Implementing SEL in Your School/District:
Why Student Success Depends on It

Andrea Samadi

Andrea Samadi
author and program developer at Achieveit360

Release date: November 19, 2019



Andrea Samadi is a former middle school teacher who began working with success principles with students in the late 1990s. Her podcast series, “Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning” provides tools, resources, and ideas to implement proven strategies backed by the most current neuroscience research to help you achieve the long-term gains of implementing a Social and Emotional Learning program in your school or workplace.


School districts and government agencies across the country are seeing the importance of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in the classroom. SEL is an essential factor in providing students with the knowledge, attitude, and skills they need to succeed in school, careers, and life. In this podcast, Samadi discusses tools, resources, and ideas to implement proven strategies backed by the most current neuroscience research to help you achieve the long-term gains of implementing a SEL program in your school or district.


Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.

Andrea Samadi: Research shows now that students with strong SEL health demonstrate self-control, they communicate well, they problem solve, they're empathetic, respectful, grateful, gritty, and optimistic. And we also know that neuroscience has advanced our understanding of these SEL skills.

Narrator: You just heard Andrea Samadi, an author and program developer at Ms. Samadi consults with schools on training and implementing social and emotional learning programs, and is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here's your host, Pam Austin.

Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you with us, once again. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning®, located in Dallas, TX. We will be discussing the “why” behind the need to integrate social and emotional learning strategies, activities, or programs in your school or district. Today, we are honored to have with us Andrea Samadi, who is an author and program developer at, where she consults with schools on training and implementing social emotional learning programs. Welcome, Andrea. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in education?

Andrea Samadi: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast today, Pam. This is fun, for sure. Well, growing up I always had an interest in teaching and helping other people to understand things that I knew I could explain. My first job was teaching swimming lessons and then I taught first aid in the schools through our local parks and rec department. And there were jobs like this where I was teaching something to pay for university and teacher's college. And, then when the Columbine tragedy happened, it was one of the catalysts that made me decide to move to the U.S. from Canada, determined to somehow make an impact with education. So, I've never really left the domain of teaching and learning and I feel deeply invested to the field today.

PA: Wow. So, your experiences in teaching and helping others led to an overlapping passion. Well, I'm certain that you will be making connections for us. The social emotional learning connection that is, please share with us how social emotional learning became so important to you. For those of you who don't know, SEL, social emotional learning, is that process of developing self-awareness and self-control in those very important interpersonal skills that are vital for school work and success in life in general. Tell us more about that.

AS: Yeah, definitely Pam, I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when SEL became important to me. It's one of those memorable moments of truth that you never forget. And, if you think back, when I was teaching, I started my career in education in the late '90s as a classroom teacher and I just felt overwhelmed and frustrated because I didn't have any resources at all to help me manage and teach my students. It was me in the classroom and that buzzer on the wall whenever I needed help. My first teaching assignment was a behavioral class, so I was often reaching for that buzzer and sometimes no one came. And, so, I had to be really creative to hold my students' attention, let alone teach what was required. And I discovered social emotional learning by chance through a motivational speaker who I actually met through my next door neighbor. And it was one of those moments when you just know that things are never going to be the same again. It was a clear moment of truth. It hit me in the pit of my stomach.

I saw this speaker working with this group of teens and, Pam, it's kind of interesting, you're in New Orleans. And that's where these teens were presenting. They were onstage at the Louisiana Superdome, and they were presenting the skills that they were learning with this speaker in front of the group of the audience, who was all taking notes.

And, interestingly enough, I'm going to New Orleans this weekend. So, it even feels more impactful for me to recall the story. So, there was this group of teens and there was this one teen that was ready for his part and he had a really difficult time getting the words out. You know, we've all been there, when we're speaking and we either forget we'd go blank and the speaker went behind that teen and he just rubbed his back in a way that helped him get through and he was able to get his words out.

And I know now that this is a brain strategy, the fastest way to calm someone down is to pat them on the back because there's so many nerve endings back there. And I'm sure the speaker didn't know this back then, but he instinctively knew what to do with these kids to change their results. And that's exactly what happened. I watched these 12 kids, some of them had C grades and they went to A grades. If they were on a sports team and they were the benchwarmer, they went to the starting lineup. And their personal lives improved all just from changing the way that they were thinking, their attitudes, and their mindset.

