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Social-Emotional Learning

4 Truths About Leading Social-Emotional Learning in 2020-21

There are still many unknowns when it comes to the 2020-21 academic year, but it's clear that students and adults will be returning to school with heightened stress and anxiety. 

Understanding students’ social-emotional needs and creating safe, consistent routines will need to come before academic learning recovery.

Similarly, investing in adult SEL and self-care will be a crucial component of reopening. If we expect teachers to lead SEL work in classrooms, district leaders need to feel comfortable taking time for themselves and asking for help.

As Lisa Lequia, assistant director of student services at Racine Unified School District, said:

"Teaching is hard. Coming to school, working with children whose stories are sometimes unknown, and being present in those moments is difficult. We need to continue to make spaces available for our staff so that they can become more comfortable talking about their own feelings and fears, as well as help celebrate what brings them joy."

As part of Panorama's Celebrating Resilience: A Summer Series weekly webinar programming, we hosted a discussion with a panel of experts to explore how districts are reimagining Tier 1 supports in the context of school reopening plans for this fall. 

Here are the key takeaways from our conversation. Learn how districts are integrating SEL within core content areas, building staff capacity, and thinking about "buy-in" versus "readiness" for SEL.

Download our SEL Playbook for Superintendents to unlock more advice on leading social-emotional learning

1. We need to give educators permission to take time for themselves. Prioritize how your district supports caring adults.

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Molly Jensen, School Counselor, Racine Unified School District

We need to acknowledge the fear and anxiety that many educators will have when coming back into school buildings. We have to consider the adult perspective alongside the student perspective when we think about reopening.

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Laura Vanderheyden, Student Assistance/PBIS Coordinator, Racine Unified School District

It’s important to meet people where they are at. We often talk about meeting our students where they are at. When we look to the start of the upcoming school year, I think we need to—first and foremost—think about: Where is our staff at? Everyone is coming back with a very different reality depending on how they’ve experienced this pandemic. We need to focus on ourselves and, before we start to think about how we can impact students, we as adults need to consider how we can impact other adults and be there for them.

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Fredricka Hunter, Counselor, Racine Unified School District

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the fall. It’s important to be comfortable with saying, “I don’t know, but I’m here, I’m present, and I’m invested.” Checking in with yourself and knowing where you are emotionally is critical because as educators, we set the tone. If we are regulated, we have the ability to change the atmosphere and cope with whatever presents itself this fall.

As professionals in roles designed to serve others, educators typically place themselves at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to self-care. But you can’t pour from an empty glass. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have anything to give to anyone else. Knowing (from district leadership) that it’s OK to take time for yourself and have conversations about how you are feeling is a huge step in the right direction.

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

 If it’s the responsibility of our teachers and support staff to drive social-emotional learning work with students, who is responsible for the well-being of staff?

When we think about the fall, leadership is going to be more important than ever before. Multiple paradigm shifts are needed. One example: When we talk about “making time” for SEL, what does that actually look like? If it’s just covered in a brief breakout during a professional development workshop that gives educators some strategies, are they really equipped to implement an SEL curriculum? We need to change the mentality around SEL because it is no longer just another thing on our plates; it is THE plate.

In order to do this, we need to not only provide the "why" behind SEL, but also a "how" that is doable. If we are going to reimagine SEL in a hybrid or fully virtual setting, what are we taking off of our plates? Are we doing an audit and helping to remove the roadblocks and normal stressors that are there for staff? 

Adult behavior change is the most important work that we are doing. It is critical to partner with organizations that provide this training and support alongside SEL curriculum for students.

 

2. We must integrate SEL into academics across Tier 1.

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Lisa Lequia, Assistant Director of Student Services, Racine Unified School District

Many of our SEL lessons are very academic focused. They include reading, writing, mathematics, and history. The work needs to start with intentional time for standalone SEL instruction, but then start to look for ways that you can embed it in existing curriculum. We need to deliberately put time into schedules to get teachers started and validate this work, which then unlocks their potential to authentically weave it into other subjects.

