InsideSEL Founder on His Mission to Amplify Social-Emotional Learning

Ecstatic
Ecstatic
Jul 24 · 7 min read

In July, we connected with Nick Woolf, founder of Inside SEL whose mission is to amplify the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country.


Ecstatic: Why did you start Inside SEL and what’s your goal with it?

Nick Woolf: I have been interested in the topic of ‘social and emotional learning’ since my days as an undergraduate student at Tufts University when I first started to explore research on the intersection between positive youth development, technology, and athletics. Back then, in 2012, SEL was just starting to gain traction as a topic of interest in the education field. Fast-forward seven years (to 2019), and social-emotional learning has completely blown-up in the sense that you have millions of dollars of venture capital flowing into the space. Researchers, consultants, entrepreneurs, educators, policymakers and practitioners are all acknowledging that social and emotional competencies are critically important life skills for students of all ages, and they’re all working to figure out the best ways to implement and measure it.

When I decided to return to graduate school this past fall to pursue a Master’s in social-emotional learning, I started to look for news outlets and blogs to follow so that I could brush up on the latest research and access the latest read articles from the education world. I subscribe to (and love) daily newsletters such as Snacks Daily and Morning Brew, and I also wanted to see if there were any similar subscription options for SEL content.

While there are some great SEL-related blogs out there (I personally recommend SEL for Teachers and Edutopia’s SEL Blog), I could not find a single source that provided curated content across multiple outlets that were specifically focused on SEL. As a result, I decided to create my own blog to help deepen my knowledge of social-emotional learning and curate SEL-related news to share with a wider audience. I launched Inside SEL back in August of 2018, started our monthly newsletter about six weeks later, and we have been iterating and growing ever since.

Our goal is pretty simple: we want to act as a megaphone, amplifying the great work already being carried out by leaders in education across the country. We do this through a combination of original content, content curation, research-practice analysis, research guides, and interviews. But, ultimately, the hope is to provide one central location for sharing SEL-related news and insights to help initiate more meaningful conversations about how to enhance learning for all students.

Nick Woolf, Founder of Inside SEL

Ecstatic: What have you been most surprised by in the SEL research literature?

NW: We review tons of research on social-emotional learning and related topics, and — in doing so — our goal is to try and translate the empirical findings in an easily digestible manner, so that any educator, parent, or school leader can quickly understand the context and key takeaways. One of the most interesting patterns that I have observed is how closely the research on improving school culture mirrors studies on corporate workplace culture transformation.

Prior to enrolling in my graduate program, I worked for five years at Next Jump, a technology company that partners with many large organizations (from branches of the U.S. military to Fortune 500 firms) to help them improve their culture. So much of the challenges facing CEOs and corporate leaders in terms of creating new initiatives and programs for employees are the same obstacles that superintendents and principals are facing with regards to implementing social and emotional learning. I have yet to see any research that examines the two fields (elementary education and adult education/workforce development) through the same lens, but it feels like there are likely some best practices of research findings from the education world that could apply to the corporate world (or vice versa).

Ecstatic: If you could go back in time almost a year, what advice would you give yourself on starting an SEL related blog?

NW: I think the best piece of advice would have been to experiment more and think more creatively in terms of the types of content that educators would find value in. For the first few months, I was thinking very narrowly in terms of what Inside SEL could be, and it took me a while before I realized that producing a wide variety of resources would accelerate the scaling process. We supplemented our original thought pieces with articles that focused on analyzing and translating research. We began asking for input and feedback from subscribers, which led to the creation of our Research Guides, Reading List and Job Listings page.

Another lesson in building Inside SEL has been the value of bootstrapping. The process of growing this completely organically, from the ground-up without any outside investment (so far, the only money I have personally invested has been the $12 to purchase the domain) has been such a great learning experience. Going from literally zero subscribers in August to thousands of passionate followers within the span of just a few months has been a whirlwind, and hearing/seeing reactions from educators who enjoy our content is always super rewarding.