And I was blown away. I knew that this was important stuff and that we were on to something because I was really struggling to make an impact on the students in my classroom. And then there were these 12 teens that were talking about these unusual results after only a few months of working with lessons that mirrored like what we now know to be growth mindset or self-awareness or self-regulated learning.

And when I say it hit me in the stomach, I actually started bawling my eyes out when, when I saw the speaker rub the kid’s back because that speaker was known to not have a lot of emotion. And that's why it's called social and emotional skills. You know, you bring out the emotions and it just hit me in the pit of my stomach. I just will never forget it. And I had to, actually, once the kids had finished speaking, I have to go sell books at the back of the room. And we were working with all these celebrities at the time and I was the one with the blotchy red face. You know, everyone was like, "What happened to that one?" “Well, she just figured out what she's doing with the rest of her life.”

PA: Isn't it amazing how one experience can lead to another? It makes such an impactful resonance on you. Right? You know, you talk about the skills that the students have learned, you know, I can assure you every teacher wants their students to be able to develop these types of skills. You've talked about the academics, they're moving from C to A students, every teacher's dream. So, why do you think teaching SEL in our classrooms is so important to developing our future generations? What skills do you think are missing right now?

AS: Absolutely. So, it's the social and interpersonal skills, the emotional and academic cognitive skills that have been missing. And there's such a high need to infuse these skills into the students' everyday experience. So, let me break it down a little bit. For the social and interpersonal skills, it's things like how to navigate social situations or resolving conflicts and showing respect toward others. For emotional skills, it's recognizing and managing one's own emotions. Something that I learned early on that I had to figure out. Empathy, the ability to understand the emotions and perspectives of others and the ability to cope with frustration, disappointments, and stress.

And then for the cognitive side, the academic skills, these are the core skills our brain uses to think, read, remember, and pay attention. Like focus, setting goals, organizing, and problem solving. These are all skills that are missing, but from a brain development perspective, if we look at the prefrontal cortex that holds the executive functions of our brain, like planning, organization, and judgment, this part of the brain isn't fully developed until the age of 25 for females and 28 in males.

So, some of these cognitive skills need guidance from us as parents or teachers. And the same with the social and emotional. These are all teachable skills that we've got to hold our students and our children just hold them through til they've mastered these skills on their own because they translate into the workplace. And from speaking to leaders in SEL over the past few months, this is the questions that I ask guests on my podcast all say that these skills are missing because of the change in times. Like, right now, we're so reliant on technology. And we have less face-to-face social interaction and we learn from each other from our face-to-face experiences. So, students and educators need to continually work on these skills to reap the benefits.

And it's not that technology is bad. Here we are using it to record the podcast today. It's just different times and we've got to change the way we do things in light of these different times. And someone came up this week, I was interviewing Dr. Dan Siegel, he's a well-known clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and he's written 12 parenting books. So, I thought I'd better ask him this question and see what he says. And he told me he felt like seeing the mind or the subjective experience of each other is missing from schools. And he said K–12 and into higher ed and even into other industries.

He takes empathy to such a deep level where he says we don't just recognize the emotions of ourselves in others, but he thinks we've got to address the individual experiences we're all having in our world. He talks about addressing our differences and then linking us back together, showing that we're all connected to each other and not separate beings living separate lives. We've got to learn how to support and assist each other for future generations to thrive.

PA: All right, and I'm thinking about the idea of you bringing in the executive functions of the brain, that prefrontal cortex, how that's developed and that's all part of being able to empathize with others and being able to make those connections as well. And technology is great. As you just said, Andrea, but I think it might be correct to say that with the increased use of technology, right, that may be the primary reason for this increased need of SEL. Would you agree with that statement?

AS: Oh, absolutely. I absolutely like when I've been working with students in the classroom with some of these skills, you only know what happens when you get in front of students and start working with them and asking them questions and seeing how they're interacting. And that's when you see where they are with these skills. And everyone's at a different level. You know, students at different ages are at different levels. And I remember asking some students, I had a worksheet and it was about setting goals and I said, "Tell me where you want to be. Tell me where you are now and where do you want to be when you finish high school." And three out of the class of 30 could do it.

