Social-Emotional Learning Informed Leadership Development

Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2018 |

If social emotional learning is good for students in our school system, then it must be good for school system leadership as well. This article considers how to best support those who support schools in formal leadership roles.

Narrative Reflection

UBC Dean of Education Dr. Blye Frank speaks about courageous leadership (Frank, Blye, personal communication, Nov. 2017). His statements such as “you need resilience to make the difficult decisions” and “forming strong relationships and effective communication are two vital pillars of leadership” shows the value he places on the importance of the affective aspects of leadership.

Breakspear, Peterson, Alfada and Khair (2017) focus on what leaders should be able to know, be able to do, and be. The be of leadership includes what is often known as “soft skills” which “lie at the core of our being – the way we think, the way we perceive and interact with others, the way we listen, and our ability to maneuver the daily challenges of the job with professionalism and grace” (Brungardt, 2011, p. 3). This reading also promotes the importance of attending to personal, social and emotional dimensions in the process of leadership development.

Despite this research base, the development of social, emotional, and cognitive skills are often missing in school leaders’ preparation and neglected in leadership development today (Patti, Senge, Madrazo, & Stern, 2015). Affective and cognitive skills are essential in K-16 leadership for deeper learning to occur. In promoting and supporting this social emotional learning (SEL) for young people, adults need to learn and model SEL competencies such as self-management, self-awareness, social awareness and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2018).

In a similar vein, William Glasser’s (1998) Choice Theory states that all human behaviour is driven by an intrinsic motivation to meet four basic psychological and one physiological needs: belonging, freedom, power, fun and survival. An understanding of these basic needs provides a solid foundation for creating and managing a high-quality, needs satisfying (Schindler, 2010) learning environment.

As a classroom teacher, school principal and university adjunct professor, I have seen the power of teaching Glasser’s theory to both children and adults as a way to develop CASEL’s five SEL core competencies. In my experience, attuning to learners’ needs and creating awareness as to how these needs intrinsically motivate them and their peers, helps to create a common language, a shared understanding and greater empathy of one another’s social emotional needs. Could this theory serve as a lens when working with formal leadership groups and their own leadership development?

Putting Social Emotional Learning and Leadership Development through a Spiral of Inquiry

The Spiral of Inquiry has six key stages. At each stage of the spiral, three questions are asked: What is going on for our learners?, How do we know?, and Why does this matter?


As a start to my professional inquiry, I scanned my local Principals’ / Vice Principals’ (PVP) association by asking them the social emotional question and one cognitive question pertaining to the “Four Key Questions” used within the Spirals of Inquiry:

  • “Do you feel you have a couple of allies and champions within our association?”
  • “Where are you going with your learning?” (Timperley, Kaser & Halbert, 2014, p. 8).

My intent was to get a feel of where our formal leadership group was in terms of their sense of belonging and connectedness to one another, as well as where they felt they were in terms of their learning pertaining to both the educational leadership and management side of the PVP role.

The data showed that almost 10% of our group felt they did not have an ally or champion within our association. Nearly everyone responded they would welcome and benefit from having an assigned buddy or critical friend within our association. Most respondents also felt they had professional expertise they could share with colleagues. Almost all agreed professional learning was a priority for them. Of the 10% who did not feel connected, all were new Vice Principals or Principals to our district.

Figure 1. Survey Results for “Do you feel you have a couple of allies and champions within our association?”


Given this data, I focused on all new PVP members who were either new to our District or new to their role and performed another scan. Through the process of conducting interviews I inquired into “What is going well? What challenges are you facing?, and What do you need to feel supported within your role?” Two themes emerged. The first theme was the desire to have a coach/buddy/critical friend to whom PVP members could turn regarding matters pertaining to district procedures, context, historical data and general “who do I call for what” type things. This sentiment was evident in the following thoughts from PVP members:

“I wonder if it would be helpful to automatically pair up new people with experienced as an informal mentorship system – I think it would help to have someone (my experience is best to connect to someone outside your building) to check in regularly to see how things are going. It always seems that there is so much to learn, and we all feel stupid asking when we know we have been given some information. For me I found there was lots that wasn’t covered either – not sure if there were assumptions that I should know from the years I did in another district or not – everything is the same, but done in a different way.” (John)


“Would maybe like a bit more of a formal structure to our relationship as mentor/mentee. I feel I can call anytime or meet for coffee outside of school time, but perhaps a bit of release time would be beneficial, especially when starting to work on my growth plan.” (Carly)

The need to connect with one another spans across both groups, experienced and new, PVPs. Most respondents voiced an interest in having a buddy, or critical friend, as their preferred means for support. According to Glasser’s Choice Theory, this would fall under the need for belonging.


Figure 2. Survey Results for “What type of support structure would be most helpful/interesting to you?”

The other theme emerged around building knowledge regarding school management topics. Perceived challenges according to our newest PVP members included:

“Systems for doing things are done differently – i.e. entering hours for support staff – how to enter, who to call etc., budgets – how they are allocated, what costs are district expenses what are school expenses.” (Cameron)


“As I’m new to this, I feel there is a lot to learn. I know all admin are at different levels of expertise and not all need/want some of the basic management training, so perhaps teaming up with SD 53 and offer some at a ‘beginner’s level’.” (Susan)

Developing a Hunch

Using the Spiral of Inquiry (Kaser & Halbert, 2013) as my framework and taking into account the scan of my Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ association members, the process sparked my curiosity around the use of Glasser’s work with formal leaders. My hunch led me to suspect there was work to do within this area.

