Thanks to an increased focus on social and emotional learning, we’re witnessing an interesting convergence among education, business, scientific, and local communities.
In the education world, SEL is about preparing our young people to go out into the world as healthy, caring, community-minded adults. It’s about creating safe and creative environments in schools so our kids can flourish. It’s about providing supports and compassion to all kids. Roughly four out of every 10 Delaware public school students are now living in poverty. And when poverty is paired with issues like violence and addiction, it can not only impact a child’s ability to learn, but weigh heavily on their family and educators.
Brain science is telling us that SEL is foundational to learning. We learn not by just being exposed to information, but by interacting with peers and teachers, by speaking, by reading the listener’s facial expression, and adapting. It’s this process of volleying back and forth that builds our understanding of the world.
We also know that the opposite is true. The absence of these interactions (and/or the introduction of high levels of stress and trauma) can actually adversely affect how a child’s brain grows. Experts are finding that these social and emotional factors can have lifelong impacts on our health and income. There is even promising research showing that children can overcome challenging circumstances with the right support from caring adults.
That’s why the business community is invested. Over the next eight years, Delaware will hire or replace around 30 percent of its workforce. The next generation of our workforce is on the way. So it’s up to us to provide them with not only the academic and technical skills, but those less tangible skills like communication, problem-solving, drive, and persistence. That’s all a part of SEL. So too are the “people skills” that are needed to work in a complex environment. Employers tell us that they can teach the technical skills, but these 21st century skills are critical—and much more difficult to teach in adults.
So whether you call it “soft skills” or “trauma-informed care” or “school climate” or “growth mindset” or any of the other terms we might use to talk about this work, SEL is a big umbrella, and we hope you’ll join us to make this idea a reality for all of Delaware’s students. It really is up to us as a community to determine the path forward. We know SEL can’t be a top-down edict. It has to come from genuine engagement and collaboration. As a community, we need to expand our thinking and work together to try new, inclusive approaches.
As a state, we need to expand our definition of student success. To get on the same page, we need a common understanding of what we actually mean when we say “SEL,” and how SEL can be used to support students. It’s why Rodel spearheaded A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware, a report that focuses on the efforts underway across Delaware to support students, families, and educators in developing their SEL skills.
It’s also why we gathered around 100 community members together this month to put our heads together to begin to discern how we can build meaningful efforts in a given school or even statewide. We didn’t anticipate coming out of that morning with clear consensus but some common themes, work underway, and next steps emerged. Ultimately, we wanted to connect unlikely partners, nonprofit leaders with healthcare providers and CEOs with classroom teachers, and to plant the seeds for innovation.
Attendees split into groups and discussed a range of topics. The teams covered everything from out-of-school supports to cultural competency, and they came up with some solid next steps:
Building broader awareness around SEL and how it impacts kids
Creating more mental health supports for students, both inside schools and in the community, with schools and local nonprofits and healthcare providers serving as conduits
Professional development and trauma training for educators, educators in-training, and community members
But the strongest and most consistent message was the need for deep and genuine community engagement. This will take creativity and passion, and not every effort will work. But we know that that’s what it will take. This needs to be built school by school and community by community.
It seems like a simple ingredient, but it’s a crucial one.
There will be opportunities in early 2019 to get involved and lend your perspective. Groups like the Rodel Teacher Council will be gathering input from communities to help inform a statewide framework along with national partners like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Local leaders ranging from First Lady Tracy Quillen Carney to Delmarva Power CEO Gary Stockbridge are engaging educators and thought-leaders to forge our collective next steps. In the meantime:
Advocate for mental health supports in schools
Teachers, check out the Compassionate Schools Test Lab for some promising practices
Join a Delaware Readiness Team, and help your local community focus on the skills students need to succeed in kindergarten, including SEL
Get informed. Read A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware
The more we reach across our fences and talk about SEL through the networks of schools and community centers and government agencies and healthcare providers, we start to see how all our work might fit together into a more comprehensive approach.
