For many school districts around the country, student academic success is the highest priority, second only to student safety. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) invested many fiscal and human resources into developing high-quality school leaders and teachers to support student learning. Over the past few years, LAUSD has acknowledged and added trauma-informed social-emotional learning (SEL) approaches to the list of essential undertakings necessary to ensure that students and adults thrive.

SEL instruction creates school cultures and environments that encourage students to be knowledgeable, responsible, and caring individuals who can achieve higher academic and social outcomes. For many school districts, deciding how to allocate limited resources is often a difficult decision. Budgeting for SEL may be an easy decision to make because it is estimated that for every dollar invested in SEL, there is up to an $11 return or benefit, according to Clive Belfield, A. Brooks Bowden, Alli Klapp, Henry Levin, Robert Shand, and Sabine Zander in their article, “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning.” SEL school environments are a catalyst for higher student learning, well-being, and higher job satisfaction among school site leaders, teachers, and staff.

LAUSD serves over 600,000 students and employs over 70,000 people. The work of implementing comprehensive SEL programs and policies provided formidable challenges, as well as great opportunities. LAUSD serves a student population of which 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The need to incorporate SEL practices is critical and urgent. LAUSD’s blueprint includes an intentional four-phase process:

  • Create a shared understanding of trauma-informed practices and SEL competencies.
  • Develop professional development and support for teachers and administrators.
  • Include SEL competencies in the professional learning standards for school leaders.
  • Engage students to build their sense of agency regarding SEL.

A Common Understanding

LAUSD has long acknowledged the importance of creating trauma- and resilience-informed school communities. Early on, we recognized that the approach needed to be from the bottom up rather than top down. Teachers understood the critical nature of the work and had the willingness and capacity to implement SEL practices expediently and directly to students. Support was secured from both the teachers union—United Teachers Los Angeles—and the school board, which unanimously passed a resolution to amplify SEL in LAUSD.

Students who live through adverse childhood experiences are at risk for traumatic or toxic stress, which manifests in behaviors that impede learning. Students with four or more adverse childhood experiences compared to students with none were five times more likely to have low attendance, three times more likely to have school behavior problems, and six-and-a-half times more likely to have an identified behavioral health problem. The impact of trauma, including secondary trauma, is equally devastating for our teachers and administrators. Traditional approaches were not enough to take on this task. It would require building coherence, new partnerships, and breaking down institutional silos.

LAUSD’s Student Health and Human Services (SHHS) division recognized the urgent need for SEL practices to be embedded in daily instructional practice. The number of students referred to psychiatric social workers or recommended to special education screening services was overwhelming. They wondered what could be done to help these students before they were referred for more intensive services.

SHHS partnered with the LAUSD Division of Instruction (DOI) to promote a more collaborative SEL training approach. DOI was already working to promote direct instruction in SEL but was disconnected from the work of SHHS, creating confusion within the system. The partnership allowed the district to develop a common language regarding SEL and to leverage limited resources strategically.

This became an opportunity to integrate trauma-informed practice with universal SEL. Exposure to trauma impacts decision making, self-​control, and executive function—which compromises academic achievement. SEL helps children to develop the very skills that are compromised by exposure to trauma. Trauma became our “why,” and SEL became our “how.” We developed a plan to integrate trauma-informed practice, supports, and SEL principles into our multitiered system of support framework.

LAUSD worked with California Office to Reform Education (CORE) districts and adopted the Mindset, Essential Skills, and Habits (MESH) framework for SEL. The MESH competencies are growth mindset, self-management, self-efficacy, and social awareness. Each of these encompasses skills that we know build foundational life skills and increase resilience. Adopting the MESH framework has also allowed collaboration with the CORE Data Collaborative and incorporation of SEL questions into our annual School Experience Survey. We use the survey to measure student self-reported growth within the competencies to guide instruction and curricular choices.

Professional Development for Teachers

In order to ensure coherence, LAUSD established that all stakeholders needed to develop a shared understanding of trauma-informed practices and how SEL helps address trauma and build resilience in students and adults. This was done through a series of voluntary six-hour professional development sessions for teachers co-facilitated by social workers and teacher advisers. In addition to using several evidence-based SEL curricula, there is support for teachers to integrate trauma-informed practice into daily instruction.

SEL practices have the potential to move whole groups of students to better academic and social outcomes. To bring this to scale, SHHS collaborated with the DOI to produce an additional online hourlong professional development session, “Creating Trauma and Resilience-Informed School Communities,” which is required of every teacher and administrator in the district.

As momentum built, we realized that providing professional development and support to administrators was equally important. SHHS and DOI then collaborated with the Professional Learning and Leadership Development (PLLD) branch to integrate these features in the district’s School Leadership Framework and to develop an interactive professional development specifically for school leaders.

Professional Learning Standards for School Leaders

To ensure that effective SEL practices permeated the entire campus and influenced the greater community, school administrators also received targeted professional development. A challenge for most large urban school districts rolling out any curriculum, training, or initiative is scaling up. It requires a reconsideration of traditionally accepted practices—new ways of thinking about students, staff, and the community served. LAUSD’s approach was to embed and explicitly include the four SEL competencies into the School Leadership Framework.

