Leadership, Well at Work, Well-being

Social Emotional Learning for Principals

Strengthening leadership and well-being

Social emotional learning for principals - leadership and well-being

Social emotional learning (SEL) is increasingly recognized as an integral component of education for students, but what about teachers, support staff, and principal? Here the focus is on principals: their own social and emotional well-being as well as their leadership for SEL in their schools.

“So much of our job as administrators is ensuring that we are showing care for our staff, our students, and our parent community. We do so much to put the social and emotional well-being of our primary stakeholders first, that we forget that first and foremost we need to care for ourselves.” – Canadian Principal

Social emotional learning (SEL) is increasingly recognized as an integral component of education (www.casel.org). Canadian educators have recognized the importance of promoting SEL in K-12 schools, and evidence-based SEL programs are used in schools throughout Canada. While these efforts demonstrate significant progress, there is a need for greater attention to supporting the social and emotional well-being of teachers, support staff, and principals. Here we focus on principals: their own social and emotional well-being as well as their leadership for SEL in their schools, with examples from an innovative British Columbia school district.

The problem

“87 percent of principals feel like they never have enough time to complete their tasks, and more than 72 percent feel pressured to work long hours.”

Canadian principals have numerous leadership roles within a complex system that has experienced inconsistent changes in policy, the introduction of new technologies, and a growing emphasis on both accountability and on meeting the unique needs of students, including recent immigrants. All of these changes have compounded the stress experienced by Canadian principals, who are already overworked and overloaded. For example, Ontario principals spend approximately 59 hours per week at work, 14 hours more than managers in other occupations, professionals in the public sector, and corporate executives.1 According to a survey by Statistics Canada, despite the long hours spent at work, 87 percent of principals feel like they never have enough time to complete their tasks, and more than 72 percent feel pressured to work long hours.

Principals’ health and well-being have suffered as their jobs have become more demanding. Research has shown that principals’ work intensification can lead to excessive work-related stress, burnout, and mental health issues.2 As stress intensifies, principals’ self-efficacy can decrease; as burnout intensifies, principals may begin to doubt their ability to fulfill their duties and eventually leave their jobs. To be successful, principals must acquire effective skills and strategies to deal with stress and support their mental health and well-being. This can be accomplished by implementing programs designed to foster SEL and to help principals develop social emotional competencies (SECs).

Benefits of principals’ SEL

We assert that by developing the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour, increasing their social awareness, cultivating healthy relationships, and improving their decision-making skills, principals can increase their effectiveness and better develop the skills to lead the implementation of SEL programs, policies, and practices in their buildings.

While many have promoted the principal’s role as instructional leader, we believe it is most important that principals become prosocial leaders whose responsibility is to ensure that all staff, students, parents, and community members feel safe, cared for, respected and challenged. Principals’ well-being and leadership form the foundation that influences school climate, teacher functioning and well-being, family and community partnerships, and downstream student outcomes.

Extensive research evidence shows that fostering principals’ social and emotional competencies (SEC) is likely to yield benefits not only for school leaders themselves, but for all school stakeholders, including students. Principals’ social and emotional competencies should be an important component in systemic schoolwide SEL as it leads to the following four outcomes:

1. Effective leadership

Principals with strong SECs tend to be effective leaders who manage their schools by adopting a positive, proactive style. Their self-awareness enables them to recognize inequities that may limit students’ potential and opportunities.

2. Healthy relationships

Principals who are more self-aware and reflective develop positive, caring school climates that support social, emotional, and academic outcomes for students. By learning how to listen with full attention and an open and accepting attitude, principals can support teachers to exhibit these same qualities with students.

3. Effective family and community partnerships

Principals who develop strong SECs create a more welcoming atmosphere for parents and community agencies. They see parents as essential to children’s competence, thereby making families feel respected and valued. They also build stronger connections with out-of-school programs that serve families and youth.

