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Dr. Ed Dunkelblau in Conversation with Clay Whitehead

, Primary Category: SPEDAhead Webinars

Success for Every Learner: From At-Risk to Successful webinar series was led by world-renowned expert in SEL Dr. Ed Dunkelblau. During “SEL: The Real Skills for Success!,” Dr. Dunkelblau unpacked specific SEL skills and explained why they are important. After the webinar, our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead and Dr. Dunkelblau answered webinar attendee questions about how incorporating SEL skill acquisition strategies will empower at-risk students.

Below is a summary of their discussion.

Clay: What is the best way to get started with SEL?

Dr. Dunkelblau: What a great basic question to start with. The best way to get started with SEL is to seek out a decision maker at your school or district. Usually, this would be the principal because you’ll need their support at some point. Let them know what type of SEL program or support you were thinking about. The next step is to create a committee across the school or special education department to spread out some of the responsibilities and generate ideas. We’ve found it’s very hard for just one person to make this happen. You really need a representative group including people who are willing to champion the SEL program. I also encourage schools to engage the opinions of naysayers because it is important to hear the concerns and questions that are circulating about the program in the community.

As far as implementing the program, set reasonable goals and have a reasonable timeline. And, if possible, consult the help of an external expert. This really keeps people on task and focused. If there is no possibility of consulting an expert, an alternative option is online course certification. There is an SEL online course available through the College of St. Elizabeth in Rutgers, NJ.

Clay: In other words, there is not a shortage of resources out there. How do you help a school change the climate to make SEL an important part of the entire school day?

Dr. Dunkelblau: Those implementing an SEL program have to make their case by helping their audience understand why they should care about SEL. You have to cite the current research, as well as the benefits for students, staff, and the community. Finally, find your champions. Find the people who are passionate about the work and recruit them to get involved. You don’t have to convince everyone; you just have to get a significant tipping point of people who will embrace the initiative and make it happen.

Clay: You touched on this briefly, but is there an evidence-based SEL curriculum? Could you give us an example?

Dr. Dunkelblau: There are dozens of evidence-based SEL curricula. Rather than me trying to identify them all here, what I encourage our audience to do is go to They have put so much time and energy into reviewing evidence-based SEL curricula and identifying which audiences they are best for and what they accomplish. It’s almost like a consumer reports. They have these reviews for elementary, middle school, and high school curricula. Two curricula I found particularly useful for a widespread group of students is the Second Step curriculum and the Social Decision Making curriculum. Many schools and districts I’ve worked with have embraced these and found them helpful.

Clay: Thanks for those examples. How do you support SEL students while maintaining the rigor and standards for teachers and administrators?

Dr. Dunkelblau: There are always competing priorities, new initiatives, and new mandates from state departments of education. It’s really important to make SEL a priority and to gain buy-in from the decision makers such as administrators, the school board, parents, and the community. The other thing is to make sure every educator has effective, on-going professional development so they feel well-trained and competent.

Clay: Data-driven instruction and test scores are at the forefront of most people’s minds these days. Keeping that squarely in view, how do we get them to really allocate the time and have true buy-in to investing in SEL for students?

Dr. Dunkelblau: The beauty of an SEL initiative is that it’s not an either-or decision. So many educational decisions are focused around which aspect of academic development should be supported. SEL supports every element of academic development. By implementing an SEL initiative, we are supporting academic success, improving school climate and culture, and SEL skills in our students to help them learn better and act better in the community. In a special education setting, developing that set of skills really potentiates their ability to learn, generalize, and act in a way that I think all of us would be proud.

Clay: Let’s take another question. How does SEL vary with age? Are the principles the same across all grades or do they change by age and by grade?

Dr. Dunkelblau: Well, the principles of SEL grow out of the principles of the school community. In many ways, they’re the same: kindness, cooperation, respect, and responsibility. These are usually the principles that are important to us as a school community. However, the language we use and the depth to which we teach these principles changes as students get older. Ideally, what we hope is that the schools build upon SEL the way they would build upon reading or math skills. It is additive. What is learned in kindergarten is added onto as you go to 1st grade, 2nd grade, and so forth until graduation.

The high school way of addressing social-emotional competence is much more reflective. It encourages discussion and considers ambiguous problems and challenges.

Clay: Let’s take a question about positive behavioral interventions and supports. How do you blend SEL with PBIS initiatives?

Dr. Dunkelblau: We’ve done it a lot. By using the PBIS model and then inserting SEL lessons about social-emotional competence is very valuable for both initiatives. Social-emotional competence is really about preparing students and preventing some of the behaviors that we don’t want to see. It’s really a very logical marriage with PBIS.

Clay: Everyone is so busy and PBIS is already seen as a lot to bite off for some educators and administrators. How do you prevent all of these initiatives from becoming too much to handle?

