Getting Others to Buy-in to SEL

By SEL in Action Community

This conversation is part of a series led by Innovation in SEL grantees from across the country. SEL in Action community gatherings invite educators to exchange promising SEL practices, co-create solutions to challenges, and tap into peer support. This summary reflects key themes and takeaways from the conversation.


“People are hurting for time, staff, and resources for SEL. In some cases, they’re the only ones carrying that message in their building. There’s general sense of suffering from that.”

Conduct referrals are down in the two classrooms fully doing the SEL curriculum that we wrote, and the other two rooms have the opposite trend. What more can we do to have them buy in?

“As a teacher leader, it is sometimes difficult to get all teachers on the bus!”

These are the kind of statements that inspired a community gathering on the topic of getting others to buy-in to social and emotional learning (SEL). One evening in December 2019, educators from Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New Mexico and New York came together one evening to share their experiences. 


What Gets in the Way of SEL

Let’s start with the good news. All of the individuals who joined the conversation are seeing some good traction. They’re seeing some progress and are not entirely alone in advocating for SEL at their schools. The bad news, however, is that each participant is dealing with a sizable group of educators who don’t buy-in to SEL and, in some cases, their school is not “walking the walk” in terms of practicing what they preach.

These staff mindsets are common:

  • Social and emotional learning is not my job. It’s the parents’ job. SEL is not in my lane.
  • Stop babying students. One participant shared the grumbles she heard from colleagues for encouraging middle school students to use the mindfulness room when they need to step away and refocus. Some said the practice was “incentivizing bad behavior” and “letting them skip class.”
  • Students need to follow the rules and if they break the rules they need to learn there are consequences. As one participant said, there’s a “fair is equal” mindset and inflexibility when it comes to rules. These folks fail to realize it’s “not about a rule; it’s about creating safe spaces for kids and giving different supports to kids based on need.”
  • SEL is important, but it’s one more thing to do and our first priority has to be academics. “We have to stick to pacing.” There is no time for SEL given the academic pressures. It will have to wait until the spring.

On top of these challenging mindsets, SEL buy-in is stagnant in some schools because the teachers simply don’t know HOW to embed it into their practice. Teachers are willing to shift their practice, but need some concrete exemplars and a roadmap of sorts to get started.

So how might one go about chipping away at these challenges in order to generate more buy-in and action?


Know Your Audience and Meet Them Where They Are

To buy-in, staff must see SEL as a solution to their pain-points and student needs. Know your audience, and ask yourself: Why is this important to them day-to-day? What are the concrete issues in our school that SEL could solve? How can I help others see that SEL is needed to address some of the root causes of persistent challenges and frustrations?

Several educators shared that student misbehavior and disrespect is a regular frustration for teachers in their school. In this case, look for ways to help others see the connections between student behaviors and emotional needs. As has been said, students have to Maslow before they can Bloom. We all have “baggage” we carry (yes, adults too), and some students are suffering from trauma as a result of experiences with foster care, divorce, family health issues, and more. Paint a clear illustration of how emotions may be at the root of these challenging behaviors, and therefore how SEL practices can help solve this common pain-point.

The group also talked about students’ lack of engagement and motivation as being a constant frustration. Older youth, in particular, are developing their own sense of self and identity. Help other teachers see that employing SEL strategies that foster belonging and allow students to use their voice is a direct route to increasing engagement. Emotional engagement opens the door to academic engagement, without a doubt.

Lastly, a common issue is the lack of time and general overwhelm that teachers feel. These teachers might need less convincing when it comes to the value of SEL, but they do need to see and hear a clear path to integrating SEL into all the others things on their plate. Without a clear articulation of how to get it all done (and data to show the return on investment), any talk of SEL will be met with feelings of “this is one more thing to do.”

We can’t expect adults to engage in SEL until we take the time to understand their specific pain-points and bridge the gap for them.


Reach Hearts and Minds

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Next the group discussed the science behind strategies for getting others on board. Simply stated, it requires tapping into both hearts and minds. In their book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath describe a useful metaphor for this.

  • Motivate the elephant. Reach people’s heart by finding emotional connection. Create opportunities to listen and learn about one another. Look for ways to see, hear, and emotionally connect with colleagues.
  • Direct the rider. Give clear direction and outline bite-sized action steps. Reduce mental paralysis.
  • Shape the path. Remove barriers, and create an environment that supports the behaviors you want to see.


See and Hear Them

Vulnerability is one gateway to understanding and connection. Share a personal story about how SEL impacted (or could have impacted) you as a child or even an adult. For example, one participant shared her own immigrant story with her teacher colleagues as a way to help them empathize and better understand the needs of their immigrant students. By opening up in this way, emotional bonds between team members were strengthened and students benefited as a result.

Staff restorative circles is another way of creating a safe space for vulnerability and connection. One participant reported great success in a recent team meeting when they used circles. The prompts? “I wish my colleagues knew…” and “I wish my students knew…” Teachers learned so much about one another, including their insecurities and worries. This school is still working on building the trust, but they’re well on their way.


Help Them Empathize with Students

Often teachers do not have the same personal experiences with trauma as their students (e.g., racism, poverty, immigration, abuse) and therefore, despite caring a great deal, they have difficulty genuinely empathizing with their students’ lived experiences. One way of growing buy-in for SEL is to help staff better understand with students’ needs for SEL.

One educator shared that her school team engaged in a three-hour poverty simulation that helped open their eyes to just how much students and families are managing in their day-to-day lives. One things the educators realized from the activity was just how quick they are to unfairly blame parents. Another participant shared that the same poverty simulation was not met with criticism in Brooklyn. The takeaway? Again, know your audience and context as not every strategy works everywhere. Find ways to elevate humanity, build empathy, and create a safe space for staff to learn and evolve.


Shape the Path

Lastly, it’s difficult for teachers to shape the path on their own. If teachers are overwhelmed or pressed for time (and who isn’t, really?), then it’s especially important to reduce barriers and make the path an easy one to follow. This isn’t to suggest that SEL is simple or lockstep. However, laying out simple bite-sized ways of creating more safe, caring, and inclusive learning environments can be a good place to start.


Where To Go From Here?

As you prepare to take action and get others to buy-in to SEL in your school, first please take just a moment to remind yourself:

Small changes add up to big impact. 

One day at a time, I advocate for SEL because I know it matters for students.

I rest when I need it.

Thank you to all who joined this online community gathering. We’ll keep the conversations going through a series of online chats throughout the school year. If you’re interested in going deeper on this topic of getting others to buy-in to SELor have another idea for a community gatheringplease reach out to our team at