Our SEL Journey

One school’s approach to rethinking advisory

From our first days on campus, it was clear that the school had once been committed to an advisory program. There were dusty advisory binders in the corners of classrooms, and many teachers remained passionate about the aims and some features of the program, but it no longer had vitality.

“What to do” with the dedicated time that remained in the schedule was a recurring item on team meeting agendas, and execution of soft plans was inconsistent, misaligned, and largely aimless. New faculty who attempted to breathe life into the advisory time were often met with resistance, encountering kids sitting on desks on cell phones and a general irreverence towards the shared time and space.

The empty shell of a program had lost its energy and focus. Stepping back and taking stock, we knew this was an opportunity.

Our Rationale

Throughout our careers, we have heard and been reminded of the veracity of the mantra “hearts before minds.” Indeed, one cannot captivate students in learning without engaging emotions and building strong relationships based on trust. Yet, while no educator would argue with this adage, we often see how difficult it can be for schools, systems, and even individual teachers to make strong connections with students. In an effort to put the “heart” at the center of our school, we decided to focus our energies singularly on the re-conceptualizing of our advisory program.

We saw the power of advisory to address issues relevant to our community—challenges of third culture kids, transitions, parental and peer pressure, and other issues relevant to middle school students. We needed a community, a home for students to have the space and support to develop and practice social emotional skills. Ultimately, we wanted our advisory program to improve teacher and student ownership of our school culture.

Our Research

As we undertook the reinvention of the advisory program, we began with research into the impact of advisory programs. Our findings confirmed our early intuitions: Engaging students, strengthening student-teacher relationships, and ensuring that each student had a strong advocate would not only improve our program, it would improve our entire school culture. Social emotional learning (SEL) programs—such as advisory—that tackle these major competencies, have lasting effects: (1) Self-awareness, (2) Self-management, (3) Social awareness, (4) Relationship skills, and (5) Responsible decision making.

For example, a 2017 CASEL meta-analysis (Taylor, Oberle, Durlak, & Weissberg) confirms that students exposed to a strong SEL program on average scored 13 percentage points higher than their non-SEL peers, based on post-assessment data. SEL programs boost student well-being in the form of greater social-emotional competencies, including prosocial behaviors and attitudes. Studies show lasting decreases in disciplinary problems, emotional distress, and drug use.

Researchers have also documented the importance of caring teacher-student and student-student relationships in fostering stronger engagement in school and promoting success academically (Elbertson, Brackett, & Weissberg, 2009; Jennings & Greenburg, 2009; Durlak et al, 2011). In fact, research shows that students that take part in strong SEL programs have less distress, adjust easier to change, and even have a higher chance of long-term economic success (Vega, 2012).

International schools often struggle with consistency, whether it be in school culture, personnel, or curriculum. High teacher turnover is a common challenge in international schools. In our own middle school, for example, teachers stay an average of four years. As we looked at building and adopting a new program, we kept this reality at the core of our planning. Working with a transient community of faculty and students, common in so many schools, and establishing a program that would be coherent and sustainable, would prove challenging.

Our Journey

Our journey began with a commitment by administration. With proper time and energy, we knew an intentional and powerful program was possible. We assembled a small team of educators that believed the same. With this “advisory task force,” we began with a retreat facilitated by the consultant, Rachel Poliner, author of Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life and The Advisory Guide.

Over the course of the retreat, she helped the task force to clearly articulate our goals for the program and the parameters and logistics of meetings. We discussed the importance of routines and rituals, a clear emphasis in her writing and trainings. Finally, with her support, we began building our program.

 Our Advisory Program Development

This six-month process was led by our advisory task force. They met weekly as we made decisions, developed ideas, gathered data, improved, and re-conceptualized. We understood the importance of the faculty feeling engaged in the process and having some degree of ownership over the final result.

We gathered teacher feedback on several occasions, using divisional meeting time for comments, questions, and brainstorming. With the big picture agreements in place, we were set to implement our program at the start of the next school year.

The advisory program at Graded School aims to develop students who

  • Are known and feel known consistently by one adult
  • Develop constructive peer relationships and team-working skills
  • Develop problem-solving and conflict resolution skills
  • Learn to be more self-aware, self-managed, and self-directed
  • Understand their role in contributing to community
  • Listen to and understand others’ perspectives
  • Have fun!