4. Effective SEL implementation

Principals who develop strong SECs are better equipped to lead the implementation of SEL programs, policies, and practices in their schools. Such principals are more likely to naturally become SEL leaders.

Planning for SEL in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District

For the past five years, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (MR-PM) School District (B.C.) has been exploring and developing an SEL Framework that embeds SEL in the teaching and learning communities. This framework was developed to include five areas of focus:

    • Evidence-based practice
    • Teaching students SEL
    • School culture and climate
    • Informing and involving parents
    • Social emotional well-being of the adult educators

The following inquiry question is the guiding focus: “How might we collaboratively create a community that reflects care and belonging so that SEL is evident, explicitly taught, and practiced in the everyday interactions among all members of the community?”

The District SEL Planning Committee identified that SEL does not occur in isolation but is embedded and intertwined with all aspects of learning. With the redesign of the B.C. curriculum, teaching of the core and curricular competencies is directly linked to teaching SEL skills.

Action steps to support principals’ SEL

The benefits of principal engagement in SEL are clear, not only for school leaders themselves, but for all school stakeholders. What may be less clear is how to promote principals’ SEL. The following action steps can be taken to support principals.

CARE: Mindfulness-based intervention for principals

Training in mindfulness practices may help principals develop SECs. We have been evaluating a mindfulness-based professional development program originally designed to support teachers that was modified to support principals. CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) is designed to nurture educators’ self-awareness and reflectivity, and to help them understand and regulate their emotions with the goal of improving health and well-being (www.createforeducation.org). Our evaluation of CARE with principals in rural Pennsylvania showed that principals reported improvements in leadership skills, relationships, and self-care, and increased self-awareness, ability to regulate emotions, self-management and self-compassion.3 Although these findings are promising, experimental research is needed to further investigate the effects of mindfulness programs for principals.

Example: Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows CARE Training for Principals

As a result of this school district’s commitment to nurturing SEC in administrators, in the summer of 2016, they all received CARE Program training. One vice-principal commented, “It was awesome! I will be using these strategies moving forward.” Another vice-principal said that they appreciated having the time to practice the CARE skills, while another found “the training to be an excellent reminder of practices I need to incorporate.”

Social Emotional Learning - Work or Life

In November 2017, Michelle Davis (author) was trained as a trainer and in 2019, she facilitated the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (MR-PM) School District CARE training for new administrators. She reflects, “One of the things I’ve learned about being a lone administrator in a school is balance and role modeling. I cannot ask staff to take care of themselves, if I’m not modeling the same. It’s important to have a work-life balance. This job can consume all of you. When we take the time to care for ourselves, it opens us up to being reflective learners. It opens us up to growing as leaders and educators. Some of my quietest moments are when self-reflecting. It helps me see the big picture and where I can have the most impact. If I don’t find those moments, I get caught up in the quick fixes and stay on that loop without making meaningful change. Implementing the CARE practices has helped my leadership skills in that I am more self-aware and can manage my emotions in high-stress situations, which then has a direct impact on the emotions of the staff and students.”

Effective professional development for school administrators

Almost all professional development programs for principals focus on improving school performance (i.e. curricula, initiatives, pedagogical strategies) rather than developing skills to support their own well-being or promote effective prosocial leadership. Just as in other industries, professional development programs are needed to: (a) cultivate principals’ own social emotional well-being, and (b) provide principals with the skills to lead SEL implementation effectively.

“Being ‘burned out’ and ‘busy’ seems to be equated with ‘productivity,’ when in fact principals who are stressed and overworked are less effective.”

Systems thinking and SEL

Recently, Goleman and Senge proposed a Triple Focus Model for schools.4 This model focuses on emotional intelligence and developing compassion for self and others, with an added focus on systems-level thinking. Such an approach focuses not only on the mindful awareness of the individual, but also on using systems thinking and tools to understand the larger social field. In education, the larger social field is a school’s organizational culture, which includes its system of beliefs and values and the rituals and routines by which they are communicated. The great news is that B.C. has already begun an innovative program for supporting schools to use systems thinking.

