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Making Social and Emotional Learning a Priority

Making Social and Emotional Learning a Priority

The Bellevue School District successfully launched a district-wide SEL initiative. Here’s how we did it.

By Randi Peterson

The idea of teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) is gaining traction in school districts across the country, and more and more are adopting SEL policies.

This should come as no surprise, considering the growing body of research showing that when schools focus on students’ social and emotional wellbeing, it has a positive impact on academics. But some districts may have difficulty figuring out how to craft effective SEL policies. And while attending to students with SEL needs may seem solely a concern of large urban districts, all school districts can help students by focusing on social and emotional learning. In our district in Washington we started by making SEL a priority and building on that priority. I’d like to talk about some of the ways the Bellevue School District (BSD) is addressing this issue.

Prioritizing SEL

One of the first things BSD did was choose to make SEL a priority. We consider SEL an instructional content area just like reading or math. For the first time, this year we’re including it on elementary students’ progress reports.

Bellevue prioritized SEL because we believe it is our responsibility to address the “whole child,” and not focus solely on test scores. We want educators to care about the emotional health of our students just as much as they care about their academics. We also want adults to care about their own emotional health, so we have made SEL a priority for us all in the district.

Some may consider this a “warm and fuzzy” dimension of teaching, rather than a critical task of schools. But think about it from a student’s perspective. In today’s world of cyberbullying, a rising teen suicide rate, and increased instances of poverty and neglect at home, students are under more stress than ever before. It’s our job to teach them how to handle that stress, how to make good choices, and how to get along with others. These skills will not only translate into academic gains and a decrease in disciplinary issues, they will also set these students up for lifelong success after graduation by equipping them with the skills to lead a positive and productive life.

Sometimes SEL is as simple as knowing how to resolve conflicts with a friend or coworker. If a student is a math whiz, but doesn’t know how to get along with his roommates or his boss, it will be difficult for him to live up to his potential.

Rolling Out Our SEL Initiative

In the fall of 2013 BSD launched three instructional initiatives: academic success, college and career readiness and positive and productive life. BSD has focused on academic success and college and career readiness for many years. But, in 2013 we added a Positive and Productive Life initiative to the district’s five-year plan. Our goal is to make sure students leave 12th grade with interpersonal skills and a commitment to their community. We took the following steps:

  • Set goals
  • Developed standards
  • Adopted curriculum
  • Measured progress

We settled on three goal areas aligned with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies: self-awareness and self-management, interpersonal skills, and decision making.

Then we set up an action team to determine how best to accomplish our goals. We knew we needed to create SEL standards, so we looked at other districts that were already employing them, such as Anchorage, Austin, and throughout the state of Illinois, and borrowed their best ideas. We adopted SEL curriculum, including Second Step and RULER at the elementary level. We are currently piloting RULER and MindUP at the middle school level.

In order for any good SEL program to work, educators also need data. In October we screened more than 8,000 students using Evo Social & Emotional, an assessment tool from Apperson. It uses the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) to determine which students are at risk for social and emotional skill gaps. This was extremely valuable. For the first time, teachers now have data to show which students are in need of intervention.

It’s important to get parents and the community involved too. To do this, we launched a public Facebook page about SEL that anyone can access, and some of our teachers are conducting the SEL assessment during parent-teacher conferences.

Looking Ahead

We are now in the third year of our five-year plan, and we’re excited to see how it will impact the district as we continue to move forward. Adopting a full-scale SEL initiative takes time, and we’ve learned some lessons along the way: First and foremost, it’s best to take it slow. Make sure all the adults are on board, especially the leadership at each building. Consider rolling out the curriculum at the staff level so that the adults really get to know it before they start teaching it to students. Once you have some school successes, showcase them to other schools in your district so others can learn from them. With this work it is important to go slow to have a lasting impact and transformational change.

We as an education community need to support the emotional health and wellness of our children and staff. As the trend toward SEL instruction continues, it will be more and more important for school districts to have solid SEL programs in place to ensure their students don’t fall through the cracks.

Randi Peterson, Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) Curriculum Developer, Bellevue School District, Bellevue, Washington.


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