Dr. Dunkelblau: You’re right that PBIS, depending on how it’s designed for that particular school, can take a fair chunk of resources. However, we’re talking about SEL programming being an element of the PBIS initiative. Both should be integrated throughout the academic curriculum, as well as throughout the entire school day, coaching and parent involvement. It’s a broad process that can be inserted without a huge time commitment.

Clay: How can we get parents engaged in doing their part of teaching SEL skills at home?

Dr. Dunkelblau: This is a vital question that we constantly wrestle with because, as every educator probably experiences, sometimes the parents that we most want to engage are the ones who can’t. These are parents who are working two jobs or are unavailable for the school initiatives in one form or another. We found that sending homework, conducting parent teacher conferences or meetings, building a strategy around athletic events or other events that parents want to attend are ways to address this.

I would also encourage schools to create a representative group of parents to be a part of the SEL initiative because not only can they spread the word better than educators, they have some great ideas about what needs to be done and how to bring it home.

Clay: Fantastic. Let’s talk about principals and staff. How do you help them understand the connection between teaching SEL and creating a warm and welcoming school environment?

Dr. Dunkelblau: I think that most already know the connection; however, it’s likely they’re going to say, “We have other competing priorities. We have other things that we have to focus on.” I really think once you make the case that SEL is an added benefit for everyone and it will continue to impact students for the rest of their lives, it’s a very hard thing for educators to resist. If you have a very hard-nosed, academically focused person who is resisting, present the information and the data and bring in testimonials. A consultant can address additional concerns. The information is out there. It’s a question of accessing it and then having the ear of the administrator so that they can hear what you’re hoping they’ll hear.

Clay: We have a lot of district leaders on this webinar. What are three tactical things you think they can do to help move SEL implementation forward in their own districts?

Dr. Dunkelblau: First off, I’d like to give all administrators a huge amount of credit for the work they do. What I would suggest is that you know your audience and really, really, really focus on gaining buy-in and be prepared with the information that the audience cares about. If it’s board members, parents, faculty, or even students, know what they care about and understand how social-emotional initiatives address their concerns and issues. Make more than just promises: have the data behind you. SEL helps all different facets – make sure they know this and understand that it’s not going to take away from academics. It’s actually going to make academic performance better. I think that’s a very compelling and very persuasive position.

Clay: Let’s go back to talking about some of these age-based differences. What is the number one skill a 1st grader, 3rd grader and a 5th grader ought to master in terms of SEL?

Dr. Dunkelblau: The number one skill by far is listening. Listening, listening, listening. If your students are not very good at listening, it’s very hard to have an impact in any other area. That’s usually where we start. It’s usually at the beginning of the year and we focus on listening across the curriculum and across the board. Next, I would suggest focusing on perspective. Once they learn to reflect, they begin to understand other people’s experiences and may even empathize with what they might be feeling. By doing this, you’re beginning to sow the seeds for their ability to work in teams for cooperative learning. Then we want to focus in on problem solving. We want them to take the basic SEL skills they’ve learned and apply them to real life issues in the classroom, in the school or in their own lives.

One of the great things that I’ve seen in schools I have consulted in is during the early elements of the SEL program, educators are teaching problem solving skills and creating issues to address so students can practice. Not too long into the initiative, they take real life issues – if there’s a problem on the playground, for example – and they’ll ask the class to use their problem solving skills to figure out what to do about this particular issue or problem. It really moves the responsibility and the ability of figuring out what to do about these issues from the teacher to the entire class, school, or even the community.

Clay: Given that we live in a data-driven world, are there ways to track the benefits of SEL programs? Can you do pre- and post-test surveys with students? Are there other ways you could collect data on student achievement?

Dr. Dunkelblau: Yes, there is. Certainly pre- and post-tests will be able to gauge the performance on a particular skill, but it really doesn’t give you a sense of climate or culture. The best evaluation I would suggest is to conduct climate surveys, which at least give you a snapshot of what’s going on at school at that moment. When I’ve worked with districts, we’ve done climate surveys of students, faculty, and especially with parents to get a sense of how we are doing, what the ongoing issues that still need to be addressed are, and how effective we are at addressing those.

Clay: Beautiful. Unfortunately, that is all that we have time for today, but I really want to give Dr. Dunkelblau a warm thank you for being on the SPED Ahead webinar series and for really providing a lot of valuable lessons and insights. I think the amount of questions and the number of people attending is a big testament to the benefit you provided us by sharing your experience. Thank you.

Dr. Dunkelblau: Thanks, Clay. It’s a passion for me. I really appreciate the opportunity to share it with your audience. Thank you so much.

To watch Dr. Dunkelblau’s entire 90-minute webinar, click here. To learn more about the last webinar in this series with Dr. Ross Greene, click here.

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