We started the new school year with a revitalized advisory program. Crucial to this start was a commitment on behalf of the administration to make the development, implementation, and training of our divisional team the singular goal of our middle school for the year. We stood by the idea that “schools overestimate what they can achieve in one year, but underestimate what they can achieve in three,” and ventured forth understanding that this would be a multi-year commitment.

In the beginning, advisors were not asked to implement any protocol or warm-up that hadn’t been demonstrated and used in our faculty meetings. A discussion protocol, before being introduced to advisory groups, would be the framework for faculty discussions in meetings. In this way, all advisors could feel confident and supported in the first few months of implementation.

We designed our program with sustainability in mind. We made several decisions that would affect our ability to carry the program beyond our initial adoption phase. For one, we adopted discussion protocols and routines, with the idea that the advisor can run the meeting with minimal preparation time. For example, every two weeks, our advisories host a class meeting. On these days, the students move the chairs into a circle, often before the advisor is in the room. As students understand expectations and routines, they help sustain our program and initiate new students and advisors.

Our Challenges and Successes

The power of advisory lies in relationships. In building our program, we asked both teachers and students to step outside of their comfort zone in sharing and contributing to a group. Some on our team were wary of the risk-taking and vulnerability required of an advisor, so this new program was a daunting and uncomfortable challenge. We knew that neither faculty nor students would take that risk without establishing a culture of trust, acceptance, and empowerment amongst our teachers.

To foster that trust and sense of buy-in, we ensured that meetings and communication were planned with intentionality. By practicing the activities that were meant to later establish community in our advisory groups, we established a much-needed community amongst ourselves as advisors, who then modeled that same cultural shift in their advisory groupings.

Further, we observed that the impact of the training and professional conversations needed to build the program transcended the 30-minute advisory sessions. Teachers learned new protocols and rituals to engage their advisees socio-emotionally, but they quickly saw their application in relationships in classrooms, in the hallways, and on the field.

At the same time, we were wary of the appearance that the suggested activities, discussion points, and topics we disseminated were like another lesson plan that teachers needed to deliver. While we wanted advisors to have flexibility based on the needs of their students, we also wanted them to align to the bigger conversations taking place in the school and the important SEL topics that needed to be taught and reinforced. We found that promoting autonomy while stressing consistency across the program was a delicate balancing act.

Despite some turbulent moments, we found many successes, the most gratifying of which are evident in student feedback. Students became more engaged in school conversations. They began to see their advisors as integral support structures. We saw fewer disciplinary problems because teachers took more ownership of the welfare of their advisees.

Indeed, administrators saw the beginnings of a cultural shift marked by more positive engagement and feedback from teachers, students, and parents. Our faculty believed in the goals of the program and felt supported and prepared; they, too, could feel a shift. The practiced protocols and activities for advisory time had been sneaking into classrooms, building a greater sense of connectedness and emphasis on student well-being. Students, overall, noted that their advisor cares about them, that “you can talk freely and no one will judge you,” and “we treat each other as family (sort of). It’s good vibes.” As students continued to the next grade with their advisory groups and advisors, we saw groups growing closer in their trust and confidence in each other.

Our Path Forward

Our journey isn’t complete. We are in the process of developing a spiraling scope and sequence of big ideas and essential questions. With the spiraling model, all grade levels will share big ideas, giving us the opportunity to share topics and experiences middle school-wide through assemblies and special events. We are focusing on activities and discussion points that are appropriate to each grade level, guaranteeing that our students grow in their advisory experience over their three years in the program.

As we developed our advisory program, the school developed its strategic plan. Central to that plan was developing a social-emotional learning program across divisions. We needed to align our program to advisory activities in other divisions. We recognized that in our middle school, advisory is one component of a larger plan, one with the power to influence students’ well-being, sense of belonging, and relationships in the greater community.


Durlak, J.A.., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405.

Elbertson, N.A., Brackett, M.A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2009). School-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programming: Current perspectives. Retrieved from http://ei.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/pub187_Elbertson_Brackett_Weissberg_2009.pdf

Jennings, P., & Greenberg, M. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491-525.

Taylor, R.D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2017). Promoting youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156-1171. doi:10.1111/cdev.12864

Vega, V. (2017). Social and emotional learning research review: Annotated bibliography. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/sel-research-learning-outcomes