Why and How One District Prioritized Social-Emotional Learning

Photos: Students in Ferndale Public Schools, a 2019 Innovative District. (Courtesy of Ferndale Public Schools)

We often hear that social-emotional learning (SEL) encompasses the “soft skills” students need to develop. In Ferndale, we don’t believe they are the soft skills students need, but the essential skills. We know that when we focus on the whole child, teach social and emotional skills, and intentionally provide a safe, positive climate where our students feel more confident and accepted, teachers have more time to support learning and academic achievement increases. 

Why We Prioritized SEL in Our Schools

In 2012, Ferndale Public Schools went through a restructuring process to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students. During this process, it was clear we had pockets of excellence around SEL but a fragmented approach from class to class and school to school. With this in mind, we set off to develop and implement an intentionally integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development districtwide. 

Our systematic districtwide plan is based on five key competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision making

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states that SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Taking Action 

At the early childhood and elementary level, we developed six modules that provide teachers with specific skills, activities, and structures to teach, embed, and use each day. At the beginning of the school year, our first module is “Creating a School Family.” For six weeks, teachers must establish a strong sense of belonging, acceptance, and understanding with their students—an understanding that as a class family, we will collectively learn, succeed, and work together.  

The “learning plan” modules that follow specifically teach our students about the brain states, growth mindset, executive function skills, mindfulness, and characters or values. The learning plan is the core of our work and leads to building a true sense of ownership, trust, and strong relationships. Each year, the SEL committee updates the modules based on new learning and ideas. 

At the secondary level, we added a “seventh-hour” class for students that we call “Impact Hour/CPC,” with the latter standing for College Prep Course. This time is dedicated to conversations essential to building trust, mutual respect, and a connection to school and life. Throughout the year, students have the same Impact Hour/CPC teacher. The Impact Hour mirrors the modules at the elementary level. We also have student representatives on our secondary SEL committees, which has further added student voices to the development of our activities, providing important ideas and leveraging student ownership. 

Where Do We Go From Here? 

Our district is on the right path by putting SEL at the core of our practices, but we recognize there is so much more to do! This shift in practice has led to more recognition of the importance of relationships, a greater understanding of diverse backgrounds and experiences (not only of our students but also of our staff!), and more honest conversations among school leaders and faculty on what types of adult learning are necessary to continue fostering a true, equitable environment. 

As we continue to strengthen our work and teach essential skills to students, our focus on learning about neuroscience, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and restorative efforts has made us as adults more conscious of our words, actions, and understanding of others, and more aware of the importance of our recognition, understanding, and intentions. When adults begin to have internal shifts in their thinking and behaviors, the heavy lifting can begin to occur with workaround-implicit bias, inequities, access, meaningful participation, and other large-scale practices that in time will lead to true culturally sustaining practices that support each and every student. 

One of our favorite sayings is, Cognitive functions are built on emotional platforms. We are proud of the Ferndale School Family for putting our beliefs into action and knowing what’s best for our students. 

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