How Would Covey Organize an SEL School Initiative? Strategically Planning for the Usual and the Unusual

How Would Covey Organize an SEL School Initiative?  Strategically Planning for the Usual and the Unusual

Dear Colleagues,


   I hope everyone is doing well as many school districts are either beginning to start school, or preparing their staff for the same thing.

   I spent most of this week planning and then providing a virtual presentation and consultation with a district’s newly formed Social-Emotional Learning Task Force. Representing all of the schools in the district, the administrators, teachers, and related service professionals on the Task Force were focused on (a) developing an SEL mission statement, and (b) planning the multi-tiered actions needed to positively impact every preschool through high school student in the district, while embedding social-emotional learning practices into all staff interactions.

   As I do these strategic planning consultations nationwide, it is not surprising to find that many educators:

  • Have only a vague or generalized notion of what social-emotional learning is;
  • Do not know the implementation science that drives students’ social-emotional learning—from both a psychological and a pedagogical perspective;
  • Focus more on programs rather than practices, and activities rather than student and staff outcomes;
  • Do not know what social-emotional learning practices already exist in other schools in their own district, and whether these practices are truly providing a “return on their investment;” and
  • Do not know how to use strategic planning principles and practices to facilitate collegial buy-in, to seamlessly integrate new activities with existing ones, and to produce real, meaningful, and sustainable results that are maintained over time.

   Significantly, this was just the beginning of the journey for this Task Force. And yet, they still felt a self-imposed pressure to begin implementing “something” as quickly as possible.

   While some of this pressure was pandemic-related, I have seen time and time again, Task Forces say, “We need to involve our colleagues and get their buy-in” . . . while advocating their own agendas, and prematurely pushing their own approaches into others’ classrooms.

   For me, strategic planning is the key to a successful school- or district-wide initiative. Indeed, there is a gigantic body of strategic planning science. While the science is not always definitive, when an evidence-based blueprint is used, the results are usually positive and impactful.

   For this Blog, in the context of planning and implementing a school- or district-wide social-emotional learning initiative, I would like to outline an evidence-based blueprint using Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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Using the Seven Habits to Guide Strategic Planning

   One of the most popular business and self-help books in history, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was first published in 1989. Focused on how to attain goals in a principled and ethical way, the 7 Habits have been applied to any number of professional and personal contexts.

   To apply the 7 Habits to the strategic planning of a social-emotional learning initiative, they will be connected to seven specific action steps.

   They are as follows:

  • Be Proactive—Do Your Homework
  • Begin with the End in Mind—Specify Your Desired Outcomes
  • Put First Things First—Go Slow to Go Fast
  • Think Win-Win—Honor Your Colleagues
  • Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood—Listen to the Children
  • Synergize—Set Your Mission, Role, and Function
  • Sharpen the Saw—Resource, Train, and Support

   So, here we go. . .

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Habit/Action 1: Be Proactive—Do Your Homework

   At the beginning of a strategic planning process, educators need to:

  • Complete a Data-Based Up-to-Date Status Evaluation.  This involves the collection and analysis of (at least) the past three years’ worth of information and outcomes related to the initiative being focused on. This is done so that statistical trend analyses can be completed.

For a social-emotional learning initiative, these data should be collected from each participating school, and it should investigate both assets (e.g., climate and safety surveys, academic engagement and student prosocial interactions observations, student and staff focus group interview results), as well as deficits (e.g., discipline referrals to the office, incidents of teasing and bullying, law enforcement involvement).

The reason for looking at both prosocial as well as anti-social behaviors is that (a) the absence of a problem does not necessarily reflect the presence of any strengths; and (b) the best way to progress in life is to build on your strengths.

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  • Complete a Needs Assessment and Gap Analysis. The Needs Assessment uses the results of the Status Evaluation above to determine the multifaceted student, staff, and organizational needs related to the initiative. This is especially guided by the Gap Analysis which identifies the gaps that exist between the current status of the school, and where it wants, expects, or must go.

For a social-emotional learning initiative, this should focus on the data collected during the Status Evaluation—specifying the measurable assets that the school wants to attain or improve upon, and the measurable deficits that the school wants to decrease or eliminate.