  • What would be the effects on leadership development within our PVP association of using Glasser’s Choice Theory as a lens for cultivating a “needs satisfying” environment?
  • How would providing structures to meet PVP’s five basic needs impact leadership development of both the individual learning leader and the larger PVP group?

New Learning

The next step of my inquiry included connecting with and learning from a school district where a strong multi-faceted leadership development and support structure for their formal leaders was created. Nancy Gordon, Assistant Superintendent at the Delta School District, offered to provide this horizontal connection for my new learning by sharing her story of how she moved her ideas and bold vision into action. The results included transformative change within her school district in how her formal leaders were supported and developed.

Gordon and colleagues used current research from Leithwood (2013) and Honig (2012) to ground their transformational shift and school district investment in leadership development. After surveying their PVP members to scan for their current needs, Gordon and her team developed a six strand leadership program entitled “Leading for Learning” with a target audience being Principals, Vice-Principals, Exempt Staff Leaders, as well as some opportunities for teachers aspiring to school-based leadership positions. The six strands included a learning alliance (research and practice series), a new Principal and Vice-Principal Toolbox Series, a Mentoring Series, a dinner series with thought leaders, a Leadership Coaching Series and a Teacher Leaders Series. The OECD’s Principles of Learning (Dumont, Istance, & Benavides, 2012) served to ground each strand of the six leadership opportunities.

Taking Action

Nancy’s story was inspiring and has led me to create my own action plan that is in its initial stages. Using Glasser’s Choice Theory as the lens for creating a support and development structure, my multi-year plan will address the two priority needs identified in my scan through a collegial peer support structure. These will include creating a “Wise Friend” structure for our new/nearly new PVP’s, “Chat & Chew” gatherings to encourage collaboration regarding school related issues and peer led professional learning sessions.


Collectively, as a PVP team, we will check in regularly to see if these support structures are making a difference in terms of their feelings of belonging/connectedness and skill/competence. This checking, will inform us whether we have made enough of a difference and where we need to go next.


As pointed out in the beginning of this paper, SEL competencies are integral to leadership development. My background and interest within the area of SEL and other related work including Glasser’s Needs Theory sparked my interest in applying this to an inquiry relating to my local PVP team. Leaning on colleagues such as Nancy Gordon for support and new learning has been instrumental in bolstering my conviction to create structures of support for new and nearly new PVP members that will meet their need for deeper connections, a sense of belonging, and a greater sense of competence within their roles. The journey begins now.

Heather Rose

Heather is an educator and elementary school principal from SD #67 Okanagan Skaha. She is actively involved within her BCPVPA association within the professional learning and leadership development strand. Heather is also part of the UBC Okanagan adjunct faculty and Summer Institute for Educators having taught courses on the topics of Social Emotional Learning for Diverse Learners, Positive Strategies for Challenging Behaviour as well as Transformative Classroom Management. Heather enjoys working alongside educator colleagues in co-creating meaningful, creative and engaging ways to embed SEL strength-based practices into all areas of the curriculum. She is currently interested in researching the connection between adult social emotional competencies and leadership development.


Breakspear, S., Peterson, A., Alfadala, A. & Khair, M. (2017). Developing Agile Leaders of Learning: School Leadership Policy for Dynamic Times. Paper for the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE): Qatar.

Brungardt, C. (2011). The intersection between soft skill development and leadership education. Journal of Leadership Education, 10(1), 1-22.

Dumont, H., Istance, D., & Benavides, F. (Eds.). (2012). The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice. Practitioner guide to Innovative Learning Environment Project. Paris: OECD Publications.

Durlak, J.A., Domitrovich, C.E., Weissberg, R.P. & Gullotta, T.P. Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. (2015). The Guilford Press. New York.

Glasser, William. (1998). Choice Theory. HarperCollins Publishers. New York.

Honig, M. I., (2012). District Central Office Leadership as Teaching: How Central Office Administrators Support Principals’ Development as Instructional Leaders. Educational Administration Quarterly 48(4) 733-774.

Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2013). Spiral of inquiry: For equity and equality. Vancouver, BC: Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association.

Leithwood, K. (2013). Strong Districts & their Leadership. A Paper Commissioned by The Council of Ontario Directors of Education and The Institute for Education Leadership.

Patti, J., Senge, Peter., Madrazo, C. & Stern, R. (2015). Developing Socially, Emotionally, and Cognitively Competent School Leaders and Learning Communities. Chapter 29.

Shindler, John. (2010). Transformative Classroom Management: Positive Strategies to Engage All Students and Promote a Psychology of Success. Josey-Bass Publishing. San Francisco.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Hymel, S. (2007)Educating the heart as well as the mind: Why social and emotional learning is critical for students’ school and life success. Education Canada, 47, 20-25.

Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014) A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Center for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No 234.