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Lessons Learned from the 2019 CASEL Social and Emotional Learning Exchange

14 October 2019 |

The Whole Child Connection team was fortunate to send three people to the 2019 SEL Exchange in Chicago, in partnership with Wheatland Chili School District and Superintendent Dr. Deborah Leh, after we had two breakout sessions accepted for presentation.

While we feel our breakout session content is timely and important to share with our large national audience, we also value the deep thinking inspired by the many amazing leaders we had opportunities to speak with and learn from.

The following are our team’s key takeaways following the 2019 CASEL SEL Exchange in Chicago.


I found myself nearly overwhelmed by the momentum, the energy, the hunger for information, and the sheer volume of activity related to SEL across the country.  There was so much to take in, so many different directions in which we, as the Whole Child Connection, can go as the field of SEL evolves.  But as I reflect now with the benefit of hindsight, one clear theme did recur over the two days that gives me comfort we are on the right track – for SEL to take hold for students, we have to focus on the adults.

  • I heard it when I attended a session by Anne Gregory from Rutgers University about a study she is doing that examines the alignment and intersection between Restorative Practices and SEL.  Folks in that session shared that adults in schools are confused and need support for how to integrate the many initiatives they are undertaking in their buildings. 
  • I heard it in a session run by Clark McKown from the national SEL Assessment Work Group who said that with the advent of SEL benchmarks and standards at the state level, teachers must have support for teaching and learning that addresses those standards. 
  • And I heard it most pronounced during the session we presented called But I’m not a Social Worker! An SEL Practices Tool for Teachers.  Nearly 70 people crammed into our tiny breakout room. We were blown away by the desire teachers had for the practice-based coaching and observation tool we are developing that describes what SEL practices look like.   

We’ve been saying right along that adults come first, that transforming the settings and context where learning happens is the key to youth outcomes, and that we need to change things for children and youth by changing the way adults do the business of schools.  But having it confirmed in such a palpable way across multiple breakout sessions and plenaries was just the kick in the pants I needed to get laser focused on supporting adults in their work on SEL.

Elizabeth Devaney

Director, Whole Child Connection


Social Emotional Learning is the foundation for all academic learning and success. Self-esteem and self-confidence encourage students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to try again. Understanding one's own emotions leads to self-regulation and healthy expression of those emotions. Empathy is aligned with perspective taking and basic kindness--leading to compassionate behaviors. SEL begins when we are born and continues through adulthood. SEL skills impact everything we do. How we work, how we initiate and maintain healthy relationships, how we raise children, provide community service, and interact with our neighbors and world.

In one presentation, Linda Lantieri and Meena Srinivasan highlighted the importance of Mindful Awareness Practices as critical to the integration of SEL and equity work in teaching and learning. It is that centering that allows us time and space for the self-reflection needed to become aware of our own biases and thoughts. These biases and thoughts influence our response to students, and we are sometimes unaware of our own biases. 

In another, Amy Eva and Vicki Zakrzewski challenged us to explore thoughts and beliefs about emotions: "Painful emotions should be ignored, letting others know how I feel is risky, there is a right way to feel in every situation" (CASEL, 2019). Thoughts like these can be limiting and even damaging. These presenters pointed to self-examination and reflection as a way to understand SEL as it relates to teaching.

These are just two of the amazing presentations at the SEL Exchange 2019 Conference. CASEL did an exceptional job of creating an experience that was both powerful and inspirational with participants from around the world. SEL skills can be explicitly taught to students, modeled for them, and embedded in instruction. However, SEL does not begin with the child/student, it begins with the adults who surround the children. Our Whole Child Connection team recently attended and presented at the CASEL Conference in Chicago where an international group of professionals shared and exchanged information on the importance of SEL. One of the themes I found most powerful...SEL skill development for children begins with us. Each one of us must begin with a self-reflective practice that helps us examine our values, beliefs, attitudes, and practices. The Whole Child Connection team has always promoted the whole child approach--now we have an entire planet behind us. 

Lynn Lubecki

Early Care and Education Strategies Director


When we left the 2019 SEL Exchange, I was most struck by the idea of communication, in about a thousand different permutations. As a service provider, trainer, reader, student, and presenter, I heard so many perspectives throughout the conference talking about their need for better communication, in whatever form.

From the deeply poignant stories of teens in the Chicago area who needed their stories heard, to CASEL’s own president stating to the rapt audience that social and emotional is not and cannot be simply another fad in education. Without on-going communication, without all of us talking to our colleagues, friends, peers, parents, and children, this movement will continue too slowly for the needs of so many of our young people. Presenters and audience alike felt, throughout the conference, that children are suffering from so many barriers put in place by our society, and how they are growing up in it. We must have better communication, we must have louder, clear, reciprocal communication about these challenges and their proposed solutions if we hope to make an impact. It makes me deeply excited about my role in this work, as I believe in the value of communicating the best information in the best possible ways. Sharing practices from successful providers, distilling research into useable nuggets, finding connections between disparate environments – this communication provides additional weight to keep this movement rolling forward and to keep adults who work with children best equipped to have the greatest impact.

Caitlin Orbanek

Communications and Project Coordinator

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