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On-Site Staff / Partnerships and Building Relationships / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

SEL and Leadership? Let’s Get Loud!

SEL and Leadership? Let’s Get Loud!

SEL, SEL, SEL… social-emotional learning! Kids need it! All kids, not only marginalized youth– for some reason people think that (duh)! But all kids need it… rich, poor, students of color, white kids, urban, rural, and suburban kids, indigenous, affluent, English Learners, deprived traumatized kids, special needs, and seemingly normal kids (whatever that is). There’s this HUGE push for educators to implement social-emotional learning into classrooms and in expanding learning organizations and now there’s even federal funding for it!

There’s something missing though… There is a systemic discussion/question that isn’t being broadcasted as loudly as it needs to be. It lives in corners, it is swept under the mat and pushed aside. It is … how are the leaders modeling and supporting SEL within their schools and organizations? Something we are seeing over and over again is that if an administration isn’t ‘doing as I do’, engaging themselves and supporting staff with the same SEL practices that they are expecting, the chances for success when implementing SEL is going to be monumentally less successful than when leadership is actually trained with their staff, walking the walk and talking the talk. SEL isn’t just for the instructors, it’s for everyone, all stakeholders! From the student all the way up the ladder to an executive director or principal, and then including parents, bus drivers, receptionists, and lunch workers, you get the idea.

As I was pondering how I wanted to write this blog, I decided to ask some of our peers in the field for a contribution on how they work with and support their staff from a leadership perspective. I asked them “What are your favorite SEL practices with staff?” Below are some golden tips. Enjoy!

“From a leadership perspective, be the behavior/experience you want young people and staff to see. Model self-awareness in challenging situations by walking through the experience and process to help them build the skills around healthy decision-making – explain what it looked and felt like for you both in the moment and in hindsight. Explain why you made a certain decision based on the information you had at the time. Explain who you considered and what the consequences would/could be when making that decision. Then what did you learn from the experience? I call it STCD. 

Stop – take a breath.

Think – why am I or so I want to do this

Consider – the consequences and people impacted or effected by my decision

Decide – understand and accept that whatever you do, there are consequences

The choice is yours.” – Tiffany Gipson, CAN (California Afterschool Network)


“At meetings, we all (including me) go around the room and share one big mistake we made that week so that we reaffirm that making mistakes is part of the job and the only path to improvement. We cannot just talk about a growth mindset; we must reinforce it.” – Brad Lupien, President, and CEO, arc


“Compassionate Leadership. Lead with love and compassion. While this might seem aspirational and vague, there are specific actions a leader can take that will lead to compassionate leadership.

That starts with managing feelings and situations by seeking to understand first by practicing deep listening. When situations/issues emerge with staff, managers can tend to start by calling out the decisions or behavior that the leader/manager viewed as problematic and give corrective direction. That usually leads towards an emotional reaction and the conversation goes “south” from that point on, or the staff person just shuts down and becomes defensive.

I work daily at CDE to practice  “deep listening.” I have learned this from Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge. Start with inquiry. Simply state what I observed and ask questions rather than stating my opinion. Please note that inquiry is not the same is inquisition! The inquiry is a journey towards understanding. If you can, suspend your own ideas and even beliefs about how things work, you can open yourself to hear and learn something that can change the way you view the circumstances or even the organizational structure, practice or even the beliefs/values of the organization holds. (Artifacts and Mental Models)

From the Theory U book and the web site:


I am also involved deeply with the Center for Systems Awareness.

I have worked with both Peter and Otto and to do so has been a “bucket list” thing for my life. I have used Peter Senge’s work starting over 20 years ago in San Francisco. It has changed how I lead my staff at the state level, and we are working to move this approach through the Expanded Learning ecosystem and now, the K-12 ecosystem. A new assignment and challenge with and that I embrace.

These are not my ideas. But as I learn from some of the best on the planet, I try to employ those ideas in real-time during emotional and stressful circumstances here in CA.” – Michael Funk, Director, CA Department of Education, Expanded Learning Division


“ I really like the question because we do actually have some standard practices that we do with staff to support their development of SEL. One of our “go-to” practices happens during team meetings. A typical meeting can start out with PRAISES and CELEBRATIONS!

We like to do this because it sets the team up to move in a positive direction. Staff get a chance to say aloud and complete the sentence “The Good news about me is…”. When staff have an opportunity to share some of the small or large victories that they have had throughout the month, week or days it helps them to relate and create connections with their peers and also builds and maintains their momentum for upcoming days with students.

