What Does an SEL Specialist Do?

What does an SEL specialist do?

Over the past two decades, social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a central focus in the U.S. educational system, beginning as supplementary and evolving into foundational to learning and personal growth as a student.

As schools increasingly recognize the importance of addressing students’ emotional and social needs alongside their academic development, the role of specialists who are well-versed in SEL practices is also growing in significance. 

In this article, we detail the role and responsibilities of an SEL specialist and their impact on educational environments. We then elaborate by explaining the growing demand for SEL despite the challenges special educators face in embedding SEL instruction in school curricula.

The role and responsibilities of an SEL specialist

You might be familiar with SEL already, but not with the role of SEL specialist. So, what exactly does an SEL specialist do? 

An SEL specialist is an educational professional dedicated to integrating social-emotional learning into school curricula. They work to create programs and strategies that foster emotional intelligence, resilience, and interpersonal skills among students.

In particular, SEL specialists design, implement, and evaluate SEL programs tailored to the unique needs of their school communities, while making sure they align with the CASEL framework. Their work also involves collaborating with teachers, administrators, students and their parents, guardians or caregivers to create a supportive learning environment.

The primary responsibilities of an SEL specialist include:

  • Program development: Creating a comprehensive, age-appropriate SEL curriculum that aligns with state and national standards.
  • Professional development: Training teachers and staff on SEL principles and techniques to ensure consistent and effective implementation.
  • Student support: Providing direct support to students through one-on-one counseling, group sessions, and classroom activities.
  • Assessment and evaluation: Monitoring the effectiveness of SEL programs through data collection, analysis, and reporting to stakeholders.
  • Community engagement: Engaging parents, guardians and caregivers and the wider community to foster a holistic support system for students.

To become an SEL specialist, you typically need to have a background in education, psychology, or a related field, followed by specialized training in SEL methodologies. Depending on the institution, advanced certifications or a master’s degree in SEL, counseling, or educational leadership may be required.

The importance of SEL specialists in schools

The need for SEL specialists stems from the growing recognition that academic success alone does not guarantee overall student well-being. By addressing social and emotional competencies, SEL specialists help students develop critical life skills that contribute to their holistic development into adults.

Research consistently shows that SEL programs lead to significant improvements in students’ social behavior, academic performance, and emotional well-being. In a study comparing results from four large-scale meta-analyses of student outcomes related to participation in universal, school-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, Mahoney, J., Durlak, J., & Weissberg, R., (2018) found in their examination of 356 research studies that SEL programs positively impact students’ behavioral and academic outcomes, and concluded that they are feasible and effective in various educational contexts worldwide.

In the short term, SEL interventions result in reduced behavioral problems (Morris et al., 2013), improved classroom climate (Greenberg et al., 2017), and enhanced student engagement (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015). Long-term benefits include higher graduation rates (Rodríguez-Planas, 2012), better mental health outcomes (Vinokur et al., 2000), and increased employability (Greenberg et al., 2017).

Fostering Inclusivity in Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Delve into evidence-based strategies for building and implementing inclusive SEL programs. Essential for directors of counseling and counselors, this infographic elucidates how to integrate SEL interventions that engage all students, particularly those from marginalized groups.

  • Program Design: Highlights the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the importance of addressing systematic barriers for students with disabilities.
  • Program Development: Emphasizes culturally affirming programs and family involvement to enrich SEL.
  • Program Implementation: Focuses on the role of teachers and the need for adult development in SEL programs.
  • Program Research: Points out the impact of culture on emotional development and the value of culturally responsive pedagogy.

Positive trends in SEL implementation

The SEL field has seen significant growth and evolution in recent years and has been gaining purchase in schools and districts, demonstrating that the value of SEL specialists’ work is increasingly being recognized.

One notable trend we are seeing is the gradual integration of SEL into the wider school curriculum over the last 20 years. The data from various studies and projects support this, in particular those from large-scale implementation projects such as one in New Jersey, which aimed to build students’ SEL skills to a school-wide level (Romasz et al., 2004). The project was able to extend beyond classroom curricula to encompass school-wide activities, showing an evolution in the approach to how SEL is successfully integrated into wider educational practices in a systemic way.

