Educating beyond academics: Schools seek right approach in social and emotional learning

Posted 11/12/19

Eighth-grader Kendall Meibos stepped shyly onto the stage at the Pepsi Center in Denver and peered over a lectern at the crowd around him. Filling stands typically reserved for Denver Nuggets or …

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Educating beyond academics: Schools seek right approach in social and emotional learning


Eighth-grader Kendall Meibos stepped shyly onto the stage at the Pepsi Center in Denver and peered over a lectern at the crowd around him.

Filling stands typically reserved for Denver Nuggets or Colorado Avalanche fans were about 6,000 employees from the Douglas County School District — administrators, teachers, board of education members and the superintendent. They came to hear the district roll out its new strategic plan.

“Last year was very rough for me,” said the 13-year-old, as he described his struggles with anxiety and depression. A school counselor, he explained, had helped him learn to better manage those conditions — in life, at school and in the classroom.

Talking with someone helped, he said, and he urged all district employees to remember that being open about mental and emotional health makes for better school climates.

“I’m thankful,” Meibos said, “that the community that I live in knows that mental health is important.”

The evolution of SEL

During the Sept. 20 event, the school district walked through the major themes of its new strategic plan— its foremost guiding document for the next few years, with the first focus on health, safety and social-emotional support for students.

Superintendent Thomas Tucker told the crowd the district would strive to provide that support for every student, including those like Meibos, who may be struggling to manage their mental health or emotional well-being.

“Students need to learn in environments that are physically and emotionally safe,” Tucker said.

The inclusion of social and emotional learning is part of a broader trend in education across the country.

Historically, schools have focused on cognitive development in the classroom, said Finessa Ferrell, a social and emotional learning specialist with the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit that partners with the Colorado Department of Education and works to improve the K-12 system in Colorado.

But about 15 years ago, she said, concerns from employers about a lack of workplace skills among people they were hiring sparked a push to better equip students with creative thinking skills and the tools needed to work on teams and be self-starters.

“The feedback we were getting from workforce folks was that students weren’t very prepared to work with each other,” she said, citing problem solving and interpersonal skills as examples.

Meanwhile, the national organization CASEL, or the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, was creating frameworks for social and emotional competencies, which Ferrell believes took off among educators at roughly the same time. CASEL was founded in 1994.

CASEL defines social emotional learning as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

The organization teaches those skills by focusing on five main areas:

• Self-management and the ability to manage emotions

• Self-awareness and understanding what triggers certain emotions

• Social awareness, being aware of one’s own behavior and taking cues from other people

• Responsible decision-making

• Building positive relationships

Social and emotional learning began gaining more traction with teachers in recent years, Ferrell said, when a “super push” helped it transition beyond a counselor’s office or school psychologist and spread throughout a school.

And the nonprofit think tank Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development — composed of leading educators, scientists and elected officials from across the country — concluded in March after three years of study that social and emotional learning should be integrated with academic development.

The commission’s report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, says, “Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.” There’s also an increasing demand for social and emotional skills in the workplace, the report says, as employers are expected to work on diverse teams, manage difficult problems and adjust to rapid change.

“The promotion of social, emotional and academic learning is not a shifting education fad; it is the substance of education itself,” the report reads. “It is not a distraction from the ‘real work’ of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed.” The report says youths should be intentionally taught social, emotional and cognitive skills.

Ferrell said schools and districts have yet to fully adopt this approach but she expects it will catch on in coming years.

‘Everyone is trying to do it’

To be successful, social and emotional learning should permeate education, Ferrell said. Academics shouldn’t be segregated from a child’s social and emotional development. That’s tricky when teachers already feel overburdened.

“There are teachers who think this is just one more thing,” she said, “and there are educators who don’t understand why they need to do this, too.”

But social and emotional learning has a direct link to academic performance, Ferrell said.

“When we focus on social and emotional learning, we see academic development as a significant beneficiary,” said Jamie Montoya-De Smidt, a prevention coordinator with the Douglas County School District.

A 2011 CASEL study found students who participated in social and emotional programs showed an 11-point increase in their academic performance. They also demonstrated improved classroom behavior, managed stress and depression better, and had improved attitudes about themselves, others and school.

That kind of programming also can lead to violence prevention, Ferrell said. Social and emotional learning often becomes a priority in communities that recently experienced a tragedy, such as student suicide or school shootings.

Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder, said social and emotional learning can be a critical tool in violence prevention.

“It actually addresses the risk factors that could impact future violence, so it’s really working upstream and giving kids the skills that they need so that they don’t end up becoming violent,” Kingston said.

When forming the strategic plan, the school district sought input from students, parents and the community, Montoya-De Smidt said.

“Social and emotional learning was at the top of what people said they wanted us to spend our time investigating and putting our energy and resources toward,” he said.

Protocols for social and emotional learning

At Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch, social and emotional learning is filtered through numerous avenues, said Lori Qui, the school counselor who worked with Meibos. Those avenues include the counseling department but also classrooms and teachers.

Teachers use small opportunities in their day-to-day work to teach students social and emotional lessons, Qui said. A teacher could, for instance, pull aside two students who had an argument and coach them to a resolution.

Some schools have adopted Second Step, a social and emotional learning curriculum, which is also being implemented at Rocky Heights. Qui said staff are currently being trained in the program.

“We really try to infuse it into everything that we do,” she said, “not just a curriculum that kids have once a week for nine weeks.”

Nancy Ingalls, the district’s personalized learning officer, said the district this year increased the number of school counselors so that each elementary, middle or high school has at least one or more. Previously, most elementary schools did not have a counselor.

“The fact that we have counselors in every elementary school is a huge milestone,” Qui said.

Because counselors help teach social-emotional learning, Qui believes having them in elementary schools begins building the mental capacity of children from a young age, increases their resiliency and teaches them how to interact with the world in a healthy way.

The district also has two intervention teams and a mental health crisis team that train and consult with schools on social and emotional learning.

“At the school level,” Ingalls said, “almost all of our schools are utilizing some type of social-emotional curriculum or program as a tool.”

Another such program is the Sources of Strength program, an international program that brings together students from a variety of peer groups — athletics, theater, band, student government — to lead projects that combat myriad issues in schools. Suicide prevention and bullying are two of the chief problems the program aims to prevent.

Many of Sources of Strength’s goals overlap with CASEL’s five focus areas, noted Montoya-De Smidt, who oversees the program. It encourages students to understand their strengths and needs, to tear down a culture of silence regarding mental health struggles, and teaches young people coping strategies.

Five years ago, just four to five schools in the district used Sources of Strength. Today, 14 middle and high schools have the program. About 40 students participate at Rocky Heights, Qui said.

Zac Hess, the district’s director of health, wellness and prevention, adds that the focus on social-emotional health shouldn’t be on students alone.

“Social and emotional learning is as important for adults in our communities as it is for kids,” he said.

He gave examples: Are staff and teachers aware when they’re overwhelmed, and how do they react when they are? How are teacher-to-teacher relationships? How can the district help staff improve its own self-management?

When teachers master social and emotional learning, “that’s going to transfer down to our kids,” he said, forging more positive relationships between students and adults.

And when children feel they have trusted adults in their life, Hess said, another protective layer is added that can prevent students from making poor decisions or feeling isolated if they are struggling.

Meibos’ mother, Corin, an assistant in the front office of Buffalo Ridge Elementary in Castle Pines who has worked in the district for about eight years, couldn’t agree more.

“I’m grateful,” she said, “especially because it’s impacted my family.”


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