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  • Complete a SWOT Analysis. A SWOT Analysis is a strategic planning process where schools identify their (a) Strengths, Assets, and Accomplishments; (b) Weaknesses and Limitations; (c) Opportunities and Resources; and (d) Threats and Barriers related to the initiative.  A SWOT Analysis typically looks at both internal organizational (school and district) characteristics, and external situational or setting (community, state, national) characteristics.

For a social-emotional learning initiative, the SWOT analysis helps to identify the presence and results of past professional development activities, social-emotional learning curricula and practices, multi-tiered enhancements for struggling students, specialized personnel and resources used, and parental and community outreach or involvement activities.

Many times, in districts where there is not deep communication and collaboration, some schools are surprised to discover—due to the SWOT analysis—the successful social-emotional practices that already exist in other schools that they can easily adopt.

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Habit/Action 2: Begin with the End in Mind—Specify Your Desired Outcomes

   Many years ago, when I became the Director of the State Improvement Grant at the Arkansas Department of Education, I gave an incoming address to my new staff.

   During that presentation, I emphasized:

“Activity does not count as Much as Outcomes.”

   What I was communicating was that I was less concerned about the number of calls, visits, or consultations that they completed, and far more focused on the student, staff, and school outcomes that we could help facilitate.

   Others call this “The Activity Trap.”

   The point is: Too many schools plan their initiatives as a bunch of activities (many that have never been field-tested and validated with the types of students who walk their hallways), rather than focusing on what they want their students to eventually do due to the initiative.

   As Covey would emphasize, once you determine—at the beginning of your planning processes—your short- and long-term outcomes, you can work backwards and evaluate proposed goals, actions, practices, and activities with the question:

“Will these goals, actions, practices, and activities help our school to attain these outcomes in a cost-, time-, and resource-effective way?

   Beginning “with the end in mind” becomes a litmus test with which to objectively evaluate all suggestions and recommendations.

   But. . . beginning “with the end in mind” also is a litmus test as to whether the Team planning the initiative can successfully get “on the same page” through consistent communication, collaboration, and consensus.

   For a social-emotional learning initiative, there are many possible “ends in mind.”  Among the broad target areas are the following:

  • School safety and prevention,
  • Positive school culture and classroom climate,
  • Classroom discipline and management,
  • Student engagement and self-management,
  • Health, Mental Health, and Wellness
  • Teasing and bullying,
  • Harassment and physical aggression,
  • Office discipline referrals and suspensions/expulsions,
  • Disproportionality and effective approaches to replace zero tolerance policies, and
  • Preventing and responding to students’ mental health status and needs.

   The possible goals areas (that then need well-defined outcomes) include those below.

   Student Goals:

   Student social, emotional, and behavioral competency and self-management as demonstrated by:

  • High levels of effective interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills and behaviors by all students;
  • High levels of critical thinking, reasoning, and social-emotional application skills and behaviors by all students; and
  • High levels of academic engagement and academic achievement for all students.

   Staff Goals:

  • High levels of effective instruction and classroom management across all teachers and instructional support staff; and
  • High levels of teacher knowledge, skill, and confidence relative to analyzing why students are academically and behaviorally underachieving, unresponsive, or unsuccessful, and to implementing strategic or intensive academic or behavioral instruction or intervention to address their needs.

   School/District Goals:

  • High levels of the consultative resources and capacity needed to provide functional assessment leading to strategic and intensive instructional and intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs to academically and behaviorally underachieving, unresponsive, or unsuccessful students;
  • High levels of parent and community outreach and involvement in areas and activities that support students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and proficiency;
  • High levels of positive school and classroom climate, and low levels of school and classroom discipline problems that disrupt the classroom and/or require office discipline referrals, school suspensions or expulsions, or placements in alternative schools or settings; and
  • High levels of student success that result in high school graduation and post-secondary school success.

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Habit/Action 3: Put First Things First—Go Slow to Go Fast

   Every important district or school initiative should have a Leadership or Planning Team that has representatives from every constituency likely to be touched by the initiative. This often occurs when Superintendents guide their districts through each five-year strategic planning cycle. And it should certainly be true when a district commits to a social-emotional learning initiative that will be systemically integrated into the fabric of a school’s climate, classrooms, and clientele.

   Critically, who is chosen to be on the Social-Emotional Learning Leadership Team (SLT) is paramount, as the Team must represent not just positions, experience, expertise, and perspectives, but also district and community demographics and diversity.