Ecstatic: What are your top articles that you’d recommend to someone who doesn’t know anything about SEL?

NW: I’m going to cheat here and include some videos and podcast episodes, but here are four that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning about social and emotional learning:

  • Carol Dweck on Rethinking ‘Growth Mindset’: Carol Dweck literally wrote the book on growth mindset, and she is one of the leading researchers in the field. This piece offers an interesting look at some of the early issues educators have encountered with regards to social and emotional learning programs.
  • Seth Godin on Education: this video at TEDxYouth of author and thought-leader Seth Godin talking about his views on education is amazing.
  • Why SEL is Suddenly in the Spotlight: this podcast episode features Christina Cipriano — Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence — who does a great job of simplifying what SEL is and how schools are implementing evidence-based SEL programs.
  • Interview with CASEL’s Chief Knowledge Officer: this podcast episode focuses on the origins of CASEL (one of the leading non-profits advancing research-practice integration within the field) and the history of social-emotional learning more generally.

There are tons of other great websites with information about SEL, including CASEL and The Aspen Institute.

Ecstatic: In your opinion, what is the lowest hanging fruit in terms of implementing some of the SEL research?

NW: I think that there is a commonly held misconception that implementing social-emotional learning in a classroom means adding new lessons or curriculum on top students’ existing schedules. While there is research that points to the value of stand-alone instruction on social and emotional competencies, it seems that integrating SEL into existing subjects (such as mathematics, English, history, and science) is even more valuable. Leaders that are able to articulate this effectively can simultaneously win over their staff and educators (by showing that this is not intended to add more to their already overflowing plates) while also piggybacking off of existing curriculum.

For instance: many elementary and middle schools already have some type of community service-learning project (in which students learn about a topic while creating something that will benefit an external organization or cause) that is included within a science or history curriculum. Given the civic engagement-focused nature of these lessons, they can serve as an ideal place for students to learn and practice social-emotional skills.

Or, at an even simpler level, any classroom activity that requires students to work in groups can be repurposed to more deliberately focus on the competencies of social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Ecstatic: If you could tell every school administrator in America just one thing or give one piece of advice related to SEL what would it be?

NW: Start small. Over and over again, I have seen school leaders attend workshops and symposiums on how to implement social-emotional learning programs and walk away with a huge, ambitious plan on how they are going to get started ASAP and introduce five-to-ten new initiatives. The enthusiasm is great, but the reality is that creating change is incredibly difficult. Shifting the culture of an entire school does not happen overnight, nor does convincing educators that they need to now introduce a whole slew of new teaching practices and projects.

I have also seen individuals walk away from the same workshops feeling completely overwhelmed by all the different potential options they have for introducing SEL into their school or district. Especially in cases where a Director of Social-Emotional Learning or Principal is at a point where they are literally just starting to think about SEL, it can be a totally paralyzing process.

In both cases, I think that deliberately choosing one initiative, program or pilot to start with can be incredibly helpful. Instead of overwhelming yourself (and your staff) with too much new content, picking one new item to focus on — and quickly evaluating whether or not it’s working — can be a very effective way to get the ball rolling. Many school leaders that I have spoken with echo this sentiment, and the majority tend to start with crafting a shared vision for what SEL truly looks like in their school or introducing professional development on SEL for teachers.

Ecstatic: Where can people learn more about Inside SEL and your progress?

NW: You can read all of our content on our website (www.insidesel.com) and subscribe to our free monthly newsletter (This Month in SEL) at http://insidesel.substack.com. The newsletter is delivered at the end of each month and curates the most relevant headlines, resources, research & insights from the previous ~30 days.

If you want to send over any feedback or questions, you can also contact me directly at Nicholas.woolf@tufts.edu.


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Ecstatic helps schools empower their student support staff using data and insights so that they can support their students like never before.

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