The framework is a set of foundational professional learning standards for administrators—especially principals and assistant principals—used in all professional development programs, including credentialing, promotional pathways, and evaluation. It outlines the knowledge, behaviors, practices, and dispositions of effective leaders. The inclusion of SEL fortified its prioritization within LAUSD.

The School Leadership Framework focuses on instruction, vision, operations, school culture, parent engagement, and systems. Although it includes school culture, the SEL language was not highly visible. Beginning with the 2019–20 school year, two substandards were added to clearly state that SEL was a priority in administrator preparation and development. It also acknowledged an emerging understanding of how transformational leadership incorporates an understanding of the relationship between equity/access issues and social-​emotional institutional practices.

For this reason, cultural proficiency was teamed with SEL to become a basis for the school site leader to understand their role in leading communities to confront the assumptions and beliefs that affect students’ lives. Cultural proficiency and SEL must work in tandem to recognize the impacts of trauma in order to initiate true transformation of schools. The new substandards now guide school leaders to demonstrate cultural proficiency and knowledge of the SEL competencies when addressing SEL-comprehensive practices and professional development for teachers and staff.

Professional Development for School Site Administrators

This endeavor began by focusing on the people who have the most contact and influence on students: classroom teachers. The next step was professional development for principals and assistant principals. In order to receive guidance on this issue, SHHS, DOI, and PLLD created differentiated training for school administrators. Additionally, the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles and the Association of California School Administrators Region 16 were invited to the planning table. The team focused on how to garner resources to support teachers in this work.

At times, initiatives are dwindled down to compliance, adherence to policy, or at worst, a litany of further things to add to the overwhelming list of items administrators are accountable for. The work was too vital to be seen simply as another mandate. The workshops were intended to engage the school site leaders in understanding SEL and how this work challenges the construct of what a school is and how it functions. First, the intent was to emphasize their roles as transformational leaders, who are fearless in creating organizations where children, adults, and communities thrive. Second, an awareness of adult learning needed to be embedded—and modeled—throughout the training. Third, the need for self-care was to be emphasized for staff and for school leaders themselves. In addition, the session was to elucidate how SEL, in conjunction with cultural proficiency, provides practices pivotal for addressing issues of poverty, equity, and access for all students.

As transformational leaders, administrators need to establish environments where the underlying belief systems (which can influence teacher/educator practice, school environments, and what students experience) are constantly examined. It is the fulcrum that pushes the deep inquiry required of transforming institutions. Based on this agreed-upon focus, we offered a voluntary six-hour professional development session to school site administrators.

Engaging Students in SEL

Meanwhile, another important piece of our work was to engage students in the rollout of SEL approaches. Working with the Office of Student Empowerment, student leaders were included in a series of presentations on SEL and data. Students were brought into the conversation and asked to bring back the information to their school. In addition, a panel of student leaders was asked to explore the importance of educators understanding the impact of SEL at the annual LAUSD SEL Conference.

Close to 100 teachers and administrators attended this discussion. It was clear that students wanted opportunities to do this work themselves. The district’s partnership with the Sandy Hook Promise foundation allowed students to create Students Against Violence Everywhere clubs to promote inclusion and kindness on school campuses. Students at one comprehensive high school decided to come to campus early every Friday morning so that they could greet every student entering campus by name, promoting a sense of connection at their school. Such projects not only develop student agency but establish SEL as a universal schoolwide commitment to improve the climate and culture of our schools. The work is continuing across the district based on students’ initiatives, not adult ones. Their results will become part of future teacher/administrator professional development sessions.

To date, the teachers and administrators of over 88,000 LAUSD students have participated in more extensive SEL professional development. Results of a three-month follow-up survey given to teachers indicate that 80 percent of teachers are continuing to use the SEL strategies they learned in the initial professional development, and over 50 percent use them more than once a week. More than 100 administrators participated in their own professional development. Ninety-seven percent of participants indicated an increase in their knowledge and understanding of SEL competencies as a result of the training. Every administrator said they would recommend the training to colleagues.

Coming together to begin work on SEL communities can be a long journey. The district continues collecting quantitative and qualitative data to guide next steps and iterations. The initial data makes the following clear: SEL work is wanted, timely, valued, and needed. There is a long waiting list for the initial professional development offerings and requests for further professional development opportunities to build deeper understanding.

LAUSD appears to be heading toward a unifying theory of school support where teachers, school leaders, and communities come together to help students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. It is also a step on a journey to creating schools not bound by antiquated, discriminatory, deficient views of children and communities but ones where trauma is addressed and children can thrive.

We are often asked if there is the will to do this work, and we can relate—there truly is. For instance, on a Saturday after school closings because of COVID-19, organizers were wondering if the professional development for administrators should be cancelled. Administrators had been working 14- to 16-hour days confronting the challenges of distance learning. Over 90 percent attended online for voluntary professional development, declaring the work was needed now more than ever. The will exists; it is now time for it to be tended and allowed to grow and spread.

Marco A. Nava, EdD, is an administrator for LAUSD Professional Learning and Leadership Development. Delia Estrada, PhD, is an administrative coordinator for LAUSD Professional Learning and Leadership Development. Susan Ward Roncalli is the social-emotional learning adviser for LAUSD.