The Importance of Instructional Scaffolding in SEL Programming

Lucille Rivin
Lucille Rivin
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The importance of instructional scaffolding in educational programs cannot be overstated. 

Picture a scaffold set up for a construction site or for building maintenance. You see a strong framework structure upon which additional levels can be built, and which makes it possible for a variety of work to be done effectively on that building. Without this strong framework, there is the very real risk that upper levels will collapse. 

Likewise, in both academic and social-emotional learning (SEL) programs, a solid foundation is essential to reaching higher levels and eliminating pitfalls. Academically, this seems fairly clear. We know that students first have to master basic reading skills before we expect them to understand a story line. They must master comprehension of complex content before we can expect them to analyze and interpret the substance of stories, articles, or even the profusion of listicles to be found online. We understand that young people need to be adept at adding and multiplication before tackling algebra. And we know that all this takes years of teaching and learning, trial and error, and differentiated approaches. 

Yet when it comes to social-emotional programs and interventions, many are still looking for a quick fix; the same value isn’t placed on scaffolding these services. There is a general impatience to jump from 0 to 90 in addressing issues such as communication, conflict management, and behavior problems. We think we see what the solution should be, and we want to get right to it. Anyone who has tried this knows it is a Band-Aid approach, and will leave you perpetually patching up the next wound with no real change in underlying causes, and no firm foundation upon which to build lasting solutions.

Just as in academics, a well-scaffolded SEL program will build from basic skills to more complex proficiencies. As you might expect, at Leadership our programs and curricula start with a basic concept of leadership, examining the behaviors and qualities of a leader and positive leadership elements. From there we can move to an examination of self. How do I conceive of myself? Where do I fit in to this spectrum of leadership? How can I be self-aware in my interactions?

When skills at these first two levels have been learned, we slowly build toward the heart of each program, which determines the focus of the next levels. For example, in our model program Violence Prevention Project we move next to group dynamics and cooperation, and from there to communication and decision making skills before ever addressing non-violent conflict resolution strategies. The interpersonal skills learned during the initial components ensure that participants in the program have a strong foundation on which to develop personal strategies to handle conflict situations.

Scaffolding your programs will make them significantly more effective than attempting to teach high level skills directly without a robust foundation. The details will be different depending on the academic or SEL focus, but the concepts remain the same:

  • Start with basics
  • Allow time to practice and master the basic skills and the skills at each next level
  • Refer back to and review the foundational skills as needed to support the higher level skills
  • Practice, practice, practice!

And don’t forget to celebrate the mastery and successes of your students. We remember to offer honors awards for high achievement in academics; we would do well to honor the high level SEL accomplishments of our students as well. Both sets of skills are equally important to the success of our children.

How do you scaffold social-emotional learning? Where do you struggle? Tell us about both in the comments section below—we’d love to celebrate your successes and help troubleshoot your challenges.



"The Importance of Instructional Scaffolding in SEL Programming, The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016


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Lucille Rivin

By Lucille Rivin

Currently Director of Curriculum and Project Development, Lucille Rivin has worked at The Leadership Program (TLP) for over 15 years. As Project Manager, Lucille oversaw the expansion of TLP’s Violence Prevention (VPP) program to comprise programs in Arts, Character Education, Advisory, and more. Under Lucille’s management VPP achieved model program status with OJJDP's MPG and SAMHSA's NREPP, national evidence-based assessors.