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T-SEL Competencies and Conditions for Thriving

Information and resources to support student success through implementation of Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (T-SEL).

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has become an increasingly important part of education in California and in many states across the U.S. Coordinated efforts to promote and infuse high-quality, equity-focused SEL across the California education system bring us closer to the California Department of Education (CDE) vision of advancing a “whole child” approach to education, as originally articulated in the 2013 shift to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

Specifically, SEL is aligned with the state education priorities described in the LCFF, particularly priorities 4) Student Achievement, 5) Student Engagement, and 6) School Climate. As a result, many districts have articulated SEL goals and strategies within their Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs). The resources provided on these web pages will support the successful implementation of these plans. Further, these resources may also be used to inform and support continued implementation of programs aligned to California’s Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) External link opens in new window or tab. Framework, which centers SEL as a key element of a fully integrated system of support for the benefit of all students.

As CDE continues its efforts to advance Transformative SEL (T-SEL), in partnership with the many thousands of leaders, educators, policymakers, youth development professionals, families, and young people across our state, we hope that the tools offered here help to inform and bolster this essential work on behalf of California’s children and youth.

T-SEL Competencies & Conditions

In 2017, the CDE SEL Team (a work group of practitioners, scholars, and leaders from across the state) developed the California SEL Guiding Principles (PDF), which affirmed SEL as “an essential part of a well-rounded, quality education in all youth-serving settings.” In addition to creating the Guiding Principles, the CDE’s first SEL Team generated a suite of recommendations that called for the development of voluntary practice guidelines that spoke explicitly to California’s diverse regional, cultural, racial, linguistic, and socioeconomic contexts.

In early 2020, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond launched the Advance SEL in California Campaign. The initiative engaged diverse California education stakeholders to gather perspectives on SEL practices, needs, and goals. The project culminated with a report External link opens in new window or tab. (informed by the participation of nearly 2,000 educators, students, parents, and other stakeholders) on the status of SEL in California, with recommendations for how teachers, school leaders, and families across the state can address the social and emotional needs of students. The key finding of the initiative was that SEL is more important than ever—and racial equity must be an integral part of SEL supports.

To implement the recommendations made by the first CDE SEL State Team and those contained in the Advance SEL report, the CDE convened a new SEL work group in 2020. Over the course of more than a year, the 2020 CDE SEL work group developed three core products:

These guidance tools, developed for voluntary use, aim to build on and respond to the call from California’s diverse stakeholders to embed equity-focused T-SEL in every learning and teaching context across the education system.

While a diverse team of knowledgeable and committed stakeholders was convened to collaborate on the creation of these research-based tools, and feedback was solicited from many stakeholders, the CDE plans to refine these resources as we learn more regarding how they are being used across the state. Please consider sharing feedback regarding your experiences with the California T-SEL Competencies and Conditions for Thriving.

Rationale & Research

Two decades of research External link opens in new window or tab. confirm that evidence-based SEL contributes to important student outcomes, including academic attainment (on average SEL programs improved students’ academic performance by 11 percent) and “improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school” (Durlak et al., 2011 External link opens in new window or tab. [PDF]). Social and emotional competencies are essential to college and career readiness and success External link opens in new window or tab. and also associated with longer term benefits External link opens in new window or tab., such as improved economic mobility and decreased likelihood of being incarcerated. In sum, SEL is an essential piece of the developmental and societal puzzle in ensuring more equitable outcomes for our children and young people.

The Science of Learning and Development External link opens in new window or tab. is an interdisciplinary body of work drawing on neuroscience, epigenetics, learning science, social and emotional learning, early childhood development, the science of adversity, racial equity, and human development that offers a blueprint for how education and youth development experiences can be shaped to ensure all children have the opportunity to thrive. The Science of Learning and Development names social and emotional learning as a key part of a holistic, science-driven framework for reimagining our education system. This research reinforces insights expressed External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) in 2017 by the Aspen Institute's Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development’s Council of Distinguished scientists that all learning is social and emotional, i.e., “major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior, and all are central to learning.” Our thoughts and cognition cannot be separated from our emotions, and harnessing one’s emotions, not suppressing or controlling, in service of learning and growth must be the goal. Further, learning is a relational activity—we learn with and from others and experiencing caring, supportive relationships is central to healthy development.

In a 2017 study External link opens in new window or tab., American Institutes for Research identified 136 social and emotional competency frameworks from more than 20 areas of study illustrating that there are many valid ways to define and advance SEL in schools and other learning settings. For the purposes of coherence and in acknowledgement of its position as the SEL field’s leading practice, policy, and research organization and facilitator of the Collaborating States Initiative External link opens in new window or tab. (of which CDE is a part), the SEL work group chose to use the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) definition of SEL. CASEL initially defined SEL more than 25 years ago and updated External link opens in new window or tab. the definition in 2020 to more centrally locate identity development, educational equity, and adult-student co-creation of learning environments in service of more just communities:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

SEL advances educational equity and excellence through authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation. SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.