Our Praise sessions can give everyone an opportunity to express gratitude to one another which helps our teams to be able to honor others by seeing the best in them.

We encourage self-care and often include mindful moments in our interactions with staff through activities like meditation, journaling, visualizations (guided imagery, closed-eye process), breathing, descriptive writing, body movements and much more.

We do our best to embed SEL into whatever we do and as a result, our staff are able to walk away with strategies and/or simple activities that they can then implement with their staff and students.” – Knisha Nash, Program Development Specialist-Older Youth, Think Together


“The best idea I ever heard (so I don’t get credit for this), is to hire strong people, delegate, and then back them up, especially when something goes wrong. It is also important – and in line with point one – to give people credit for their work and thank them.” – Jodi Grant, Executive Director, Afterschool Alliance


Another important thing to note about creating a successful SEL implementation (and I won’t be the first to write it), is not only do we need to train staff, but we need to support them with on-going professional development opportunities and coaching. SEL isn’t one size fits all, so it is important to support the instructors who are taking in all the conversations, changes, and new behaviors that are ever-changing with our youth. Don’t skip this step, it really matters. It matters because when SEL is done well, kids feel safe, and when they feel safe, they learn well. We can create that environment, but it starts at the top.

So leaders, let’s get loud and start with us.

A huge and humble thank you to my peers for their insight and contribution. Such wisdom and kindness in our amazing field of expanded learning.

For breakfast, I had hot tea with coconut oil, stevia, and a splash of cream.

Author: @juliagabor

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In 2014, Julia was awarded the Women Making a Difference by U.S. Senator of California Lou Correa for her contributions in youth programming in Orange County, CA. In, 2013 Julia received the OSTI award from BOOST for her contribution to out-of-school time individuals by providing innovative approaches to support students, families and communities. Julia currently develops tailored training's and facilitates workshops for educators, non-profit organizations, mentor professionals and students. She works with you to create strategies for educational programs to enhance student success and a productive future. She also will establish effective practices for staff communication and leadership. As the Director of Education at WRiTE BRAiN WOLRD Julia is built, expanded and introduced the WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS curriculum into education communities across the country. WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS inspires creativity while applying project- based literacy and builds 21st Century skills. In only two and a half years WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS is being implemented in 41 states with 45,000 student becoming published authors of their own children’s book. While at the Tiger Woods Foundation (TWF), Julia launched a college internship program for sports management, hospitality, event planning and marketing majors from universities across the country. Julia develops specialized programs ranging from activity based curriculum in a variety of different educational areas to creating a collegiate mentor program. Starting in 2006, Julia managed a national character education program called- Tiger's Action Plan, a free youth development curriculum that focuses on leadership, goal setting, service learning and career exploration. Prior to joining TWF, Julia was a Coordinator for the After School All - Stars in Los Angeles, where she taught a range of middle school enrichment classes- from personal leadership to sports, to performance and visual art classes. Julia has been teaching/leading groups since she was a teenager working alongside her mother, who is an acting teacher and coach in the USA and Europe. Julia has served as a trainer/facilitator in disguised learning and cultural diversity throughout California. In 2009, Julia received the Honored Educator Award from California State Fullerton University for dedication to education in Orange County, CA. Miss Gabor is a graduate of the State University of New York, Fredonia receiving her bachelor's degree in the Fine Arts. She received her Master’s in Educational Leadership from Antioch University in 2012.


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    Hi Julia:
    I enjoyed reading your blog. SEL is definitely an impactful topic that must be address to keep our communities thriving and growing. Currently I am in my 3rd week online leading PBIS training to my team. I was assigned the task of creating lesson plans, ppt and various group activities. In the opening, I begin with a read aloud with 1 student story from Kid Grit and give them three essential questions. The class has met Lenny, Cole, Reshanda, Alicia and Holly. These adults enjoy these inspirational stories. God bless you and Jeffrey for all your hard work! Looking forward to more Kids-Grit story. Respectfully, Gayle

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      Thanks Gayle! So nice to hear from you. THANK YOU for using the BOOK for your PD. We are so pleased for your care for staff and students! Gayle, we are searching for middle school authors who will write to Elementary School kids about overcoming challenges. If you want a great summer project for your kids… hit me: [email protected]. Be well and stay safe! — Julia

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    …almost forgot, for breakfast, I had coffee, a breakfast sandwich and instant oatmeal.

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