This article was originally published in EdSurge on April 15, 2019.
Between 2015 and 2018, eight students and one teacher from Olathe Public Schools died by suicide. Through each heartbreaking loss, administrators and staff worked to find lifesaving mental health supports and strategies for the 30,0000 students in Kansas' second largest district.
“We knew, as a community, we had to start talking about mental health and mental well-being and the strategies to support them—and remove the stigma of asking for help and support,” says Dr. Jessica Dain, Assistant Superintendent of Support Services at Olathe.
Twelve of Olathe’s 56 schools now have mental health clinicians. The district screens students with the Signs of Suicide (SOS) program. They also draw on the Communities That Care survey data, collected over a decade, to measure students’ well-being.
With those tools in place, Olathe began measuring social-emotional learning (SEL) data and teaching SEL skills in every classroom in the fall of 2017. This work is made possible through a social-emotional learning survey from Panorama Education and curriculum from Second Step. Combining SEL data with attendance, behavior and academic data gives Olathe educators and staff a more complete picture of each student—where they’re succeeding, where they’re struggling, even how they’re feeling.
Dain says this data helped spark much-needed conversations that many were afraid to broach before the district began measuring and teaching SEL.
“By combining all of this data, teaching SEL skills and doing the SOS assessment, not only are we having serious and meaningful conversations with families, but we are saving lives,” explains Dain.
Dain recently shared with EdSurge how Olathe uses SEL, why this data gives educators a view of the whole student and how it strips the taboo label from mental health conversations.
EdSurge: How does SEL fit into your efforts to support students’ mental health?
Jessica Dain: Social-emotional learning is a high priority, not only for our school district, but also for the state of Kansas. It’s actually one of the five measured outcomes of our state board of education.
Panorama's SEL survey gives us the silent data, those emotional warning signs, that in the past students, families, and teachers identified after students had been successful in injuring themselves. We’re measuring things like grit, emotion regulation, social awareness and coping with anxiety so we can have conversations about social and emotional well-being and embedding those SEL components into our daily instruction and our resources for intervention.
And we can be proactive. We can say, ‘Hey, in monitoring the social-emotional health of our students, we noticed the trend data of this student moving in a negative direction, and we immediately intervened to provide the student and the family the help they needed before things became serious, and even life-threatening.’
How does the survey work, and what do you do with the data?
We administer the Panorama survey three times a year—in the fall, winter and spring. With that data, we can provide support to large groups, small groups or even individual students. And we share that data with parents so they can see how their child scores during that assessment window. They also can see the trend data.
For students low in coping with, say, anxiety, self-regulation or self-awareness, counselors start with tier two intervention. They pull out a small group of students struggling with the same competency and meet with them weekly to do SEL lessons created by Second Step, or lessons from Panorama’s Playbook.
If they notice that, 'Hey, this is more than a little dip, this is becoming much more serious,' we move to a tier three intervention, where that student sees a school counselor or a social worker individually. If it goes beyond what a school counselor or licensed social worker can offer, we refer students to a mental health clinician.
How is this new approach impacting students?
We have found, surprisingly, that our students are craving these conversations. They are craving the strategies; they're craving those resources because, when they don't feel well, they know it. They don't always know how to ask for help, but now that we've opened those conversations, we're making serious gains in students' success and well-being.
"They don't always know how to ask for help, but now that we've opened those conversations, we're making serious gains in students' success and well-being."
– Jessica Dain, Asst. Supt. of Support Services, Olathe Schools (KS)
Let me share a story. In the fall of 2017, Green Springs Elementary noticed in the results of a Panorama SEL survey that students’ grit—their ability to persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals—was at the 20th percentile compared to elementary schools in Panorama’s national database.
So, they created a school campaign called ‘Gator Grit.’
They talked about grit every single day—on the announcements and in lessons from Panorama’s Playbook. They included ideas for how parents could encourage grit at home in the weekly newsletter, and the school counselor pulled together small groups of students who needed extra support to talk about strategies for developing grit. In one year, those students moved from the 20th percentile to 90th percentile nationally.
One student, whom we’ll call “Devon,” spent most of last year in a self-contained classroom for behavior reasons but was inspired by the Gator of the Month assembly to try to be more responsible and respectful. With just one year of this focus on grit under his belt, he's now spending most of his day, every day, in a general education classroom.
And it wasn’t just grit; Devon and the rest of the students are now in the 90th percentile in all of their competencies: social awareness, emotion regulation, coping with anxiety, teacher-student relationships, sense of belonging and school safety—all because we are talking about and teaching strategies to develop these skills.
Gator Grit Event (Image credit: Green Springs Elementary School)
How is this program impacting teachers?
In the past, if work was turned in late, a student fell asleep in class or didn’t pay attention, that would be detention or perhaps a grade penalty—those immediate negative consequences. SEL data encourages educators to stop, think, grab that data and realize there can be more to this picture.
It’s also changing how we teach. We can break out the Panorama data into a bunch of subgroups. Recently we noticed that students of certain ethnicities scored 20 percent lower in their sense of belonging. It opened conversations with our teachers about culturally-responsive pedagogy.
Now we’re working to include culturally-responsive pedagogy, inclusivity and diversity in our teaching and how we provide support because we have groups of kids that don't feel they belong, and we know that's an early sign that they may not be feeling emotionally well.
What are some of your key takeaways from measuring SEL?
There are so many SEL reports we can run from the Panorama survey. I can look at all 56 schools and see how we look as a district, but then, I can divide that up in elementary, grades three through five, and then also, secondary, grades six through 12. Our counselors are looking at that SEL data, teachers are looking at that data, principals are looking at that data, and we're looking at it on the district level.
We’re using our findings to help us with programming, choosing SEL resources, and when we get down to that individual student level, we can make sure that every student is healthy and on a path to success. When we understand our students, it makes us better as a class, better as a school, better as a district.
Dr. Dain shares a list of helpful strategies and resources for teaching SEL: