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What This School Used as the Main Ingredient for a Positive Climate

Staff and students at Yates Elementary in Schenectady, N.Y., rarely end a conversation without uttering two words: “Choose Kind.”

The phrase, written on signs throughout the school and spoken at the end of daily loudspeaker announcements, has become a motto for staff and students after nearly a decade of implementing social-emotional learning, which teaches students how to manage their emotions, cultivate healthy relationships, and foster empathy.

“The social-emotional language is built into everything we do, every interaction,” Principal Robert Flanders said. “Every special area, whether you’re going to PE or an orchestra lesson, you’re going to hear the same language. It’s going to be the same lesson. So it’s not just a onetime thing. It’s embedded in everything we do.”

The strategy has gone far beyond improving student behavior at the school, which serves around 300 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade. It is the main ingredient in the school’s recipe for a positive climate and culture, in which the building feels safe; student misbehavior is quickly managed; and teachers are highly connected—to each other, to their students, and to the broader school community—and satisfied in their work, Flanders said.

Schools like Yates have increasingly turned to social-emotional learning as a strategy to address bad behavior, improve student well-being, and create a safer, more positive environment. Investing in social-emotional-learning curricula and programming has been the most popular strategy to address student health and wellness that districts have paid for with COVID-relief funding, according to a January survey from the Association for School Business Officials. Altogether, the Georgetown University-based think tank Future Ed projects that districts across the country will spend more than $1.2 billion of COVID-relief funding on social-emotional programming—about 1 percent of the total from the third round of the special federal money and more than they’re expected to devote to transportation. Research has shown that the strategy is effective in improving students’ academics and emotional regulation, reducing bad behavior, and improving overall well-being.

But although it’s a promising strategy, its effectiveness varies based on how—and how well—it’s implemented. In order for it to work, schools should ensure SEL is systemic and not limited to an isolated period of explicit instruction, customized to the community, and integrated into every aspect of instruction, said Tyrone Martinez Black, a practice integration specialist at CASEL, a nonprofit that helps schools implement social-emotional learning and advocates for policies and funding to expand SEL adoption.

“When there is a more dedicated, systemic SEL, children will have greater opportunities to concentrate on their schoolwork, they will have opportunities to build stronger relationships with their peers, with the adults in the building, the teachers especially, and certainly, we would hope, reinforce those lessons that they are receiving from home and in the community as a whole,” Martinez Black said.

In schools with effective, systemic social-emotional learning, the impact on school climate should be clear with noticeable drops in misbehavior, reduced stress levels and improved emotional regulation among staff, and students who are kinder and more compassionate.

Using SEL to transform a school’s climate

The social-emotional-learning program at Yates began with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a three-tiered framework that rewards and reinforces good behavior while creating a structure for staff to intervene when students show repeated, serious misbehavior. Seeing success with that program, Yates adopted the Second Step SEL curriculum, as it complements PBIS with lessons and content related to social-emotional skills.

Over the years, the school has evolved from limiting social-emotional-learning instruction to specific classroom lessons to embedding it into the overall environment, said Carrie White, a 2nd grade teacher and PBIS coach at Yates.

Students participate in daily circles in each classroom where they discuss their feelings; practice skills that help with learning, such as listening and following directions; and work on stress-relieving techniques through breathing exercises and meditation. The school also has a monthly assembly where students practice calming strategies, learn how to express their feelings, and reduce stress.

This work has given students the tools to self-soothe and manage conflict and stress on their own, White said. Staff members model those tools themselves, using them to help students manage stressful moments, such as tricky math problems or playground scuffles.

“It’s becoming second nature for everyone, and that’s where we see our behavior shifting,” White said. “Years ago, [students were] going to the teacher and tattling, ‘He’s doing this,’ or ‘She’s doing that,’ and now, we see at lunch and recess and special areas, all those difficult times during the day, they’re handling those situations on their own and using that common language, using the calm-down strategies.”

That’s an expected outcome from the effective use of SEL, said Andrea Lovanhill, the CEO of Committee for Children, the nonprofit that created and administers the Second Step program.

“Social-emotional learning is foundational to a learning environment because it is a process that helps humans continually develop essential skills for both learning and life,” Lovanhill said. “That includes communicating effectively, building confidence, connecting with others, problem-solving, and making important decisions. All of those things really show up in a lot of different areas in education and [in] having an effective education practice.”