CASEL’s SEL framework articulates a systemic approach in which adults intentionally focus on their own social and emotional growth in order to effectively support student skill development across key developmental settings through collaborative planning and improvement processes. CASEL’s interconnected five core SEL competencies External link opens in new window or tab.—self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—and those key settings are seen in the “CASEL wheel” (Figure 1). In addition to the definition and competencies updates, CASEL, along with academic and practitioner partners, began to formulate an expression of their framework, drawing on scholarship from disciplines such as liberatory education, that describes ways in which SEL can be harnessed to advance social justice: Transformative SEL (T-SEL).

Figure 1. CASEL SEL Framework

Figure 1:CASEL SEL Framework - Follow the link immediate after the image for a long description.

Figure 1 Long Description

Source: ©2020 CASEL. Social and Emotional Learning Framework External link opens in new window or tab.. All rights reserved.

The Promise of Transformative SEL and Core Beliefs about Competencies

A 2021 research brief External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) issued by CASEL and the University of Michigan, states:

Transformative SEL was introduced as a way to integrate an explicit equity and social justice lens into the conceptualization and implementation of social and emotional learning (SEL). As Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Williams (2019) External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) explain, it is a form of SEL aimed at interrupting the reproduction of inequitable educational environments by attending to issues of identity, agency, belonging, and related issues such as power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, social justice, empowerment, and self-determination.

The CDE aims to support and advance the efforts of educators across California who are working to fully integrate systemic SEL and equity by building on the promise of T-SEL as a concept. CDE seeks to do this by articulating developmental indicators for CASEL’s five core competencies External link opens in new window or tab. and naming examples of the conditions that facilitate T-SEL at every level of the education system. This approach makes clear that SEL is not a method to “correct” the behavior of students—Black and brown students in particular, who receive punitive and disproportionate discipline External link opens in new window or tab. for not conforming to a system that elevates norms of the dominant culture—nor is it an extension or component of widespread adult compliance-driven behavior interventions. Rather, SEL in California is a transformative, human development process grounded in robust equity, cultural expansiveness, and anti-racism that is the foundation of a successful, self-determined, and fulfilling life. The goal of a transformative approach to SEL, and education generally, is to create a more expansive and inclusive system which benefits all students, educators, leaders, and families by taking a targeted universalism External link opens in new window or tab. approach and using strategies based on the needs of each group to reach universal goals.

The T-SEL Competencies and T-SEL Conditions for Thriving aim to answer these questions:

  • What knowledge and capacities do humans need to thrive individually and as a community?
  • What does it look like to create a culture of care, inclusion, belonging, agency, and liberation?

Yet it must be acknowledged that the answer cannot be captured in a guide or set of instructions: SEL is a dynamic, reciprocal, nonlinear process which calls for fundamental shifts in systems, structures, policies, and practices, which create the conditions in which optimal teaching and learning occur. These tools are simply contributions to an expansive, ongoing, iterative set of actions.

Further, the Competencies and Conditions are aspirational in that they are intended to spark conversation, reflection, and action while moving education in California forward in pursuit of equity and excellence. Every school and system is at a different place in the journey toward adoption of a transformative SEL lens—some are new to the concept while others are leading this work and their insights have informed the development of these tools. These products should be accessed in ways that serve to propel each educator, school, and system forward, wherever they are on their journey, toward full adoption of the Conditions and Competencies. As the key settings in the systemic framework illustrate, social and emotional learning happens in many contexts beyond those addressed in the Conditions, such as at home among family and in neighborhoods and communities with friends and neighbors. We know that opportunities for development exist across a complex ecosystem and school systems must partner with, and learn from, families and communities.

Purpose & Use

Core Beliefs about SEL Competencies

An unintended consequence of articulating traditional developmental SEL competencies is that they can, and have, been used “against” children who are not members of the dominant culture as a means to assert the social, cultural, linguistic, and behavioral norms of the dominant culture. It is imperative that the T-SEL Competencies are not used to perpetuate injustice and users should understand that the Competencies are:

  • Not standards, nor are they a tool to assess, evaluate, or identify deficits in students or adults.
  • Not prescriptive or comprehensive but rather illustrative—there may be more or different indicators that are appropriate for individual learning contexts, cultures, populations of students, and communities.
  • Not only “behavioral” indicators—the term ‘indicators’ often refers to observable behavior in social and emotional learning competencies. The indicators developed for the T-SEL Competencies do include some observable behaviors, but also describe knowledge, habits, mindsets, dispositions, processes, and experiences students and adults may have to foster the respective competence.
  • Not intended to supplant existing, evidence-based competencies and indicators local educational agencies (LEAs) have already successfully adopted. Rather, they can be used to conduct a gap analysis and fill in or refine any missing elements of local competencies where appropriate.
  • Designed to be additive in that the indicator skills in lower grades need to be ‘carried through’ or continuously reviewed, refined, and expanded upon in a developmentally appropriate way as students age.

