Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Implementing Connections, a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Program©

When young people experience…community environments rich in the proven developmental supports and opportunities (also called external assets or protective factors) of caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation and contribution, they are much more likely to meet their developmental needs or drives for love, belonging, respect, identity, power, mastery, challenge, and meaning. 

 Benard & Slade, 2009, p. 354

“Social Emotional Learning”…What is it? 

  • SEL teaches life skills and strategies that support academic/professional functioning and healthy brain development.
  • SEL addresses the whole person, including: 
    • Perseverance (e.g., grit)
    • Mindsets (e.g., fixed vs. growth)
    • Social skills (e.g., cultivating empathy, self-awareness, self-advocacy)
    • Learning strategies (e.g., metacognition, goal-setting)
    • Behaviors (e.g., showing up, following through)
  • SEL reduces the impact of risk factors (e.g., poor academic institutions, violent neighborhoods, economic insecurity) and cultivates protective factors (e.g., community connectedness, mentorship, safety).

What is Connections? How does it work?

  • Connections is a tool for storytelling, learning from the experience of others, and collecting wisdom.
  • Participants sit in a circle and are led by a trained facilitator.
  • There are ground rules to support listening and speaking from the heart.
  • Prompts are designed to evoke a personal story surrounding meaningful topics relevant to participants.

How do Connections circles benefit our youth? 

Students will develop their…

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-reflection / emotional intelligence
  • Critical thinking
  • Empathy
  • Listening skills
  • Voice
  • Self-advocacy
  • Well-being 
  • Sense of community / connectedness / belonging
  • Resiliency
  • Mindfulness
  • Ability to regulate emotions / deal with them in a healthy way
  • Comfort with reaching out to others for help
  • Accountability

What Calibrate proposes to implement at minimum:

  • Facilitate weekly Connections circle for youth
  • Train on-site staff who aspire to be Connections facilitators
  • Conduct monthly Connections circle for staff/volunteers
  • Lead quarterly Connections circle open to all stakeholders
  • Integrate Connections with curriculum already being taught at the participating nonprofit.
  • Collect data

What resources are needed to fully implement the program? How does Connections become fully sustainable?

  • Resources and strategy for sustainability will vary from organization to organization, based on the number of youth served and personnel/volunteers.
  • For SEL to be effective,  it must be integrated into the overall organizational culture. This means all stakeholders need to participate in Connections at some level. For example, at least once a year all board members will sit in on a quarterly Connections circle.
  • To ensure sustainability, Calibrate will collect data on the impact of implementing SEL for youth served by the participating nonprofit. 

How will success of the program be measured?

  • Together Calibrate and the participating nonprofit will create a personalized survey to measure SEL gains.
  • Examples of resources Calibrate may draw from to generate an assessment measure: 
    • California State University Northridge, Michael D. Eisner College of Education
    • The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Why Connections over other SEL programs?

  • SEL is typically delivered as a curriculum: think workbooks. In contrast, listening circles provide experiential learning and human engagement
  • Studies show that listening circles:
    • Create a sense of belonging and school connectedness
    • Decrease stress
    • Meet necessary protective and developmental factors
    • Reduce achievement gaps
    • Develop empathy
    • Promote an experience of equality, since hierarchy is eliminated while sitting in a circle format
    • Meet the needs of cultural values such as community/family over individual 
    • Normalize sharing personal stories and build trust
    • Generate the curriculum that is going to be the most helpful to students, by putting students’ stories at the forefront
    • Provide the time and space needed for students to find their voices; for persons who have been systematically oppressed, cultivating their voices is essential for healing and self-advocacy
    • Send the message to its participants that all voices are important and that who they are is enough

Why is it important for youth to develop social/emotional skills? 

  • Underserved and non-White students have a statistically higher chance of experiencing stressors resulting from discrimination, classism, lack of basic resources, and violent neighborhoods
  • Neuropsychologists have established that stress and trauma impact all aspects of the brain that are critical to academic success 
  • In 2011 it was determined that SELs produce higher results than strictly educational interventions:
    • There’s an 11-percentile gain in academic achievement when a student has participated in an SEL program that is combined with a positive community culture and bonding
      • Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) determined that SEL should be “not simply an add-on”; meaning, it needs to be integrated as part of the culture/overall program
  • Empathy is the foundation for making good choices, problem solving, collaboration, and community
  • In 2019, California’s first Surgeon General announced that her top priority is eliminating toxic stress in young people
  • In 2015, President Obama signed accountability to SEL into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) 
  • In 2013, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) published evidence of SEL outcomes, substantiating the need for SEL programs 

When does SEL truly work?

  • Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) determined that SEL should be “not simply an add-on” and is most effective when implemented as part of a system-wide culture (Hamedani & Darling-Hammond, 2015, p. 13) 
  • Likewise, Farrington et al. (2012) found that approaching SEL in isolation is not effective in achieving lasting results; school/organizational culture plays a critical role in “shaping students’ experiences and performance” (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2009; see also Farrington et al., 2012, pp. 75-76) 
  • Benard and Slade (2009) concurred that SEL in isolation is not enough; interventions must be embedded in the three primary environmental protective factors of caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation, to have true and lasting developmental changes. 
  • Schools that work towards cultures that support the whole person, for both students and staff, not only boost student academic achievement, but also reduce absenteeism, risk-taking behavior, bullying, and staff turnover (Slade & Griffith, 2013) 
  • A holistic school culture can combat the negative effects a teen might be experiencing outside of school: “A school can create a coherent environment, a climate, more potent than any single influence—teachers, class, family, neighborhood, so potent that for at least six hours a day it can override almost everything else in the lives of children” (Edmonds, 1986, as cited in Benard, 2006, slide 8) 

What are examples of data that exists on the efficacy of listening circles? 

  1. Students who participate in listening circles (“Council”) improve in SEL skills and behaviors that support learning (e.g., attention), and report a sense of community connectedness. Students attribute the success of the program to feeling that adults in their community care about them and hold them to high expectations.  
    • Dietsch, B., & Abudullah-Welsh, N. (2007). The Los Angeles Unified School District’s Council Practitioners Center Herb Alpert Foundation evaluation report 2006-2007. Unpublished manuscript, WestEd.
    • Dietsch, B., & Abudullah-Welsh, N. (2009a). Los Angeles Unified School District Council Practitioners Center Herb Alpert Foundation 2007-08 evaluation report. Unpublished manuscript, WestEd.
    • Dietsch, B., & Abudullah-Welsh, N. (2009b). Los Angeles Unified School District Council Practitioners Center Herb Alpert Foundation 2008-09 evaluation report. Unpublished manuscript, WestEd.
  2. Listening circles provide an effective structure and process for fostering a wide range of attributes, such as: self-esteem and a sense of belonging, safety, and community; revitalizing cultural awareness, connection, and participation; engaging teens, as they have space to discuss topics that are relevant to them; and, developing skills in conflict resolution, empathy, respect, listening, self-awareness, and coping.
    • Patchell, B. A., Robbins, L. K., Hoke, M. M., & Lowe, J. (2012). Circular model of cultural tailoring: An intervention adaption. Journal of Theory Construction & Testing, 16(2), 45-51. Retrieved from
    • Running Wolf, P., & Rickard, J. A. (2003). Talking circles: A Native American approach to experiential learning. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 31(1), 39-43. Retrieved from
    • Wilbur, J. R., Wilbur, M., Garrett, M. T., & Yuhas, M. (2001). Talking circles: Listen, or your tongue will make you deaf. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 26(4), 368-384. doi:10.1080/01933920108413785
  3. Ten years after graduation from high school, a random sample of 13 African Americans — 9 females and 4 males — were surveyed regarding the impact on their lives from a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) listening circle program (“Connections”), which had been conducted by staff at their Los Angeles Title I charter high school, 1 day each week for 85 minutes, and which set a school-wide culture. Participants in the survey pointed to listening circles setting an effective tone for their school culture, cultivating their SEL skills (e.g., emotional regulation, self-advocacy, self-awareness, accountability, empathy, listening/communication skills), and providing protective factors that supported them in achieving markers of success (e.g., all participants completed one or more post-secondary degrees and maintained long-term jobs and relationships).
    • Gilbert, M. (2016). Hear my heart: Listening circles provide protective factors for underserved teens. Unpublished manuscript, California State University.  
  4. California prison inmates are trained in a listening circle practice (“Council”); in surveys, participants reported a reduction in PTSD symptoms as well as pointed to significant improvements in numerous areas, such as mindfulness, empathy, resilience, emotional regulation, ability to connect with others, mental health, active listening, and overall coping skills. 
    • Calhoun, S. (2018). Inmate council program: Round 3, year 1 findings. Unpublished manuscript, RAND Corporation, University of California. 

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