And I was blown away. I thought: Why can't they get this activity? And then I remembered that goal setting is a part of the prefrontal cortex. And these are high school kids that probably have no idea where they want to be. They're just figuring out where they are now. So, you know, absolutely. Practicing these skills and figuring out where you are, it's all a part of the process.

PA: Right. And I could see it range through your experiences as a classroom teacher. So, considering that experience, why do you think the SEL programs and strategies are important? You mentioned some things, I want to kind of reiterate those and why now? Hasn't SEL always been important?

AS: Oh, absolutely. These skills have always been important. Like I saw them years ago and I know everyone that I talk to in the schools, they've also seen them for the past 20 years. But when the research isn't there, you can't just start teaching kids these concepts. You've got to focus on the reading, writing, and the core curriculum. But if you think about it, look at these statistics. I know it won't shock educators, but did you know that one out of four students struggle with anxiety these days? And one out of five struggle with depression.

So, it's different times where we have to start thinking about, we have to solve the individual student's needs before we can get to the academics. And research shows now that students with strong SEL health demonstrate self-control, they communicate well, they problem solve, they're empathetic, respectful, grateful, gritty, and optimistic. And we also know that neuroscience has advanced our understanding of these SEL skills. And we know that success in life and in college and, career specifically, relies on students' cognitive, social, and emotional development. Like we talked about in the beginning, skills that were missing.

Research shows that teaching these skills results in immediate and long-term improvement in academic achievements and they are a better predictor of success than academic ability alone. So, we can't ignore them.

PA: No, not at all. That term, SEL health, I'm sure that seems to be unique and an interesting term to many people out there. So, I'm wondering if our audience is intrigued by the idea of SEL health as I am. Can you repeat the resources you just cited? The ones that affirmed the benefits of developing a strong SEL health?

AS: Absolutely, and this is definitely my interest. I watch every webinar on social emotional learning in the country. The quote about strong SEL health leading to many of the SEL skills we know are lacking came from an Ed Web webinar from April 4th, 2019. And I've added that link. The title was, SEL: The Whys and Hows of Implementation in a School District, and you can hear from the SEL coordinator at Round Rock ISD, Rochelle Fink, about how they implemented SEL in their district with their first steps to implementation.

And then the first statistic about a student success in life, relying on a student’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. That came from a report written by Hank Resnick. It was for the Aspen Institute, March, 2019, and I've added this resource link as well. I find this resource so valuable. I've actually printed it and I keep a copy of it on my desk to refer to because it's got some great charts. And I refer to this while I'm working. And that second statistic came from the research report written for by the Civic with Hart Research Associates and this was funded by Allstate Insurance.

They've had a focus on youth since 2005 when they learned that teen deaths were reaching epidemic levels. So, they developed an educational awareness campaign and invested $45 million in youth SEL programs and their goal is to ensure that 14 million youth develop SEL skills by 2022. The report outlines a national survey of current age, so age 14 to 19 and recent age 16 to 22. And there are high school students including in-depth interviews with students. And they were looking for schools with a strong focus on social emotional learning and ones that didn't have it. And they were looking for...There were seven things that they asked these students and they all tie in to the skills that we talked about in the beginning. But it's just interesting to see that the report is focusing again on the same skills.

Knowing how to get along or work with people who are different from you, feeling confident in yourself, understanding other people's feelings and views, knowing how to solve disagreements in a positive way, understanding your own emotions and why you feel different emotions, dealing with difficult situations in your life, and knowing how to deal with stress. And there were findings from this report where the students felt that strong SEL schools were a more positive learning environment, where they were likely to feel their voice matters. And helped them to learn academic material. Student engagement was increased in these strong SEL schools and they felt safer in school, which is what we all want. And more prepared for life after high school.

If you want to watch this webinar, you can just Google the title, but I've got the link actually in the show notes, but the title of this webinar was, Respected: Perspectives of Youth on High School & Social and Emotional Learning, through CASEL.