Focus on self-care and work-life balance

In the current culture of education, being “burned out” and “busy” seems to be equated with “productivity,” when in fact principals who are stressed and overworked are less effective. Provincial governments, divisions, school boards, and professional associations must prioritize promoting a culture of self-care that does not make principals and staff feel guilty for taking time to attend to their own personal well-being.

As a Canadian principal noted: “We need to be OK with letting some things stay on the to-do list and accept that it will get done another day. Our staff is involved in many district initiatives and projects and as a school leader, I tell staff that we will concentrate on doing a few things well, rather than stretching ourselves and doing everything without deepening our learning.”

Social-Emotional Learning for Principals Question and Answer

Cultivating coaching or mentoring models

While shorter-term professional development programs may help principals learn how to cultivate their social and emotional well-being, the learning-application process requires sustained support over time. Creating local networks for school leaders could be a useful way to connect principals with other school leaders who face similar tasks and issues. Schools should provide principals with ongoing professional development opportunities and establish mentoring programs to cultivate SECs.

Example: Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Mentorship Support for Principals

MR-PM realized that principals often feel isolated and are unable to find opportunities to reflect and to deconstruct events happening in their buildings with others. Principalship can be a very lonely job! So, MR-PM created a mentorship program for new and nearly new administrators to help them navigate their complex jobs and emotionally challenging days. It has proven to be welcomed by the administrators and considered as a great support for them.

Longer-term principal assignments

Research clearly indicates that lower mobility among administrators, teachers and students promotes relational conditions that are conducive to caring. Turnover among principals is a great concern, given their critical role in leading long-term school improvement efforts. Moreover, principal turnover leads to teacher turnover, which increases dissatisfaction and “burnout,” and decreases the potential for satisfying, caring relationships. Principal stability is especially important in schools in impoverished communities where students have greater mobility. Overall, creating greater stability for principals through longer-term assignments would support the development of school environments that foster SEL for all school stakeholders.

Principals in Canada encounter highly stressful emotional situations on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many school leaders are still learning the skills necessary to respond effectively. Principals who develop their own SECs are better able to establish and sustain healthy relationships, exhibit effective leadership, build strong community partnerships, and implement SEL programs in schools. Based on this evidence, we have recommended several actions that can be taken by school boards, principal training programs, and professional associations to support school leaders’ well-being and the quality implementation of SEL programs in Canadian schools.


Illustration: Diana Pham and Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, December 2019

1 Pollock et al., Statistics Canada (2015).

2 J. Mahfouz, M. T. Greenberg, and A. Rodriquez, (2019) Principal’s Social and Emotional Competence: A key factor for creating caring schools (Edna Bennet Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University: 2019).

3 J. Mahfouz, “Mindfulness Training for School Administrators: Effects on well-being and leadership,” Journal of Educational Administration 56, no. 6 (2018): 602-619.

4 D. Goleman and P. Senge, The Triple Focus: A new approach to education (Florence, MA: More Than Sound: 2014).

Meet the Expert(s)

Mark T. Greenberg

Emeritus Professor, Bennett Chair of Prevention Science, Pennsylvania State University

Mark T. Greenberg, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Bennett Chair of Prevention Research in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State Universi...

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Julia Mahfouz_headshot

Dr. Julia Mahfouz

Assistant Professor, University of Idaho

Julia Mahfouz, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership program, Department of Leadership and Counseling at the University of Idaho. Her ...

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Michelle Davis

Elementary Principal, School District 42: Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows

Michelle Davis, MEd, is a principal with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District in British Columbia, and is a member of the District’s Social Emotion...

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Christa Turksma headshot

Christa Turksma

CARE developer & facilitator, CREATE

Christa Turksma is a child-clinical psychologist who has worked in all aspects of education including as a teacher, administrator and coach for other teacher...

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