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How to choose the best SEL programs for your school district

Morgan HugoboomNovember 8, 2022

How to choose the best SEL programs for your school district

As schools continue to report increased rates of anxiety, behavioral issues, and teacher burnout, programs like social-emotional learning (SEL) are more vital than ever. SEL programs help students develop critical emotional skills that pay dividends both within and outside of the classroom. Data shows that students learning from social-emotional learning programs exhibit more positive classroom behavior, better management of stress and depression, and an increase of 11 percentile points in academic performance.

With over 30 years of evidence supporting its efficacy, social-emotional learning is a crucial part of creating more resilient, thriving, and successful students today. Here’s how to find the best SEL program for your school.

Important factors to identify when choosing an SEL program for your school

Before you begin comparing SEL programs, it’s important to first review your school. What do you want from SEL? Where are some current areas for improvement?

Understanding the core priorities and needs of your school will help you make more informed decisions about any potential SEL program. 

Key factors in finding the right SEL program for your school:

  • What are your priorities and goals?
  • What ages do you need to support?
  • How will you implement a chosen SEL program?
  • How will you track data and measure results?
  • Do you need additional considerations for special populations?

What are your priorities and goals for SEL?

While some SEL programs address numerous components of social-emotional learning, others will focus on developing specific competencies within SEL. Therefore, it’s important to begin your search by outlining target goals or points of interest for your school. 

What are some of your school’s (or school district’s) strengths and weaknesses? What do you hope to improve through SEL? What do you want to prioritize as the main ideas or targets?

This is a valuable opportunity to solicit feedback from teachers, staff, and parents within your school. They can provide feedback on challenges seen at the classroom level. Or, they can give insight into what priorities would be the most impactful for a new SEL program. Inviting them to collaborate at the beginning of this process also fosters important teacher buy-in. When teachers are more invested in an SEL program, they are more likely to adopt it for their own classrooms.

What ages do you need to support?

Are you looking for an SEL program for an elementary school or a high school? Or, are you trying to find a program for an entire K-12 school district?

The delivery methods and the focus of an SEL program will vary depending on the grades involved. Certain programs cater to a limited range of ages and won’t have curricula available outside of that range. This limited scope might not matter to a single school hosting only a few grade levels.

However, if searching for the best SEL program for middle school or for your K-12 school system, you’ll likely want a program that offers SEL for a full range of grade levels. This enables lessons and methodologies to progress with your students as they move through grade levels and schools. It also fosters more collaboration and a streamlined process between teachers and support staff across the various schools.

How will you implement a chosen SEL program?

Programs differ in how they deliver SEL lessons to students. Some focus on play-based learning whereas others deliver curriculum using lessons or written activities. Others incorporate virtual components that can be used both in the classroom and outside school. 

SEL programs for elementary schools will likely have different implementation needs than SEL programs for middle or high schools. Other methods might be prohibited by factors such as a lack of regular access to individualized technology. 

How will you track data and measure results?

Do you know how you will measure the progress of your new SEL initiative? Some SEL programs offer tools and technology to track your classroom and schoolwide data as you implement the program. This information gives you empirical feedback on what is working, what is a challenge, and where you should allocate resources.

If your school already has a PBIS program, it might be helpful to implement an SEL system that complements the data collection approach that you’re using for behavior support.

If your school doesn’t have an existing way to track the data you will want when monitoring SEL progress, implementing SEL is a useful opportunity for developing a strong system for observing and guiding student progress more broadly.

Do you need additional resources for specific populations?

Social-emotional learning has evolved to incorporate important populations with unique needs. Before reviewing SEL programs, determine if you will need a program that offers additional resources for ESL learners, special education students, students who have experienced trauma, and more.

Questions to ask when reviewing SEL programs for your school district

In addition to the key factors above, here are several additional questions to consider when finding the best SEL program for your school.

  • Is its efficacy supported by data?
  • Does it include professional development and tools to support teachers?
  • Does it have tools to facilitate adoption (like checklists, lesson plans, and worksheets?)
  • Will the program creator offer initial and ongoing support? 
  • Does it have a virtual component for schools still using a hybrid model of teaching?
  • Does it require involvement from caregivers?
    • If caregivers want to be involved in the SEL program, does the program have procedures to support this?
    • If caregivers are not likely to collaborate, can your future program still run successfully without this support component?

3 examples of SEL programs for elementary to high schools

Now that you’ve identified some factors that will benefit your school’s SEL program, it’s time to begin your search. Below are some examples of programs available across different grade levels and delivery models. For a more comprehensive list, check out our guide to 12 SEL programs available for your school district.

The 4Rs 

Standing for reading, writing, respect, and resolution, the 4Rs program is a preK-5 program that helps students develop critical skills like empathy, community building, and conflict resolution. The 4Rs program provides teacher training as well as toolkits to help educators more effectively deliver SEL curriculum. Toolkits include teaching guides and children’s books to complement the program implementation. The company that created the 4Rs program also offers partner programs for grades 6-12. This allows SEL programs for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools in a district to all follow the same cohesive curriculum.

PATHS Program

Originally an SEL program for grades K-5, the PATHS program grew to include a middle school curriculum in 2020 and a new high school program in 2022. Resources include teacher guides and student guides, along with lessons that can be incorporated directly into academic lessons. The program features a library of online resources for teachers that includes self-paced professional training, videos, and more.


Classcraft uses the principles of motivation theory and the power of play to promote positive behaviors, collaboration, resilience, and a more motivated student body. Teachers and administrators can use Classcraft’s data reporting to see where students are struggling, allowing for more targeted interventions and tiered support for students. Schools implementing Classcraft have reported results such as a 91% drop in classroom disruptions and an 85% drop in referrals in one term. The platform is used not only for day-to-day teaching needs, but also important administrative work, such as overseeing an entire schoolwide SEL initiative. It fosters real-world collaboration and positive behavioral changes in the classroom and beyond. 


With so many SEL programs available today, it’s important to begin your search by understanding the unique needs and priorities of your school or district. Follow the questions and tips above to find the best fit for students, teachers, and families!

Photo credit: Google Education

Your toolkit for a successful year

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Social Emotional Learning

Your toolkit for a successful year

FREE SEL TEMPLATES to lighten your workload and effectively manage your classroom

Download now