We reported last summer on action taken by the Des Moines School Board that placed an increased emphasis on a social/emotional learning (SEL) component districtwide.
Broadly, SEL is the process through which children (and adults) understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, demonstrate empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
Schools at all levels have been trying new ways to enhance learning environments by identifying and addressing root causes of problematic student behaviors this year. And this week, as the first semester of the 2019-20 school year wraps up, an organization that’s blazing trails in the field of SEL is in town to assess where the district’s at and provide some direction on where it ought to go.
CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is based in Chicago and partners with 20 districts nationwide on embedded, research-based SEL strategies. They’re here conducting a SELREA (an SEL Readiness & Engagement Analysis) for the district to consider as it charts the course forward.
Wednesday was the first of two days making site visits in classrooms, meeting with district teachers and absorbing briefings from district administrators. Based on what they see and hear, CASEL observers will formulate recommendations for next steps.
Karen VanAusdal is CASEL’s Senior Director of Practice and she headed a team whose itinerary included a stop at Callanan Middle School. Besides touring the school, VanAusdal met with a group of teachers to find out how they’re already incorporating SEL principles in their toolkits.
“Every Wednesday morning we spend devoted time on SEL,” said Erin Bosley, who teaches language arts. “A lot of it ties in with our school core values, RISE (Responsible-Involved-Safe-Empathetic). And in our class literature there are lots of ways to apply SEL when we study stories and characters. For us as teachers, our PD (professional development) now includes SEL, too.”
Instructional Coach Traci Nalevanko pointed out that SEL isn’t confined to formal curriculum. “Even in the hallways, every encounter we have with one another and with students is an opportunity to model SEL,” she said.
“It’s important for us to support each other emotionally, too,” said global studies teacher Kristen Bower, a point echoed by principal Dawn Stahly, who said, “It’s a hard job and we have stressed lifting ourselves up this year as well as the students. We are all supporting one another.”
Old school faculty always included an administrator whose primary task it was to mete out discipline. Students who misbehaved suffered the consequences, which were generally intended to make examples of offenders and deter copycats. If it ever really was that simple, it isn’t anymore. More students than ever before come to school weighed down with post-traumatic burdens that manifest in conflict with classmates and school staff. When VanAusdal asked the Callanan teachers what they thought they needed to better cope with SEL issues they face, it wasn’t more discipline they asked for, it was more therapy.
“Or at least enough teachers so that our class sizes would go down and give us more time to be therapists for students,” said Bower.
An increase in state aid to schools would be a big help in that regard. Speaking of which, besides CASEL coming to town this week, so did legislators for their annual session at the State Capitol.
They’d love to hear from you.