging and unpresented times. Throughout the United States—and at the global level—educators, families and communities now recognize that the social, emotional, physical and academic development of learners is a holistic, integrating process. Increasingly, educating the “Whole Child” is no longer rhetoric, but an institutional necessity.

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of the book, please access the AASA website.

Whether you’re a superintendent or not, thank you all for the work you’re doing to bolster SEL awareness in your learning communities. If we’re going to increase capacity to effectively lead a change geared toward the social and emotional outcomes for all of our students, it’s going to take a team effort in every school district in America.

Through our Leadership Network, AASA continues to recognize successful social and emotional learning programs throughout the country. The cohort is a vibrant community engaged in meaningful dialogue about how SEL is contributing to the whole child—from physical and mental health to the development of fundamental, lifelong learning skills. If you’re thinking about joining the cohort or have questions about it, please don’t hesitate to contact Mort at

Daniel A. Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

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