What Are the Tools?

Transformative SEL Competencies Conditions for Thriving
This tool includes adapted definitions of CASEL’s five core competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—that center equity and anti-racism. It is important to note that the Competencies are not as discrete and separate as the framework implies—they are interconnected, overlapping, and as described by CASEL: “braided.” The tool also provides research-based rationales and student (“I Can”) and community (“We Can”) statements for each competency. Illustrative developmental indicators are offered for each competency that are additive (they aim to build on the previous grade band’s content), strengths-based, and loosely clustered under the categories of identity, belonging, and agency. Readiness and reflection prompts accompany the Competencies. This tool outlines conditions that support SEL development, across all levels and stakeholders of the education system. This product expands upon the California SEL Guiding Principles and articulates how to apply or enact the Principles in classrooms, schools, districts, county offices of education, and at the state level and other learning settings. Readiness and reflection prompts accompany the Conditions.

How Do These Tools Interact?

Conditions include the “people work” or the practices used and actions taken by adults in the system at every level and the structures and policies put into place to shape the environment.

Competencies are the knowledge, skills, dispositions, and capacities that children and young people can develop when the conditions are supportive to their healthy, whole development including academic success. SEL competency development and experience are also necessary for access to equitable outcomes. Importantly, social and emotional competence development is a lifelong process and it is essential that adults continue to intentionally build their social and emotional competencies in order to be able to model and teach the skills to students and other adults.

Conditions and competencies are reciprocal and dynamic in that the more adults and students in the system develop and enhance their social and emotional competence, the more capable they are at cultivating conditions for thriving for themselves and each other. And, the more conducive the conditions are to fostering social and emotional competencies the more likely it is that adults and students will continue to build those skills.  See Figure 2.

The Readiness Project (2020) External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) explains:

A young person’s success is linked to their capacity to thrive – to feel, be, and be seen as competent in multiple life domains – and is a product of their opportunities to develop individual competencies and experience supportive conditions. Adults can support young people to succeed and thrive through life by helping them develop their individual competencies, and also by providing supportive conditions while working with them and their families to address historical and institutional barriers.

Figure 2. How the Competencies and Conditions Work Together to Support Positive Outcomes

Figure 2: T-SEL Conditions and Competencies. Visit the link below the image for a long description.

Figure 2 Long Description

Who Are the Tools For?

Transformative SEL Competencies Conditions for Thriving
Can be used by any educator or youth development professional in any learning environment serving K–12 students or anyone creating training, pre-service, or in-service professional learning for adults who work with children and young people. For change agents and decision-makers at each level of the school system, including classroom educators and school staff, building and district administrators, county office of education staff, state department of education staff and organizations, and policy shapers who work to support or influence those contexts.

How Should the Tools Be Used?

Transformative SEL Competencies Conditions for Thriving
  • The Transformative SEL Competencies can be used to design social, emotional, and academic instruction and to guide curriculum selection and delivery.
  • Educators and leaders can use the Competencies to create or identify lessons that give learners opportunities to build the knowledge, skills, and capacities outlined in the appropriate developmental band. Research External link opens in new window or tab. indicates that SEL programs that provide lessons that are sequenced, provide opportunities for active learning, are focused on specific skill development, and provide explicit social and emotional skills instruction (or S.A.F.E) are most effective.
  • Practitioners can use the Competencies to expand and enrich their teaching practice and embed T-SEL learning opportunities throughout the school day and beyond.
  • The Competencies and indicators are illustrative, not comprehensive, not to be used to replace Competencies that are working well for LEAs, nor to be used for assessment purposes.
  • Student neurodiversity is not widely taken into account in the competency indicators and for some populations of students the developmental bands are not appropriate or relevant.
  • The Conditions for Thriving provide guidance to stakeholders on what it looks like to operationalize the California SEL Guiding Principles across classrooms, schools, districts, county offices of education and at the state level. This includes practices and actions that enable equity-focused learning environments, in which children and adults have opportunities to develop and practice social and emotional skills.
  • The Conditions provide multiple access points and encourages a focus on ‘retooling’ the system toward a whole child development focus using new and existing assets instead of a singular focus on student outcomes.
  • The examples can be used to systematically assess conditions for the purposes of improvement, to expand and enrich practice, and ensure T-SEL is woven throughout the teaching and learning experience.
  • A strong recommendation is not to try to do ‘everything’ but rather choose focus areas for your conditions improvement work and aim to make progress incrementally over time.
Questions:   Professional Learning Innovations Office | CaliforniaSEL@cde.ca.gov | 916-322-9503
Last Reviewed: Wednesday, July 21, 2021
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