PA: And I'd have to share, we will have these links and resources available so that our audience can take a look at all of these wonderful resources that you're mentioning. I'm sure they want to know more about SEL and those connections.

AS: Oh, definitely. Because there's so much research now behind it and is a wonderful place to go. They are the Collaborative for Academic, Social, And Emotional Learning, the most-trusted source for knowledge about high-quality, evidence-based social, emotional learning. Everyone should really begin there and it all started with this 2011 meta-analysis. It was 213 studies with over 270,000 students. And this is where the results came where it showed that those who study SEL have an 11 percentile point gain in academic achievement and that's a huge gain.

PA: Can you repeat that gain?

AS: It's 11 percentile point gain and that's right on CASEL's...If you go to research on CASEL, you can actually look at that meta-analysis, but even if you listened to the webinar, they talked about it, everyone's talking about it these days because the research is now here. That's a huge gain. It also shows that SEL improved school climate, autonomy, and educator health improved.

PA: There's so much more involved with students learning than the academics, right? We have to consider that social emotional learning aspects. So, that connection here. One thing that we realize is something that's real, because teachers go into the field of education wanting their students to learn, wanting to make a difference. But quite often we have that something that we call teacher burnout, right? It is very real. It's a real problem in education today. I've experienced it myself as an educator. I've seen it with other teachers who are in the trenches. Can we say that teachers can benefit from strong SEL health as well?

AS: Oh, definitely. So, we do know from research that there's a connection between educator cortisol increase and student cortisol increase. So, when teachers who demonstrate social emotional learning competencies, they're more likely to stay in the classroom longer because they're able to more effectively handle these challenging situations like mine. One of the main causes of burnout and you know, who doesn't want a strategy to help overcome the most challenging situations that we overcome?

And because I burnt out and because you know, it is one of the largest problems within education these days, I spend a considerable amount of time researching teacher burnout. It's so personal to me. I wrote a report on this. It was actually called Educator Well-Being and Student Success: A National Intersection of SEL, Neuroscience, and Mental Health. And it was for a policy contest that was looking to fund the largest problems education faces today. Teacher burnout being one of them.

It costs the U.S. $7.3 billion. And the wellbeing of our students begins with the SEL health and ability for the teacher to regulate themselves. And if anyone's, you know, following this work, they would definitely know of the work of Dr. Laurie Desautels. She's the assistant professor at Butler University, from Indiana, and she's training our next generation of teachers on these concepts and actually infusing them into the curriculum through CASEL.

She's been involved in the standards, making sure that neuroscience and health and well being is now incorporated into our standards. And there's also Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl from the University of British Columbia and she did this webinar on June 5th, 2018, you can Google this and the links will be there as well, but it's called, Social and Emotional Learning, Teacher Well-Being, and Student Success: What Do We Know? and Where Do We Go From Here?

And she talks about the study she did, where she demonstrated that the more stressed the teacher was the worst behaved the students became because of this link to a student cortisol increasing when the teacher's cortisol increases. So, this totally makes sense to me as a parent that when I'm calm it's so much easier to manage my kids. And then I imagine how I was mentally with my classroom of those 30 behavioral students and I'm not surprised I had problems. They escalate quickly. And if you don't have the resources or the skills to handle your own emotions, how could you handle the class?

PA: That impact I can recall from my own experience of my fifth grade year, the teacher was calm and cool and collected. The classroom was calm and cool and collected. It makes a difference. So, we're talking about social emotional learning for students, but also the benefits of social emotional learning for teachers as well. Great information.

AS: Absolutely. Because the school leader...First of all the support, it's the biggest predictor of whether the change takes place. So, the school leader is involved in whether the program sticks or not. And adult SEL must be addressed. You know it's only a well-regulated adult can help regulate a student. And we know that it's such a high-stress job. It's actually tied for nursing with stress.

PA: That's very interesting to hear. I noticed that you have some more information in regards to some feedback for some recent resources from EdWeek. There was Social Emotional Learning Summit that educators participated in and where do we go from there? How do we access this?