   As school climate and social-emotional learning necessarily involve issues of gender, geography, race, socio-economic and multi-cultural status, sexual orientation, and disability, the SLT Team needs to be chosen with an eye toward “equity-based representation.”

   That is, Team membership should not necessarily reflect just district staff or community demographics. If that occurs, it is likely that there will be very few staff with disabilities and/or from black, brown, and other multicultural backgrounds on the Team. If we are truly committed to giving voice to staff (and students) from these backgrounds, it is not appropriate to put these few individuals in a potential role where they feel that they have to speak “for their people.”

   Indeed, if we are truly committed to addressing the social-emotional learning needs and wants of students with disabilities and from minority and multi-cultural backgrounds (the latter who may be the “majority” of students in our schools), we need to disproportionately weight our SLT Teams with representatives from these groups.

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   With the SLT Team chosen, Team leaders need to attend to long-term development of positive relationships, trust, and effective decision-making processes within the Team.

   While Team (and district) leaders certainly want the planned outcomes and products expected to emerge from the Team, they also must recognize that:

“Process drives Product.”

   That is, the relationships and effective group processes that are nurtured and sustained within any team predict not just the “Action Plans” produced, but the team’s commitment (a) to ensuring that these Action Plans are of high quality and strategic importance, and (b) to publicly committing to support and implement these Plans.

   Thus, SLT Team leaders need to “go slow to go fast” by investing the time needed to build team members’ relationships, communication, collaboration, and consensus-building skills and processes.

   This will facilitate the development of sound Action Plans. . . another “slow” area that many planning teams ignore . . . as they either try to write their Action Plan prematurely, or they do not write an effective Action Plan at all.

   Briefly, an effective Action Plan identifies the goals and outcomes of the initiative (see the outcomes above) using a SMART format. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.

   More concretely, the Action Plan includes the:

  • Specific goals or targets;
  • Evidence-based methods or approaches that will be used;
  • Sequence of activities needed to fully implement the service, support, strategy, or program area from start to finish;
  • Personnel needed to directly or indirectly help implement or support the initiative;
  • Funding, materials, professional development or training, and technological resources needed (and their respective sources);
  • Approaches to formatively and summatively evaluate implementation or treatment integrity;
  • Operational definitions of what short-term success will look like, and how it will be formatively evaluated; and
  • Operational definitions of what long-term success will look like for each specific goal or outcome, and how they will be summatively evaluated. 

   Critically, the Action Plan must explicitly address issues related to gender, geography, race, socio-economic and multi-cultural status, sexual orientation, and disability, and it must be multi-tiered in nature. That is, the Plan should include the multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and programs that address the needs of all students—from those who are gifted, talented, and/or excelling, as well as those students who are at-risk, struggling, and/or challenging. These latter students usually are already known to the school or district, although additional students in need may emerge from the Needs Assessment and Gap Analysis.

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   When SLT Teams move too fast, they potentially undermine the quality, effectiveness, and outcomes of their entire initiative. Indeed, when district or school initiatives fail, administrative leaders think twice about embarking on such initiatives in the future.

   But more importantly, when these initiatives fail, staff come to believe that such initiatives are not worth the time and the effort . . . and sometimes, they blame the administration for the effort’s demise.

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Habit/Action 4: Think Win-Win—Honor Your Colleagues

   In order to initially generate the commitment and energy to sustain a multi-year, multi-faceted systemic initiative, everyone needs to feel that a “win-win” potential exists.

   While this rarely reaches a 100% consensus, initiatives must begin with the full, clear, and public commitment of at least 80% of everyone involved to the Action Plan. While this starts with the SLT Team’s systematic involvement of these different constituencies in the Action Planning process, it especially requires reaching out to instructional, support, and administrative colleagues.

   This takes time and effort, and it is best guided by asking instructional, support, and administrative staff what they need to feel involved, and how they want the Action Plan approved.

   This is yet another example of “Going slow to go Fast,” and it involves sharing the results of all of the Habit/Actions discussed above.

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Habit/Action 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood—Listen to the Children

   Piggy-backing on Habit/Action 5, initiative planning must also involve the children and adolescents who eventually will be targeted by many initiative activities, and whose social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes will determine the success of the process.