Over the past two weeks, members of the Rodel team had the opportunity to visit some 2018-19 Rodel Teacher Council (RTC) members in their classrooms.
When we interact with the RTC members it is usually after school hours and in a formal meeting environment. The opportunity to witness them in action, in their classroom and in their element is truly powerful and eye-opening.
We first checked out EastSide Charter School in Wilmington, where RTC member Michael Williams was teaching pre-algebra and differential equations to a seventh grade math class.
His students learned to make the connections between equations and the real-world as Mr. Williams walked them through buying bags of chips with a limited amount of money.
Beyond the lesson, we also saw some great examples of social and emotional learning displayed on classroom posters. Personally, I loved the poster themed around Drake’s “In My Feelings” but with a college and career readiness twist.
The following week we took a trip down to Southern Elementary School in the Colonial School District to visit two more RTC members, Stephanie Alexander and Elena Miller.
We first stopped by Stephanie Alexander’s classroom. Stephanie is a special education teacher in the school’s Intensive Learning Center (ILC). Her students ranged from kindergarten through second grade.
We enjoyed helping students to color in their holiday bingo cards and asking them what things they were thankful for as they added feathers to their “Thankful Turkeys.” The students listed many things they were thankful for—everything from their teachers to their families to monster trucks and banana bread.
Mrs. Alexander also put a bucket outside to track how much snow was falling outside, which had everyone excited.
After visiting Mrs. Alexander, we were able to meet with RTC member Elena Miller. Elena is a district special education coordinator at Southern Elementary. She walked us through her day-to-day role at Southern, including her work overseeing the CASEL and ILC programs, coordinating IEP meetings, and providing support as a teacher resource.
Both teacher council members demonstrated that special education educators are truly a great asset to their school communities.
Our thanks go out to Mr. Williams, Mrs. Alexander and Ms. Miller for allowing us to witness them in action! Stay tuned as we continue to visit Delaware classrooms and learn first-hand about the exciting things happening for the teacher council.
Lisa Mims has been at the forefront of some of Delaware’s most dynamic efforts around social and emotional learning. A longtime Rodel Teacher Council member and prolific ed-tech blogger, Mims currently takes part in the Compassionate Schools “Test Lab,” a model that trains teachers to find positive steps to calm students’ brains, build connections, and foster self-regulation skills.
We caught up with Lisa to hear her take on why SEL matters.
You gave an awesome TedX Talk last year in Wilmington. Tell us a little about your message.
My message was that nothing matters more than building a relationship with our students—all of our students. We especially need to build them with our students who might be a “little rough around the edges.” When we build relationships, more often than not, our students are willing to succeed because they do not feel as if we think less of them.
What do you see as the connection between school culture and climate and SEL? How does a strong, positive school culture support students’ SEL?
In a school where SEL is practiced, the relationship between the educators and the students is shaped by much more than test scores. The educators care for the students’ well-being and strive to create an atmosphere that feels more like a family atmosphere. Rather than penalizing students right away, the staff in the building attempt to find out the underlying causes and deal with situations from that standpoint instead of just determining that a child is “bad” or incapable. Students are very perceptive to how the educators feel about them and behaviors can be changed when students feel like someone cares.
Why is it so important to develop kids’ social and emotional side?
When we see our kids as test scores we are completely forgetting that they are children. Many of our students deal with things in their lives that would be hard for most adults to process, much less children. We have to take this into account whether we’re teaching them academics, or by building their resilience and developing tools to help them deal with whatever is going on in their lives.
There’s this strong link between SEL and trauma-informed care, and rightfully so. But SEL goes beyond supporting students in trauma, correct?
Yes, it does. SEL applies to all students, not just students who have suffered from trauma. All students need to learn how to manage their emotions, be empathetic to others, and be able to make decisions on their own. These are skills that will not only lead to a positive learning environment for all, but can follow them through the rest of their lives.
We’ve seen some great movement locally around SEL. What’s Delaware’s next big milestone? What’s on the horizon?