Additionally, technology is playing a vital role in SEL implementation by providing innovative tools and platforms that facilitate the teaching and learning of social-emotional skills. With the advent of new technologies designed to enhance SEL instruction, educators can deliver more personalized and engaging experiences for students. AR, VR, and AI have been shown to be effective in teaching core SEL skills (Mittal, 2020) and have led to significant improvements in students’ social and emotional skills, empathy, and responsibility, particularly when integrating interactive digital activities (Iaosanurak et al., 2016).

Lastly, there is a growing emphasis on professional development for educators which equips them to effectively model and teach SEL skills. For instance, many schools are implementing workshops and training sessions focused on emotional intelligence, stress management, and empathy. A study by Hen & Sharabi-Nov, 2014 evaluating a 56-hour “Emotional Intelligence” training model for 186 teachers who on average reported greater self-introspection, emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and understanding of others. These initiatives help teachers integrate SEL into their daily curriculum, create a more supportive classroom environment, and ultimately foster students’ social and emotional growth.

The challenges of implementing SEL in schools

While the benefits of SEL are well-documented, implementing these programs can present certain challenges. Some of the common obstacles include:

  • Resource limitations: Schools may lack the financial resources or trained personnel needed to sustain comprehensive SEL programs and hire SEL specialists. Without adequate funding, schools struggle to provide the necessary staff training, purchase required materials, and allocate time within the curriculum for SEL activities.
  • Resistance to change: Teachers and administrators might be hesitant to prioritize or integrate SEL into an already packed curriculum. This resistance can stem from various factors, such as a lack of understanding of SEL’s benefits, concerns about the additional time and resources required, or a belief that academic subjects should take precedence.
  • Measurement difficulties: Unlike academic skills that can be measured through standardized tests, social-emotional learning involves personal growth, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills, which are harder to quantify. Additionally, the impact of these programs may vary significantly from one individual to another, further complicating the evaluation process.
  • Cultural sensitivity: Ensuring that SEL programs are culturally inclusive can be challenging in diverse school settings. Educators must be trained to understand cultural nuances and adapt their teaching methods accordingly, incpororating materials and practices that reflect and value the diverse experiences of students.

Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative approach. Schools can seek funding through grants, partner with community organizations, and invest in professional development for staff. Additionally, emphasizing the long-term benefits of SEL can help garner support from stakeholders.

More on SEL specialists

An SEL specialist integrates social-emotional learning into school curricula, developing programs that foster emotional intelligence, resilience, and interpersonal skills. They train staff, support students, evaluate program effectiveness, and engage the community.

Typically, an SEL specialist needs a background in education, psychology, or a related field, along with specialized training in SEL methodologies. Advanced certifications or master’s degrees in SEL, counseling, or educational leadership may also be required.

Challenges include resource limitations, resistance to integrating SEL into the curriculum, difficulties in measuring SEL outcomes, and ensuring cultural sensitivity. Addressing these challenges requires collaboration, funding, professional development, and stakeholder support.

Implementing SEL in school curricula: Next steps

SEL specialists are fast becoming a crucial component of education: they provide direct support through counseling, group sessions, and targeted activities, and they ensure that SEL programs not only fit within educational standards but also benefit students, significantly contributing to their wellbeing and success both in the short and long term.

The implementation of SEL within schools, while increasingly recognized for its importance, faces several challenges such as resource limitations, resistance to change, and the complexity of measuring social-emotional growth. Despite these hurdles, the field of SEL has witnessed remarkable growth and evolution, integrating new technologies and comprehensive professional development to enrich instruction.

Ori Learning’s SEL curriculum empowers educators to deliver essential social and emotional skill instruction with confidence and minimal training required for staff. Our platform is intuitive and easy to use and comes packed with powerful progress monitoring tools, as well as translation and accommodations features that support diverse learning needs. Developed using the UDL framework, the curriculum gradually builds upon and reinforces key skills with age-appropriate content that engages and inspires students throughout their learning journey.

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Jon Izak

Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.

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Jon Izak
Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.