AS: Well, absolutely everyone...I listened to that Social Emotional Learning School Summit. It was an online summit and it was just interesting that teachers are interested in social emotional learning, but they're not sure where to start and they're looking for clear starting points and developing their own SEL strategies. So, I always say start with because the website is so thorough, just start and see what other districts are doing. How are they using social emotional learning. And we'll talk about this the first steps for implementation at the end. But that's really the starting point.

PA: Is there any funding that's available for SEL? That's the first thing schools and districts will think about how can I make this happen? Beyond the feedback from other educators and the wonderful resources you're giving us. Is there funding for SEL?

AS: Oh, absolutely. So, it's interesting cause I started working with the schools in 2014 and the only way to get into the schools was through grants. And I just actually saw a tweet and it was this spring from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and it said that the U.S. House of Representatives had just passed a bill to increase educational funding by $11.7 billion. And SEL was one of the initiatives on the list to receive funding, listed at $260 million. So, you know, there's always a procedure, what happens with a bill.

But, finally, we're seeing that SEL is even being mentioned to be backed financially. So, things should be changing in the next few years. I'm noticing a difference with the phone calls that I get here. You know, 2014 nobody was calling me to say, "Out of my funds, I'm looking to start a social emotional learning program." That just never happened. It was me going out to the schools to say, "Hey, have you heard about SEL or do you have a character program?" And now it's a much different conversation.

PA: And how exciting it is, right? To see it grow. We're looking at a growth of SEL implementation, right? I want you to tell me what you think about this. Do you see us right now at the beginning of that curve and why do you think government has taken notice of SEL and its importance?

AS: Oh, absolutely. So, when there's research behind something, that's when the funding comes in. So, I think that's the start. And I do see that we're at the beginning of the curve. So, I know that most educators know what SEL is. If you were to ask, "Oh, I know what SEL is." But not every school is implementing a program yet. And I mentioned that I've been working with SEL since 2014. And you know, finally, I'm getting emails from schools that want to get started.

I've been following Linda Dusenbury from on their Collaborative States Initiative since 2016. So, back then, there were only eight states that had adopted K–12 SEL standards. So, there are standards in place for SEL and now in 2019 there's more than 30 states and one U.S. territory. And this represents 11,850 school districts, 67,000 schools, 2 million teachers, and 35 million students, preschool to high school that are implementing SEL standards. So, it's getting there.

PA: Yes. What growth. I say it is a movement, social emotional learning movement, I would think.

AS: Yeah, definitely. And the research that we know shows a clear impact on student achievement. Like we talked about with that 11th percentile point. So, when there's that research there, the funding follows. So, I definitely see we're at the beginning of the curve and still there's so much to consider. Everyone wants to know, well, you know, how do we have time for this? How are we going to measure this? Well, there are experts attached to CASEL who have clear measurement tools. So, I interviewed Clark McKown, he's the president of So, he's a leading expert on SEL assessments and implementation. And he has books and strategies and resources for how to measure. And there's other companies out there as well. But, through CASEL, you can definitely see how you can translate your needs and solve them for a social emotional learning solution.

PA: All right, so not knowing everything shouldn't derail your opportunity to have a starting point. There are some resources out there for you right now, right? So, how does social emotional learning, how does SEL help prepare kids for the future? Why is it so important?

AS: Well, it's definitely important for their life after high school, right? So, there was a recent survey that showed that 58 percent of employers say that college graduates are not adequately prepared for today's workforce. And they noted a particular gap in social and emotional skills. And students who learned to master these important skills will get ahead faster with less effort and frustration than those who lack these skills.

And we mentioned the social and interpersonal skills, emotional and cognitive from the beginning, where we see there's a gap. So, these skills do translate into the workplace. So, if we don't do something now, the students of this generation will have a difficult time in the workplace. And there's five distinct components of what we call, in the workplace, for social emotional learning is emotional intelligence. That's important. And just look at what they are and you can see how they translate over.

But the first one is self-awareness. And it's so important in the workplace because you need to know yourself before you can help others with whatever product or service you're going to be involved with. You need to have self-regulation because there's going to be many times in your day where you're going to be tested. You've got to be able to manage your emotions under pressure. And then you've got to have an internal or intrinsic motivation to get up and go to work and serve every day. And you need to have empathy so you can connect to others in your organization and be able to see the world through other people's eyes.