Making SEL systemic across a district

Without using a systemic approach to SEL, schools could be investing a lot of time and effort into a curriculum or strategy without seeing it make a real impact on the school environment.

When SEL is systemic, students and adults in a school practice social-emotional skills, applying them throughout the day in a variety of situations so they become second nature, Martinez Black said.

It should also reflect the community, with schools allowing parents and caregivers to provide input on the kinds of skills their children should have, incorporating lessons that reflect the cultural diversity of the student population, and addressing shared trauma or challenges that are unique to the community.

“It is critically important that any social-emotional-learning decisions that the school might make are really informed by local priorities and concerns,” Martinez Black said. “That means really working with families and caregivers and the community representatives.”

That was a key component of the success at Yates, where Black and Hispanic students each make up about a third of the school’s population.

Having a systemic, localized approach has also been central to the social-emotional programming at the Lake Washington school district outside of Seattle. The district created its social-emotional-learning program by first developing a school board policy to set standards and hold the district accountable for providing effective SEL.

The policy came out of a statewide focus on expanding social-emotional learning in Washington state schools. Every other year, districts must use one of their three state-funded professional development days to conduct training on social-emotional learning, according to the state superintendent’s office. The state also adopted SEL standards and provides resources and help to districts as they implement SEL.

The Lake Washington district—in which 39 percent of students are Asian, 38 percent are white, 11 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent are of two or more races, and 2 percent are Black—had conversations with parents, staff, and community members about the social-emotional skills they wanted students to have. District leaders then worked with staff to develop content that embedded those skills into other areas of learning, like reading, math, and science. For example, a history teacher may give students the opportunity to share their emotional reactions to lessons on historical events, or a math teacher might encourage a student to take a moment and practice calming techniques during a particularly challenging problem.

“That’s been a really impactful shift in Lake Washington school district, just looking at what are the requisite social-emotional skills students and adults need to have healthy relationships with one another, to navigate complex environments, to engage in learning across content areas and across the day,” said Charlotte Plouse, a student-services specialist with the nearly 14,000-student district. “We really tried to do that in a way that modeled what we’d hope for our students to experience.”

Having buy-in from the adults is key to successful SEL, said Lovanhill of the Committee for Children.

“Adults are the key influence on kids’ experience, as much as we might emphasize peers and relationships,” she said. “Having high-quality professional development for educators, ensuring that educators are supported in finding those daily moments of learning throughout the day, [supporting] a high-quality environment for kids to learn in, and [ensuring] that there are really effective communication strategies between parents and educators—all of that comes to bear on the perception of school.”

A state’s approach

Washington state isn’t alone in committing statewide to social-emotional learning as a tool to combat misbehavior and improve school climate. A growing number of states have adopted SEL standards following the pandemic, even as the term has become a political target of some conservative governors, lawmakers, and education officials.

In Nevada, state officials have incorporated social-emotional learning into their efforts to promote positive school climates.

Since 2015, the state has used its School Climate/Social Emotional Learning Survey to learn how students perceive their school climate. The survey, administered in schools statewide each fall, asks students about their relationships with peers, teachers, and school leadership; their schools’ ability to include and respect students of different cultures and who speak languages other than English; their physical and emotional safety at school; and their own perceptions of their social and emotional competencies.

The state uses the results to provide social-emotional resources and extra help to schools where students indicate the environment might not be positive or conducive to learning, said Laronica Maurer, who oversees school climate and equity initiatives at Nevada’s education department.

“When you walk into a space and you just know, I feel important here, I feel valued here, I feel respected here: That’s how we want our students to feel when they enter the school,” Maurer said.

The state is developing a set of social-emotional-learning standards as well as a portrait of a learner, which reflects a list of attributes parents, educators, and community members think a student should have when they graduate, to support its school climate work over the next school year. The goal is to help all Nevada schools cultivate a positive climate, where students develop the social and emotional skills they need to thrive.

One of the biggest barriers for schools, Maurer said, is having the time to ensure social-emotional learning is happening. That’s where she sees the state having the biggest influence.

“Administrators, district leaders, we have to give them the permission to factor this time in,” Maurer said. “We have to let them know that we value positive school climate, social-emotional learning, restorative practices. We value this so much that it’s important for you to factor time in your day to dedicate to teaching social-emotional learning, to having a connection circle to get to know your kids better, to do a fishbowl to problem-solve and get students engaged in that problem-solving process.

“I think when educators or administrators of the school building know that it’s OK, they want to follow suit.”

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