Ati Wongsaroj, a teacher at Webb Middle School in Austin, began her class on a recent Tuesday as she does every day—with classical music, low lights and journaling, followed by a recorded meditation. This day, her 8th graders listened to a deep breathing and centering exercise called “Body Scan.” Some of the students sat at their desks, while others lay on a carpet to participate. Those opting out were encouraged to choose another, quiet activity. In a few moments, the class moved on to a student-led planning discussion—hopefully feeling a little calmer and ready for the challenges of their day. The technique is just one of many being taught or shared by AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program staff—a group of specialists and others working to implement the nationally recognized program across the district’s 130 schools.
As we all know, strong emotions like anger and anxiety can interfere with decision-making and limit our ability to focus on important tasks. The district’s SEL program is aimed at addressing this and other issues by helping students understand and manage their emotions, feel empathy, cultivate respect for others and deal with challenging situations productively and ethically. While it may sound “touchy-feely,” the program is based in science, according to SEL Director Pete Price. Brain research shows that an emotionally and socially safe environment is essential for learning, he says. Children living with high levels of stress or trauma tend to experience physiological effects that may make it hard for them to learn. For those students in particular, Price says, the old-fashioned top down, zero tolerance approach just doesn’t work. The district’s SEL program gives teachers and students alternative tools and techniques that can help them develop positive connections and better understand themselves and others. The results can empower students to manage their own behavior, in contrast to the more traditional reliance on teachers to modify or control it.
Wongsaroj, who has taught middle school for five years, says she knows it’s an emotionally taxing and unstable time for many kids. Practicing the morning meditation and other mindfulness techniques has decreased the amount of drama students bring into her classroom. “I don’t have to deal with as much crying or as much negativity this year,” she says. Moreover, her students are better able to focus on academics, she adds.
Each ASID school has an assigned SEL specialist who provides training and support to teachers and administrators on how to use specifically formulated curriculum and on integrating SEL principles into daily school life. Each school also develops its own plans and goals around SEL, so implementation at each campus looks different. In addition, the SEL team supports the work of other initiatives that align closely with its goals, such as No Place for Hate, a national effort that encourages students to appreciate diversity, oppose bullying, and challenge bigotry and prejudice.
Though the SEL program is just in its sixth year, the district reports seeing positive results for students—from improved test scores to fewer disciplinary referrals and better attendance— especially for those schools who have engaged most actively.
Social and emotional learning offers benefits to adults as well as children. In fact, the synergy it can create between teachers and students is likely the cause for at least some of the improvements schools have seen, says Caroline Chase, the program’s administrative supervisor. Disciplinary referrals may be down because children are acting out less frequently but also because teachers have better ways to respond to disruptive behavior. “Writing a referral is not the first thing they think of anymore,” she says. Teachers have even reported improved relationships with family members after teaching SEL concepts, Chase says.
Interested in knowing more? Ask your principal about book studies, coffees or other SEL-related activities at your school. Invite your elementary or middle school student to tell you about their “Second Step” lessons or quiz your older child about “School Connect.” Grab a book from the Parent Book List or check out the SEL Parent Toolkit, both of which can be found—along with many other resources—at bit.ly/2gJtv6V.
Here are my five picks (slightly adapted) from “Ten Things You Can Do at Home,” posted on the AISD SEL resources webpage.
- Acknowledge your child’s strengths before discussing improvements.
- Ask your child how he or she feels.
- Find ways to stay calm when angry.
- Be patient when your child makes mistakes—it’s part of learning.
- Be willing to apologize.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.