What role do family dogs, Baby Yoda, and the NBA play in strengthening students’ social-emotional learning skills? At Western Hills Elementary, they all contribute to building relationships and making learning less stressful for students.
Western Hills Elementary is part of El Paso Independent School District, the largest school district serving El Paso, Texas. As part of the school’s focus on building relationships with families and strengthening students’ social-emotional skills, teachers and staff have implemented a series of engagement programs and activities—and they’re seeing a big difference in students’ growth mindset and academic success.
Creating a Campus-Wide Welcoming Ritual
For students and families at Western Hills Elementary, which serves pre-K through 5th grade students, relationship-building starts the moment they arrive at school. A team of administrators, teachers, and support staff greet caregivers as they drop students off, building relationships with families by touching base on student progress, getting permission for tutoring support, and making a daily connection—including a quick hello to any family dogs that accompany the drop-off.
“This Welcoming Ritual is a small window into that child’s life—how they woke up, which parent brought them to school, how they are feeling,” said Cristina Benavides, principal at Western Hills Elementary School. “At that moment, we have the ability to welcome them to school. It builds that personal connection with children and parents. And the parents are very grateful that we know their names, that we thank them for dropping their children off. We create strong relationships with parents and the community.”
"Parents are very grateful that we know their names, that we thank them for dropping their children off. We create strong relationships with parents and the community.”
-Cristina Benavides, Principal, Western Hills Elementary School
Benavides describes how this ritual is comforting for both parents and their children—especially when a child is upset at drop-off, or doesn’t want to leave the car. Teachers and staff will pay special attention to these students, encouraging them to come into the building and checking in on them throughout the day.
Boosting Academic Success Through Relationship-Building
The Welcoming Ritual also has a big impact on students’ academic achievement. It gives teachers an opportunity to connect with families about tutoring or additional academic support. Because they’ve already formed a relationship with teachers, parents feel much more comfortable having conversations about academics.
“If you have a classroom where your students feel like they’re part of the community, they’re going to want to perform better.” says Benavides. “They’ve been greeted in the morning by all the adults on campus. They know the principal not because they are in trouble, but because they talked in the morning. They have a connection with these people, so they work harder when teachers ask them to put in their best effort. We see this directly in their academic achievement.”
Teachers continue the Welcoming Ritual as they greet students in the hallway and transition to Morning Meeting—an impactful, low-lift strategy for practicing SEL skills. Here, students learn to listen and to build relationships, boosting social-emotional skills like growth mindset and social awareness by sharing, listening, and learning about each other. Danielle Coppinger, Math Instructional Coach at Western Hills, notes that when students learn about each other—for example, when they discover a shared love of the NBA—they form new connections with each other.
Building a Growth Mindset
Western Hills Elementary has seen incredible growth in students’ growth mindset since implementing Panorama for Student and Staff SEL Surveys. Students with a strong growth mindset believe in their own ability to improve and gain new skills. In 2018, data from student surveys showed a low perception of growth mindset. In response to the survey results, the school implemented a thematic unit in 2019 for third grade students specifically focused on developing this skill.
Data showing the percentage of Western Hills Elementary third-graders who reported a positive growth mindset via Panorama student surveys from Fall 2018 (63%) to Spring 2022 (83%)
This unit—coupled with the school’s focus on relationship-building—has made a big difference. From 2018 to 2022, the percentage of third grade students who feel they have a strong growth mindset has increased from 63% to 83%.
Integrating SEL Into Academics to Boost Success
Integrating SEL concepts like growth mindset into academics has been central to Western Hill’s approach to social-emotional learning. Math Instructional Coach Danielle Coppinger noted that Panorama Survey data showed high levels of math anxiety. “Our kids are feeling stressed,” Coppinger said about losses in math progress during the pandemic. “As adults, we want to change our approach to take some of that stress off.”
To tackle that math anxiety, the school focused on developing SEL skills alongside the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). They used insights from Panorama Surveys to implement fun, no-stress math programming, including a daily campus-wide math riddle and math mindset presentations to continue to boost student confidence and academic success. And they incorporated a big name into the daily math riddle: none other than Baby Yoda himself (aka Grogu).
Math Wizards Baby Yoda and Fibonacci eagerly awaiting the daily math riddle
The class that correctly answered each day’s riddle won either Baby Yoda the Math Wizard or Fibonacci the Math Wizard, a Troll doll sporting Mardi Gras beads. “The students love it,” said Coppinger. “You’d see students carrying Baby Yoda down the hallway, and it’s more meaningful than individual students winning something. It’s the entire class working together.”
And the daily math riddle wasn’t all about Baby Yoda—Western Hills has seen a major increase in STAAR scores since 2018. Coppinger notes that in both behavior and academics, teachers who focus on developing students’ SEL skills have students with stronger academic outcomes. And when educators have the ability to connect the dots between social-emotional skills and academic success, students are more likely to succeed.
The sky—or a galaxy far, far away—is the limit for Western Hills as they continue to nurture students’ emotional and academic success in meaningful, innovative ways.
Build educator capacity to strengthen students' SEL skills. Download Panorama's open-source Social-Emotional Learning Survey.