   Too often, we forget to “Listen to the Children.” In most cases, I find this to be an oversight, and not a slight—although some educators do undervalue student input. . . or they are afraid of it.

   The use of student surveys, focus groups and interviews, observations, and action planning feedback are all essential to a sound Action Plan and the potential success of a multi-year initiative.

   Ultimately, on a social, emotional, and behavioral level, when students support, reinforce, and guide the implementation of critical social-emotional learning practices, everyone wins.

   Said a different way:

“When You Want Student Outcomes, Let the Students Do the Heavy Lifting.”

   As a case in point, Sabrina Capoli, an incoming high school senior and Student Representative to the New Jersey State Board of Education focused her August, 2020 monthly Board report on the reopening of school in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

   She stated:

“The New Jersey Department of Education has been committed to promoting social and emotional learning in schools in the past, but I believe that I speak on behalf of every student in New Jersey when I stress that this commitment is more important now than ever before. This pandemic has taken everything from us. For many of us, this virus has stolen precious moments from our hands that we will never get back.
“Teachers, staff and administrators, I call upon you to recognize that you may be able to make up for lost time in future years, but we, the students, will not. Proms, musicals, athletic seasons, graduations—gone. This will be hard to recover from in the coming school year. It is difficult to look at this year with an open mind, or heart for that matter.
“For this reason, students will need to ease back into their normal routine, while staff ensures that they are not overwhelmed with the amount of schoolwork. Along with that, many surveyed students requested academic breaks throughout the day to help reduce stress. This could go hand in hand with another type of break: mask breaks. Implementing a designated time where students can be outside without a mask may reduce the chance of those students removing it during the school day, while promoting responsible decision-making.
“Other aspects of responsible decision-making will include practicing good hygiene and social distancing. Posting song lyrics on bathroom walls that take 30 seconds to sing can help students wash their hands effectively, and purchasing decals placed six feet apart for the hallways may help encourage social distancing.
“When we return to school in the fall, this may be the first time some students will have interacted with their peers in almost six months. This separation most likely has stunted the growth students have made in important aspects of social-emotional learning, such as “social skills” and “pro-social behaviors.” In a survey I conducted that reached almost every county in New Jersey, around 79% of students reacted negatively to their online learning experience. Of that 79%, 91% of those students blamed their poor experience on lack of socialization.
“To ensure that students are getting their social “fill,” classroom or small group discussions could be prioritized in class, and even used as a learning tool, similar to a Socratic seminar or a class debate. This collaboration will also help students later in life when they enter the workforce.
“Sadly, some students, for varying reasons, may not be able to return to in-person education for the 2020-2021 school year. These students must not be forgotten. Live Zoom calls, or daily messages from staff, help foster an inclusive learning atmosphere which will help promote a sense of self-confidence and a feeling of significance for these to completely remote students.
“Other helpful resources can include guidance counselor sessions, therapy dog visits (which we have at my school and are awesome) and general awareness encouraged by staff, in terms of mental health and the available resources.
“In order to sustain the mental, social and emotional health of the young people of New Jersey, staff members—the people we rely on for guidance—will need to be proactive. A student’s mental health dictates every action they make, from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep.
“The six-foot divide between us will not divide the students of New Jersey. The bonds we make in school are too strong to let spatial distance separate our hearts. This coming school year will look very different from any other, but I am excited to see where it may take us, students, staff and New Jerseyans alike."

   Here are some additional student voices describing their pandemic experiences:

   Clearly, students’ voices must be continuously, consistently, and systematically heard from the beginning and throughout any social-emotional learning initiative. Implicitly or explicitly, schools should not be “doing things” to students, they should be collaborating, communicating, and carrying activities out with students.

   Similar to Habit/Action 4 above, if students are not involved and committed to a social-emotional learning initiative, they will not engage. And if they do not engage, all of the planning, training, and resourcing will go for naught.

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Habit/Action 6: Synergize—Set Your Mission, Role, and Function

   As part of a new district-wide initiative, many strategic planning experts believe that an Initiative Mission Statement provides a helpful “compass” to keep the initiative on track.

   Typically an extension of the district’s Mission Statement, an Initiative Mission Statement:

  • Specifies the reason(s) for the initiative’s existence and the target populations and/or beneficiaries;
  • Specifies the actions and/or activities that define and operationalize the initiative’s existence and the scope and nature of those programs;
  • Specifies the outcomes of the initiative’s actions and/or activities, and describes what the target populations will look like when the initiative has accomplished its goals; and
  • Guides the development of the initiative’s general and specific objectives, timelines, and activities, acting (once again) as a compass for the semester to semester, month to month, and week to week interactions of targeted staff, students, and significant others.

   From the Mission Statement and embedded in the initiative’s Action Plan, the Roles and Functions of the different training, supervision, implementation, and evaluation “players” in the process is important. When written in a formal document, this helps to publicize and clarify who is involved in what parts of the initiative. This also serves to identify areas of shared and solo responsibility and accountability, who the “Go-To” people are (and are not), and where important lines of communication, engagement, and collaboration need to be.

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Habit/Action 7: Sharpen the Saw—Resource, Train, and Support

   When strategic initiatives consciously “sharpen the saw,” they use their Action Plans to prepare for the initiative prior to its formal “roll-out” or implementation, as well as to periodically review, reflect, rejoice, recalibrate, and renew the energy and commitment to the initiative’s goals and outcomes.

   In the former area, too many initiatives fail from the beginning because the district or school has not spent the money and quality time (sometimes an entire year prior to the initiative’s formal roll-out) making sure that (a) the resources are available, (b) the training and coaching has been effectively completed, (c) the staff (and others) are prepared and motivated to implement their parts of the multi-tiered process with integrity and intensity, and (d) a supportive process of progressive and continuous improvement is explicitly evident as a guiding principle.

   In the latter area, formal evaluation, analysis and reflection is needed in every major area of implementation or student, staff, and school outcome. Periodic celebrations are planned, and recalibrated “mid-course corrections” are needed so that everyone shares and commemorates the successes, while realizing that, when miscalculations or “wrong turns” have occurred, Team Leaders are willing to acknowledge and change them for the better.

   In these ways, initiative participants do not burn out, they have opportunities to renew their energy, and they can take heart in the transparency of the process and the dedication to growth and success.

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   As noted in the Introduction to this Blog article, many districts and schools inadvertently begin their social-emotional learning initiatives in a manner that decreases their probability of both short-term and long-term success. This is because initiative leaders and planners:

  • Have only a vague or generalized notion of what social-emotional learning is;
  • Do not know the implementation science that drives students’ social-emotional learning—from both a psychological and a pedagogical perspective;
  • Focus more on programs rather than practices, and activities rather than student and staff outcomes;
  • Do not know what social-emotional learning practices already exist in other schools in their own district, and whether these practices are truly providing a “return on their investment;” and
  • Do not know how to use strategic planning principles and practices to facilitate collegial buy-in, to seamlessly integrate new activities with existing ones, and to produce real, meaningful, and sustainable results that are maintained over time.

   To avoid these pitfalls, we have emphasized the importance of (a) strategic planning as the key to any successful school- or district-wide initiative; and (b) using an evidence-based strategic planning blueprint.

   In presenting this blueprint, in the context of planning and implementing a school- or district-wide social-emotional learning initiative, we built on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by identifying critical strategic planning principles and practices.

   The evidence-based blueprint consisted of the following Habits and Actions:

  • Be Proactive—Do Your Homework
  • Begin with the End in Mind—Specify Your Desired Outcomes
  • Put First Things First—Go Slow to Go Fast
  • Think Win-Win—Honor Your Colleagues
  • Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood—Listen to the Children
  • Synergize—Set Your Mission, Role, and Function
  • Sharpen the Saw—Resource, Train, and Support

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   I hope that this “strategic planning primer” has been helpful to you.

   Clearly, strategic planning is an important process that helps maximize the success of districts, schools, and specific initiatives. While it does take time (and the expertise of those who know how to guide it), its ability to motivate student and staff buy-in, and produce quality implementation resulting in short- and long-term success are well-documented.

   I appreciate, as always, the time that you invest in reading these Blogs, and your dedication to your students, your colleagues, and the educational process— especially in these challenging times.

   Please feel free to send me your thoughts and questions. 

   And please know that—even during this time when many schools are beginning the school year in different and creative ways—I continue to virtually train, consult, and “add value” to schools and districts across the country.

   I would love to work with your school or district. Contact me at any time.