I know that the educators in the Rodel Teacher Council have made great strides in making districts and educators aware of SEL. At this time they are still meeting to further their cause. One top priority is working to make sure families and students have a voice in the creation of a statewide framework for SEL. Read Creating a Common Language for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware, and learn more about the RTC’s work on SEL last year.
SEL is clearly something that’s very familiar and intimate with teachers and people inside education. But what should parents and the general public know about it?
Parents and the general public should know that it is not just another new thing. Kids are developing socially and emotionally in school and at home and wherever else they spend their time—the opportunity we have now is to make SEL a more intentional part of all classrooms and learning environments. When/if our students have a difficult time processing their emotions, it may lead to toxic relationships in the classroom, whether it’s with their peers or their teacher. Parents and the general public should know that we are aware that trauma and toxic stress are real, and not only are we finding a way to deal with and react to it, but we are giving our students tools to deal with it as well.
Read A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware, which focuses on the efforts underway across Delaware to support students, families, and educators in developing their SEL skills.
Tell us about the Compassionate Schools “Test Lab”
Test Lab is a professional development opportunity extended through the Compassionate Schools partnership whose purpose is to work with teachers to find positive steps to calm student brains, build connections, and foster self-regulation skills. The hope is that these methods can improve student achievement, increase teacher satisfaction, and enhance the overall school climate. Such programs add value because they increase awareness of the impact of trauma and toxic stress on learning. They chose educators so that they could move from research to actual practice.
I was one of the educators fortunate enough to be chosen to participate. This semester, my students are using the self-regulation bands. The bands help them monitor their emotions according to colors, red, yellow, and blue. It’s amazing to watch them switch out the bands during the day according to how they are feeling. It definitely gives them ownership of their emotions. When we are done, we will share feedback with the lab and let them know how it worked (or didn’t), in our classrooms.
In June, Rodel released A Broader Vision of Student Success, a statewide landscape analysis of social emotional learning (SEL). The report was a collaborative research effort, combining the insights and perspectives of students, families, educators, and community members with support from leaders and funders from across the state.
Let’s dig into a few of the key findings in the report to better understand Delaware’s social emotional learning landscape.
Educators see the value in SEL. There is clear demand for SEL, according to our survey of school and district leaders. With two out of three school and district leaders noting SEL as one of their top education priorities, there’s no denying that SEL is here to stay. This finding aligns the Rodel Teacher Council’s 2017 survey, which found that nine out of ten Delaware teachers agree that schools should place more emphasis on SEL. Read Educators Speak Up: Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware.
And they understand that SEL impacts multiple aspects of student success. When asked why their schools implement SEL, school and district leaders indicated multiple, important benefits for students. While research has shown that SEL can positively impact academic outcomes, educators in Delaware clearly understand that there are other aspects at stake—including furthering equitable student outcomes and improving school climate—and that SEL is an effective way to support students’ holistic development.
Delaware’s students and families also recognize the need for SEL. Our research team had conversations with students and families in all three Delaware counties, and in a variety of grade levels and types of schools. They heard clear messages of support for SEL:
Despite this support, schools have sometimes struggled to meaningfully involve families in SEL planning and/or implementation. While fewer than one in three school and district leaders surveyed identified family engagement as a key driver of successful SEL implementation, research indicates that families are crucial partners. Family support and connection to the development and implementation of SEL programs and initiatives will be critical to ensuring success. Over half of the SEL partners interviewed as part of this research see a strong need for schools and districts to partner with families to reinforce SEL skills.
To address this, educators need additional professional learning to address SEL implementation. While the majority of schools have provided some professional development or training to advance their SEL efforts, school and district leaders surveyed reported vast agreement that staff will need more training to adequately implement SEL.
We’re looking forward to hearing your insights and working with you to make the recommendations in the landscape analysis come alive for Delaware students, families, educators, and communities.
 “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/meta-analysis-child-development-1.pdf