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Fredricka Hunter, Counselor, Racine Unified School District

One simple way to integrate SEL into Tier 1 is to model it as the teacher. Be present. Be authentic. Take a mindful moment. Show students how you focus and ground yourself in times of stress. It is so important to show your students that it’s a part of your norm, especially given that so much may change from day to day this fall.

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

 When we think about our district as a house, SEL is the foundation. If we don’t have a strong Tier 1, with universal supports for all students and all staff engaging in them, what happens to our Tier 2 and Tier 3 students? We know that—no matter what—a student who may be in need of Tier 2 supports also needs strong Tier 1. 

When you think about SEL strategies, we need to narrow the focus (especially at the secondary level), do it in shorter chunks of time, make it consistent, and design it to be as low-burden as possible. The strategies need to be as plug-and-play as possible.

Another consideration—SEL offerings at the elementary level do not typically translate effectively with middle school or high school students. Elementary educators do a wonderful job with SEL, but where we struggle is at the secondary level.

When I used to oversee this work in a district, I noticed that we did implement SEL in elementary schools with a lot of fidelity. It was done intentionally and it was connected to our MTSS. But when we got into middle schools, the response was: “Our kids are done with it.” They see it as elementary because it looks similar and feels similar. We need to deliberately design SEL programming and activities to be applicable and relevant for both secondary students as well as secondary educators. 

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Molly Jensen, School Counselor, Racine Unified School District

 When it comes to integrating SEL into academics, I see a lot of educators getting stuck because they fixate on potential issues. It doesn’t have to be perfect, especially in the beginning. Frame it (mentally) as a learning experience that we are all going through together. Be OK with mistakes and starting where you feel comfortable. The predictable schedules, tools, and routines are what will help students be ready to learn.

 

3. A strong leadership team is necessary to guide and sustain SEL work.

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

We need to understand that there’s a big difference between leadership and management. We manage things, but we lead people. Great managers are needed and valuable, but leadership requires an entirely different skillset—casting a vision, making tough calls, leading SEL work. We often train school leaders on the managerial competencies, but we don’t invest in our leaders with the actual leadership work that is needed. 

When we look at implementation science, we can see that it takes more than one school year for something like social-emotional learning to make an impact. Anyone who has worked in education has experienced the “this, too, shall pass” phenomenon; we tried something for nine months, it didn’t work, so what’s next? We need leaders to drive SEL and think longer term. What is the three-to-five year plan? What implementation science are we using to ensure fidelity? Who is the team—he teachers, counselors, principals, and administrators—that is guiding the work together?  

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Molly Jensen, School Counselor, Racine Unified School District

When you have a leader that you know cares for you and respects you, it creates a different atmosphere. Different relationships form and different teaching happens. Students notice when teachers and school leaders have positive relationships with one another. This implicitly models SEL for them. Strong leadership is key as we reopen in the fall.

 

4. It's not always a "buy-in" problem. Consider assessing staff readiness for social-emotional learning.

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Lisa Lequia, Assistant Director of Student Services, Racine Unified School District

We need to help teachers shift from learners to leaders with SEL, and then make sure they have someone to lean on. We need our teachers now more than ever; they are literally on the frontlines. Let them know that if it gets overwhelming, we have support staff that you can lean on.

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

The buy-in piece is really critical. It comes up in discussions with most districts. However, I don’t think it’s always a buy-in problem. I think it’s a readiness issue. Almost 80 percent of implementation failures are due to a lack of staff readiness, but that is a different problem from buy-in. The vast majority of staff know that SEL is important and that we need to be doing it. 

It’s also important to provide both the "why" and the "how" behind social-emotional learning. One without the other just makes SEL feel like one more thing on the plate.

 

Download our SEL Playbook for Superintendents to access more expert advice on leading social-emotional learning.

Topic(s): Social-Emotional Learning

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