The Social-Emotional Learning Need: How a Small District Made It a Reality

If you were at the 2019 Model Schools Conference or have been paying attention to educational trends at all, you know that social-emotional learning (SEL) is at the forefront of relevant K–12 topics. It’s not that SEL is a new concept that is just being explored; rather, it’s answering the question of how we can best support our students—and not just academically.

It’s important that we really examine the proof of need on a national level to better understand the important role that SEL plays in schools today.

What the Research Says About Social-Emotional Learning

According to a study by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, between 2005 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 12 to 17 increased by 52%. The increases were nearly as steep among those ages 12 to 13 specifically (at 47%) and 18 to 19 (at 46%), and rates roughly doubled among 20- and 21-year-olds. In 2017, more than one in eight Americans ages 12 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode.   

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor of psychology, has made a correlation between these drastic hikes and the use of technology, telling Time magazine: “There was one change that impacted the lives of young people more than older people, and that was the growth of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting, and gaming.” While older adults also use these technologies, “Their adoption among younger people was faster and more complete, and the impact on their social lives much larger,” Twenge said in an interview with Time.

Honestly, we probably don’t need hundreds of studies to show this correlation. Our kids aren’t getting outside as they did in the past. They aren’t building forts with the other neighborhood kids, and they aren’t forming those deep childhood bonds. And they aren’t learning social norms through trial and error the same way that previous generations did. Instead, they have digital, often unfulfilling, relationships built on likes, tweets, and shares. They are struggling. They are desperate, and they are hurting. And what’s more than that, they are looking to us for help, even if they haven’t yet realized it.

A District's Journey to SEL

I just finished my first year as an assistant principal. This past year, students would come into my office after struggling with any number of social issues: arguing with a peer, blowing up on a teacher, not being able to respectfully disagree, not being able to bounce back from setbacks. And one of the biggest challenges is that they aren’t learning. They continue to make the same mistakes, time and time again. 

In February, I attended my first SEL training by R. Keeth Matheny (who also presented at MSC—you can still access his info on the conference app!), and throughout this training, I had so many ah-ha’s that my head was spinning! The one thing that stood out most was when he said many schools hold students accountable for lessons that are not explicitly taught in the classroom—that is, social-emotional lessons. I could not in good conscience send one more kid out of my office without giving them these tools. So, here is what Lucerne Valley did.

First, we launched a peer counseling club. With this club, we empowered a group of tenth through twelfth graders to create SEL lessons, which they then presented to our Associated Student Body (ASB) and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), two very active social student clubs with a great deal of sway on our campus. Since these clubs have large presences on campus, they really helped spread these SEL lessons to many students! 

But we knew we wanted something bigger. The kids and the teachers were really responding to the lessons, with students putting into practice what they had learned! In particular, there’s a lesson about resiliency where students are shown a demonstration and then drop a ball and then an egg onto a desk. The root of the lesson is: be a ball, not an egg—that is, when faced with a challenging setback, whether in the classroom or personal life, don’t let yourself crack and break open like an egg. Instead, bounce back from adversity and challenges. Students embraced this as a model and were walking around campus encouraging each other to be the ball!

With these SEL activities, we wanted to offer a specific and dedicated SEL class in which all students could enroll. However, our matrix/master schedule was very limited, and the ability to introduce a new class for the 2019–2020 school year was a challenge. Up until this point, these SEL lessons were being done in other classes through peer counselors in ASB and AVID.

When the staff was presented with the idea of changing the school schedule from a six-period day to a seven-period day for 2019–2020, many were on board! However, we could not afford to hire a dedicated SEL teacher. So, this is what we came up with instead:

  • We picked a teacher on campus whom all of the students love (effective SEL instruction is built on relationships!) and asked him to be part of our SEL initiative.
  • At our first staff meeting of the month, he will teach an SEL lesson to teachers and staff. The staff will be encouraged to exemplify the lessons learned in their classrooms throughout the month.
  • We then gave him two periods of SEL a day. Every day, a different teacher and class will cycle through his SEL class. The classroom teacher will help the SEL teacher by supporting the lesson (since the teacher has already been through the lesson in the staff meeting), and peer counselors are in these classes to act as a support. It will take one month for the entire school to cycle through his class. Every month, a different SEL lesson will be taught. 

Although this is not a traditional SEL model, we are not a traditional school. We are a middle/high school combination of 345 students. We could not support a traditional model, so we had to think outside of the box, but we knew that this was a completely necessary step. 

Like many schools, we have students who are in crisis, and SEL will support them. And just because a student is not in crisis right now does not mean that he or she will never be in crisis, which is why SEL is not an intervention but consists of skills that every student and every person needs.

The Effects of SEL

Research shows students participating in SEL programs show improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and the school. Because they are better able to manage their emotions, they are less frequently getting suspended or kicked out of class. Instead, they get more seat time, and because teachers are not having to redirect student behavior, there is all around more time for learning.

With our SEL initiatives underway, we hope we see this type of transformation in our school.

As our year progresses, we are hopeful to see concrete and measurable outcomes in behavior and academics. But in the interim, we are pleased to bring SEL to all of our students in a way that is tangible and applicable.

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Want to learn more about how to implement SEL into your school or district? Join more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 28th Annual Model Schools Conference in Orlando, Fla., from June 28–July 1, 2020.

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