By Lauren Chism, EdD

This past spring we dismissed school looking forward to a much-anticipated weeklong break. There were the usual fist bumps, high-fives, and hugs from students as we said goodbye. Had we known what was waiting for us after Spring Break, our goodbyes may have looked a bit different.

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust teachers and administrators into the roles of online crisis educators overnight. The response of educators nationwide has been nothing short of extraordinary. While it has been challenging, we are better educators because of this experience. When the pandemic begins to wane, and social distancing expectations lifted, we will face the harsh reality of preparing our campuses to reopen. The students and staff we will welcome back are not the same people we waved goodbye to this spring.

There is no textbook or manual on how to reopen schools so abruptly closed in the worldwide crisis. We can rely on education research to help guide us down this new path. Social-emotional learning (SEL) will play an integral part in the successful reopening of schools. Right now, we must prepare to meet both the academic and social-emotional needs of students and staff because this reopening is not at all what we typically experience each August.

The Role of Principal in Successful SEL
The importance of a balanced approach to academic learning and social-emotional competency development is key for school administrators (Cohen, 2006). School leaders must prepare to support the post-pandemic students and staff with a balanced approach of social-emotional learning (SEL) and the gentle return to rigorous academic instruction. Effective principals can define priorities focused on the school’s central mission and gain support for these priorities from all stakeholders (Leithwood & Montgomery, 1982).

There will be obstacles we will be able to predict and challenges we will not see coming as we move towards the reopening of our schools. It is vital for us to not lose sight of the importance and impact of our leadership as the school principal. Our actions will continue to be the most influential factor in ensuring schools are effective (Leithwood & Montgomery, 1982).

Trust Drives Strong SEL Instruction
Trust in school matters. As administrators, we need to understand relationships with teachers built on trust will result in more effective SEL lessons and activities for our students. SEL can be emotionally draining work for educators, and our students will be returning to classrooms with social and emotional needs like we have rarely seen before. These lessons have the potential to bring about unanticipated, emotional experiences for staff as they work to build social-emotional competencies in our students.

Teacher trust in principals is most influenced by leadership practices which teachers interpret as indicators of competence, consistency and reliability, openness, respect and integrity (Hanford and Leithwood, 2013). It is critical we build and facilitate trusting relationships with teachers to support them through the emotionally-laden process that SEL brings to our classrooms.

When teachers and staff experience an absence of trust, they experience anxiety, alienation and isolation from their fellow staff members in the school (Tschannen, 2001). By focusing on building trust, we can positively impact the campus and support teachers in the social-emotional learning lessons and activities that will be a vital element to helping students’ successful return to our schools.

The Principal’s Emotions
According to The Emotions of Leadership: The Role of Emotional Intelligence, effective leaders must possess and bring a set of emotional capabilities just like the cognitive abilities required for the role of principal (George, 2000). The connections between how a leader manages their own emotions and how they can use their social and emotional competencies to support their teachers in the teaching of SEL lessons is important. Leaders need to assess and develop their emotional intelligence as an essential component of leadership development (Brussman, 2014).

In 2018, The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) recommended school districts strengthen adult SEL competencies to extend the positive impact of SEL programs (2018). This means that by not including SEL support for principals even the best SEL program may come up short in student results. Being committed to our growth in emotional intelligence is a high-yield leadership development lever that will help our school’s SEL programs thrive. We must put in the work to develop our social and emotional competencies. As leaders, we need to reflect on how our emotions affect our leadership, and develop our emotional competencies so our leadership positively impacts our campus.

SEL Program Barriers and What the Principal Can Do
“School leaders must be able to identify what needs to happen within an initiative just as much as they need to be able to identify what needs to be avoided” (CASEL, 2005). The Safe and Sound Guide for Educators states there are eight barriers school principals need to be prepared for, and cautiously navigate in leading their school’s SEL instruction:

  • The program is not conceptualized clearly.
  • The program and the needs it addresses are not a central focus of the school.
  • Staff are overburdened and overwhelmed.
  • The school lacks adequate staff development and continuing support for program implementation.
  • Leadership and support from school and district administrators is lacking.
  • The selected program does not address identified school and student needs.
  • The school or district has limited capacity to carry out the initiative successfully (e.g., limited availability of people, resources, and time).
  • Program implementation is insufficiently supervised and monitored.

By knowing what we need to see in our SEL programs and what to avoid, we can help students acclimate to the return of face-to-face teaching and learning. We can plan to address and effectively navigate through these common SEL barriers, creating the greatest opportunity for our SEL instruction to support students’ return to our schools.

Use Data-Driven Decisions to Improve SEL
A high impact lever to the successful implementation of SEL programs is the campus leader’s ability to assess, monitor, adjust, and communicate the effectiveness of the SEL program. CASEL recommends formal data on school climate, student social and emotional competence, and teachers’ implementation of the adopted SEL program be combined with informal reports from coaches and school leaders to provide a picture of the program’s effectiveness (CASEL, 2013). It will be critical to assess the social and emotional needs of our students once they return to our campuses.

Before we reunite with the students and staff we were so abruptly separated from, we must accept that our leadership is the most impactful factor in the success of our school. The reopening of our schools is an opportunity to start with the right foot forward. The first step we take should be a step toward the restoration of social and emotional competencies that the COVID-19 crisis has damaged. Our teachers will need us to help guide them in meeting our students’ needs with empathy and high-quality SEL instruction. Our students will need SEL instruction to help them make sense of this new world. When our SEL instruction is thriving, our students will flourish, and academic gains will follow.

Dr. Lauren Chism is the principal of Cannaday Elementary in Mesquite ISD. She is a recent graduate of the Southern Methodist University EdD Education Leadership program and a TEPSA member.

Brusman, M. (2014). Leadership development through emotional intelligence and meditation. Talent Development, 68(9), 70-71. Retrieved from

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, (2005). Safe and Sound: An Educator’s Guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs-Illinois Edition. Chicago IL, Retrieved from

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. ( 2013). Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs. Retrieved from

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2018). Social-Emotional Learning defined. Retrieved from

Cohen, J. (2006). Social, emotional, ethical, and academic education: Creating a climate for learning, participation in democracy, and well-being. Harvard Educational Review, 76(2), 201–237.

George, J. (2000). Emotions and Leadership: The Role of Emotional Intelligence. Human Relations, 53(8), 1027–1055.

Handford, V., & Leithwood, K. (2013). Why teachers trust school leaders. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(2), 194–212.

Leithwood, K., & Montgomery, D. (1982). The Role of the Elementary School Principal in Program Improvement. Review of Educational Research, 52(3), 309–339.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2001). Collaboration and the need for trust. Journal of Educational Administration, 39(4), 308–331.

TEPSA Leader, Summer 2020, Vol 33, No. 3

Copyright © 2020 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 5,900 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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