Social skills are important for everything from ordering your lunch in a restaurant to picking up your rental car, dealing with the front desk employee in the hotel that you're staying at. So, if students do not learn these skills at an early age, they'll definitely struggle in their life, in a future career, relationships. So, whatever model or SEL competence your school uses, whether it’s CASEL's five competencies or something else. The idea is that we're preparing students to thrive in their future, in this ever-changing world.

PA: Yes, it's just listening to you list those competencies. I'm sure most of us are thinking: “Wait a second, shouldn't kids have these intuitively?” Right? I want to go ahead and repeat those one more time just for our audience to hear. Self-awareness, self-regulation, internal or intrinsic motivation, empathy, and social skills. You laid that out so nicely. These are social skills we need to teach our students. Make sure we integrate with strategies as we are teaching them. So, now that we know the “why” behind introducing programs or SEL strategies in a school or district. What are some good first steps to begin? You promised them to us, Andrea, I'm holding you to it.

AS: Right. Well, from experience, I know when you do this and you mandate it from the district up, it doesn't work because I've done that and it did not work. You've got to have buy-in, teacher buy-in, to start out with. Everybody has to be involved in whatever program you're doing. You, first of all, start by identifying your team. So, in schools this would consist of principals, counselors, teachers, district leaders, and don't forget to have students involved. And everyone's input matters.

Then, you've got to align your mission is step two. Figure out what you're doing. What are your values and beliefs? Why are you doing it? And get the buy-in needed. Because there's going to be times when things are going to be difficult and you've got to figure out why we're doing this for the program to stick. And, then, you want to map out for step three. You want to map out your strengths, your weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and threats. Things that you want to be aware of.

Where are you right now in your school? What are some areas that you want to improve? Think about some roadblocks ahead of time and some strategies to overcome them. So, it's kind of like planning out, what are you going to...What's your vision for your school with this SEL program? And then step four is create your roadmap. Once you know where you are and where you want to go, it's very easy to figure out what are you going to do on a monthly basis for your SEL program. And then step five is choose your program and approach. So, you might decide to choose a full-year program and you could purchase one. You could look at CASEL's program guide, you could find some programs that you hear from other schools are working or you could use the kernel approach, which is a low-cost, low-burden strategy to implement your SEL program where you just do certain things at certain times. And choose the topics that will help you solve the problems you've identified.

And then just get started mapping out what your year is going to look like. And everything is going to involve, you know, looking to see: Did this work? What didn't work? Pick your training format. Are you going to choose a few schools in your district to implement SEL or are you going to go district wide with everybody receiving training together? So, that's a big picture look about what I would say would be a good way to get started.

And we always want to measure, so I did mention Clark McKown, the president of xSEL Labs. You want to have a way to measure, you know, where you were in the beginning. What are you going to measure from your students and have some sort of plan in place to measure. And Clark McKown dives deep into the language of SEL assessments and best practices to measure SEL within your school or district. So, over time, it's not going to be an immediate change, but you can look at your one's data, your two, and then you'll start to see patterns. But it's one of those things that it's over the long term that's where you see the results. It's not a quick fix.

PA: Oh, thank you Andrea for such a common sense approach and a way to measure it because you definitely want to identify a baseline and see growth over time. Again, Andrea, thank you so much for joining us today. Where can our listeners go to follow you on social media and learn more about SEL and your brain research?

AS: Well, thanks so much for having me on your show today, Pam. It's been so much fun to speak with you. Anyone can find me through my website,; or on LinkedIn, Andrea Samadi; or Twitter, @AndreaSamadi; or Facebook, @AchieveIT360. Or, you can follow my podcast, Neuroscience Meets SEL, on iTunes.

PA: Thank you for spending time with us today. Please join us next month for Dyslexia Screening: What You Need to Know with Dr. Roland Good. Subscribe to our podcast at and on iTunes. Pam Austin from Voyage Sopris Learning bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you. Thank you, everyone.

Narrator: This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast produced by Voyager Sopris Learning. For additional thought-provoking podcasts and articles, sign up for our blog, webinar, and podcast series at and on iTunes. Thank you for joining us.

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