Using ESSER funds for your SEL program: 10 best practices

If you want to ensure you’re using ESSER funds in the most effective way to implement new SEL programs or strengthen your current ones, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to gain recommendations on best practices for social-emotional learning from the U.S. Surgeon General’s report “Protecting Youth Mental Health.”  

A teacher guides a young student in an SEL activity.

Recommended procedures for effective social-emotional learning  

1. Expand school-wide SEL programs to create a safe, welcoming school culture
The U.S. Surgeon General recommends anti-bullying policies, bystander interventions, and mental health education be put in place to create safe school environments. Look for tools that are evidence-based and focus on both prevention and mitigation supports. Then, ensure that you have buy-in from staff on implementation of practices.  

2. Use evidence-based prevention practices 
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has created a research-based framework to help guide schools in establishing “learning standards and competencies that articulate what students should know and be able to do for academic success, school and civic engagement, health and wellness, and fulfilling careers.” 

Learn more about the five core social-emotional competencies they’ve identified: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. 

3. Prioritize highly effective instructional practices, including hands-on learning 
Virtual learning, social isolation, and not having access to hands-on learning materials — all these things contributed to a decrease in student engagement over the last few years. Now is the time to reinvigorate learning with engaging, hands-on, inquiry-based projects and activities that teach core concepts and enrich learning experiences. 

This project-based learning approach gives students agency in their learning and cultivates a feeling of empowerment and investment in the results. 

A teacher gives a student a high-five after she works on an SEL activity.

4. Provide tools that offer support in school and at home 
You experience how your students’ mental health affects their behavior during the day, but those same students may still struggle when they leave school grounds. Look for additional ways to offer mental health and SEL support outside school to provide longer-term benefits.  

Consider tools that travel with students and activities they can do at home, either for stress relief or to work on skills with their families. This investment in your students provides them with skills they can apply in school, at home, and in their community. Good mental health and SEL practices blend all those spaces. 

5. Increase counseling services 
Studies have shown increases in mental health crisis events for all youth. Because many of their students lack access to mental health professionals, schools are using funds to hire additional school counselors and finding unique ways to connect with students.  

One high school teacher from Ohio recently shared the following: “Our specialist hosts monthly coffee/hot cocoa mornings or lunchtime gatherings where she has different topics they discuss, and she also does more intimate conversations.”  

6. Strengthen family engagement 
Along with school counselors, schools are adding social workers to assist families with basic needs such as housing and food. Some schools are leveraging existing staff, assigning cohorts of students to each staff member. Staff members do check-ins with families to see what they need and connect them with support services. 

Some districts are also hosting SEL family nights, where caregivers can learn about SEL strategies right alongside their children.  

Discover all-in-one SEL kits  

Comprehensive SEL kits give every student the tools they need to feel safe, seen, and centered. Plus, you’ll be able to easily weave SEL into the school day without spending hours on prep.

7. Prioritize high-need and high-risk students 
The National Education Association (NEA) outlines steps schools can take to ensure their more vulnerable students benefit from funding, including the following: 

  • Provide all students with equitable access to connectivity and technological devices, including any necessary assistive devices and adaptive technology.
  • Bargain or collaborate to implement culturally responsive training and programs for educators and students. 
  • Ensure that all students have access to healthy and nutritious meals.
  • Require that the district take clear steps to ensure that students and families are not subjected to bullying or harassment based on their race, ethnicity, or perceived national origin.  

8. Create a peer mentorship program 
Pairing students up with older peers can have a variety of benefits for all involved. Students who may have trouble working with adults can build strong relationships with older peers, benefiting from their guidance and the positive behaviors they model. This can also help influence academic improvement.  

Student mentors benefit as well, gaining communication skills, empathy, and confidence that will help them in college and in future careers.  

A teacher works with a student in her SEL program.

9. Train staff on trauma-informed teaching practices 
Children’s responses to trauma often come in the form of poor behavior and decision-making, so the true origin of the behavior can be hard to recognize.  

Help teachers become better equipped to meet students where they’re at by providing professional development on trauma-informed practices. Training can provide teachers with a better understanding of trauma’s effects on student behavior and best practices for de-escalation. 

10. Focus on staff mental health and support 
It’s hard to fill other people’s tanks when yours is empty. Along with making sure staff feel valued for the work they do, find ways to reduce their stress. This could include finding coverage to give them more prep time, providing more mental health days, encouraging candid conversations around mental health, setting up a teacher buddy system for mentorship, and providing tools and advice for supporting students that teachers can easily put into practice in their classrooms. Download these stress-relieving tips for teachers to get started.  

ESSER funds can also be used to increase salaries, benefits, and working conditions, all of which contribute to better job satisfaction. 

Dig deeper into SEL tools and funding  

To learn more about social-emotional learning tools that qualify for ESSER funding, download the e-book “Maximizing ESSER funds for mental health and SEL: An educator’s guide.”  

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