Build a Resilient SEL Strategy: Pair SEL with MTSS

How to boost the effectiveness of your SEL program by aligning SEL with MTSS

We all know that selecting the right path for SEL implementation can be a daunting task. With countless social emotional learning offerings on the market, selecting and implementing the right program for your school or district can quickly become overwhelming.

Luckily, the long-standing industry experts at CASEL have made everyone’s job a bit easier by outlining four of the most common approaches to SEL implementation:

1.) Free-standing Lessons: building in time to teach freestanding lessons that are explicitly designed to enhance students’ social and emotional competence

2.) Targeted Teaching Practices: leveraging targeted teaching practices — such as cooperative learning and project-based learning — to promote SEL

3.) Academic Integration: merging SEL lessons with traditional academic curriculum — such as language arts, math, or social studies

4) Universal Initiative: creating a school culture and climate that is conducive to learning by developing organizational strategies that promote SEL as a school-wide initiative

While each of these four approaches has its merits, universal SEL initiatives that include SEL lessons, teaching practice, and academic integration are the most effective at positively influencing school culture and academic achievement. This type of initiative is also easy to align with higher-level district priorities, which makes it a prime candidate for acting as either a school- or district-wide SEL solution.

Why consider district priorities?

Aligning SEL goals with higher-level district initiatives means improving SEL’s sustainability. The closer an SEL initiative gets to becoming an integrated part of a district, the more resilient the initiative becomes — particularly to changes in staffing, budget, and long-term planning.

Ultimately, getting buy-in from district-level stakeholders is key to helping SEL flourish and ensuring maximum student impact.

One of the most important factors to consider while trying to help an SEL initiative find its feet is to determine whether there’s an “easy fit,” or a neat and coherent way to tie together SEL goals and pre-existing district priorities.  

A common “easy fit” is to pair SEL with a pre-existing MTSS framework. Why? Because when it’s done well, as we explain below, the results are resilient —  often prompting widespread changes in academics and school culture.

SEL with MTSS: a perfect pairing

One of the most common misconceptions about SEL programs is that they’re best utilized as solely Tier II or III-level MTSS interventions. Admittedly, this approach can, under very specific circumstances, be an appropriate SEL implementation tactic, yet when it comes to driving desirable outcomes, it’s far more effective to invest in building out a universal SEL initiative that’s rooted in Tier-I interventions.

In fact, the bulk of widely available SEL solutions are built for use across large populations of students. Notably, these solutions aren’t always tailored to address the unique factors that contribute to a student’s eligibility to receive more targeted MTSS interventions.

In order to have the greatest impact on academic achievement and school culture, a solid Tier I approach to SEL is ideal. From here, many schools find the most success in leveraging smaller, more targeted Tier II & III-level SEL interventions that complement the wider-reaching Tier-I initiatives.

What does universal MTSS & SEL integration look like?

While approaches will vary by school and district, the most important aspect of any universal SEL initiative is how the initiative ensures that, at minimum, basic SEL principles are taught to every member of a learning community, not just students. For maximum effect, students, staff members, administrators, and teachers all need to share a common SEL language.

A common SEL language is best established through Tier I MTSS interventions that promote the behavioral, social, and emotional development of all students — for example, programs that teach students to effectively apply SEL tools to everyday challenges.

Yet, the common language that is established via Tier I interventions can be reinforced and strengthened by Tier II & III-level interventions. Such interventions may take the form of:

  • The creation of small groups that take Tier I lessons a step further
  • Select classes that apply SEL principles to improve an identified student “need” — e.g., improving English language skills
  • One-on-one interventions that focus on a student’s successful adoption of a “growth mindset” — i.e., a student’s belief that she can learn and grow


Far-reaching benefits of pairing SEL with MTSS

Ultimately there is no one-size-fits-all SEL solution, yet, for many districts, it can be useful to examine the benefits of aligning SEL and MTSS goals. Such an alignment can bring a bounty of benefits — including increased academic performance, improvements in school culture, and the creation of a lasting and resilient SEL program that can benefit students for years to come.