Education

Teaching students how to cope socially, emotionally

Such skills are needed to succeed in rapidly changing world, area educators say

Posted 10/18/17

Eighth-grader Morgan Fritzler is working to improve her self-awareness.

“Sometimes, I have anxiety and perfectionist issues and I expect myself to get everything on the first try,” Fritzler, 12, said. “It makes me feel frustrated.”

But …

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Education

Teaching students how to cope socially, emotionally

Such skills are needed to succeed in rapidly changing world, area educators say

Posted

Eighth-grader Morgan Fritzler is working to improve her self-awareness.

“Sometimes, I have anxiety and perfectionist issues and I expect myself to get everything on the first try,” Fritzler, 12, said. “It makes me feel frustrated.”

But through a program at her school that focuses on social and emotional learning, she is learning how to calm herself down when she gets upset, how to be persistent and not give up, and a variety of other coping mechanisms that teach resilience and, ultimately, success in everyday decision-making.

“It was helpful,” she said of the Brain Wise program taught at Arvada’s Manning Middle School in Jefferson County. Now, when she’s struggling, she takes a break rather than continue in frustration, specifically when it comes to math homework.

Brain Wise is one of a multitude of programs beginning to proliferate throughout Denver metro school districts that teach social and emotional learning — or SEL — skills. Sometimes known as behavioral or noncognitive skills, educators and mental health experts, along with a growing number of research studies, say they are essential to successfully navigating not only education, but also career and life.

The keys to success

The national Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning describes SEL as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

“We want all students to be equipped with the tools and skills to navigate and thrive in our rapidly changing world,” said Priscilla Straughn, chief academic officer for Adams 12 Five Star District. “Through social emotional learning, students develop an awareness of and the ability to manage their emotions, in order to set and achieve important personal and academic goals.”

Some of these, Straughn said, include the use of social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships, and the ability to form, articulate and demonstrate a positive and productive decision-making process that supports students in achieving school and life success.

According to a 2011 meta-analysis published by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs. They also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others and school.

Social emotional learning focuses on five core competencies: self management, self awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.

“Those are the things that we’re trying to teach kids so they’re successful at school, home and beyond,” said Erin Sullivan, social emotional learning coordinator for Jefferson County Schools. “I always think of them as the skills you need to have to access education better.”

They are also the skills that employers want.

“A lot of cognitive things become automated, so you need the people skills,” said Rich Roberts, chief scientist at ACT, a nationwide mission-driven nonprofit organization that assesses K-12 education, which researched SEL. “SELs are becoming more valued in the workplace and therefore it’s something we should care about in the school system.”

Recently, ACT announced the launch of the ACT Tessera, a next-generation assessment system designed to measure SEL skills. The new system will provide assessments for middle and high school students (grades 6-12), as well as actionable lesson plans for teachers looking to integrate SEL into their classrooms.

“In education, we’ve been concentrating for a long time on cognitive assessment, but with the changing nature of the workforce, things like working well with others, being a good team player and being able to cope with stress — these are good things to learn,” Roberts said. “We live in a world of modern stresses so, to me, it’s not rocket science, it just makes sense.”

What districts are doing

Denver metro area school districts are taking different approaches.

In Adams 12, each school determines which programs to offer based on what would be most effective in that specific school.

Some of those programs include Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, Second Step, Journey to a Hate Free Millennium, Signs of Suicide, Random Acts of Kindness, Peace4Kids, Superflex and Zones of Regulation, to name a few. Although they may differ in content, they all share a goal of creating better people.

“We’ve found this approach positively impacts a students’ readiness to learn, classroom behavior and overall academic performance,” Straughn said.

In Douglas County, teachers try to reach students in all classrooms, not with a specific curriculum, but by creating a welcoming culture at each school.

“The key to it all is having connectedness to adults,” said Stephanie Crawford-Goetz, mental health coordinator for the Douglas County School District.

The district holds professional developments for teachers on how to create safe and healthy classrooms. Crawford-Goetz said this can look like counselors going into classrooms and partnering with parents or teachers modeling for students how to have good relationship skills and make good decisions.

“It’s not something that we do, it’s something that we are,” Crawford-Goetz said. “We want to empower our students to be as successful as can be, so it’s looking at the students as more than just academic achievement. It’s looking at the whole child.”

Douglas County also works more closely with identified at-risk students who are showing difficulty using SEL skills. Crawford-Goetz said those students will often work on specific skills in groups. Some receive individualized counseling.

Englewood Schools is also working to train its staff to understand signs of emotional distress through Mental Health First Aid a national program that teaches skills to respond to signs of mental illness and substance use.

Englewood is also taking advantage of a variety of grants to increase its mental health, social and emotional supports.

One of those grants came from the Expelled and At-Risk Student Services program through the Colorado Department of Education. The district will use the four-yeargrant to implement restorative practices, an approach using various communicative techniques focused on affective statements or brief comments about how others were impacted by actions, and proactive community-building activities to reduce the number of student suspensions.

The district also received a grant through Kaiser Permanente to be part of the Los Angeles Education Partnership, a nonprofit that provides coaches that focus on dealing with trauma.

In addition, Englewood Schools partners with Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network for school-based therapists to work with students on site.

“We’ve really been working to increase our focus in the last couple years,” said Callan Clark, executive director of student services for the Englewood school district.

Jeffco schools also partners with local mental health provider Jefferson County Mental Health to provide social emotional learning specialists to schools in the district.

For the 2016-17 school year, Jeffco hired 30 SEL specialists who serve at every middle school in the district teaching curriculum. Those specialists were funded from the district’s general fund, something Sullivan, who coordinates SEL in Jeffco, said was well worth the $750,000 expense.

A 2015 study by researchers at Columbia University found that the measurable benefits of SEL exceed the costs, often by considerable amounts. The aggregate result of the analysis showed an average benefit-cost ratio of about 11-1 among the six evidence-based SEL interventions studied. This means that, on average, for every $1 invested in SEL programming, there is a return of $11.

This year, Jeffco was awarded a grant from the state’s School Health Professionals Grant Program, which uses recreational marijuana tax dollars to help hire additional school health professionals in districts across the state.

With that money, Jeffco will hire six more SEL specialists who will be assigned to elementary schools in the Jefferson and Wheat Ridge articulation areas. The grant also includes hiring three full-time nurses in the Lakewood area. (These are the three communities in the Jeffco district that sell recreational marijuana.)

The goal, Sullivan said, is to focus on prevention, building relationships with kids and practicing SEL skills early and often.

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