Every morning, no matter how she’s feeling, Emily Day looks each of her third-grade students in the eye and greets them with a smile as they enter her classroom. It is a simple idea, but the effect it has on her students is transformational.
"They’re cheerful when they walk in,” Day says. "And I can check with them and say, 'Hey, are you ok?’ if I see them come in a little off. It allows them the space to say, 'I had a rough morning,’ which is important because we expect our students to come in ready to go, but it’s hard to come in ready to go every morning.”
This morning greeting is just one of many ways Day incorporates social and emotional learning (SEL) into her classroom. SEL, an initiative that teaches students how to manage their emotions and respond to the emotions of others, is growing in popularity, and Austin ISD, where Day works, is one of a handful of districts across the country leading the movement.
Austin Takes the SEL Plunge
Austin’s Zilker Elementary isn’t your typical neighborhood school. The campus is covered with gardens and art projects (one garden is a declared “child-life habitat”). Classrooms include “peace areas,” quiet places where students can sit alone to calm down and reflect, or invite a peer to resolve a conflict using a “peace path,” or conflict resolution script. The school hosts Mindfulness Mondays, when parents, teachers, and students meet to practice calming exercises. And unlike most children across Texas, Zilker students couldn’t identify “portable brown” on a color palette. In an effort to de-institutionalize the campus, Zilker’s portable buildings have been painted vibrant blues, oranges, and yellows.
Zilker’s staff and parents have worked hard to create a warm and student-friendly environment. So it’s not surprising that an approach like SEL would thrive here.
Austin ISD instituted its SEL program six years ago, in partnership with CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), an organization that works to advance SEL in K-12 education. The rollout started with just a handful of schools, but by the 2015-16 school year, all 130 of the district’s schools were on board. Zilker has been a part of this program for five years now.
Austin’s SEL director, Pete Price, admits he wasn’t immediately sold on the notion of bringing SEL into Austin schools. At the time the idea was proposed, Price was the principal at O. Henry Middle School, and he wasn’t convinced an SEL program would be effective for his students. But it didn’t take long after seeing the program in action for him to change his mind. “Being a principal, I noticed that some kids got along really well and other kids got frustrated more during the day,” says Price. “I saw how critical these skills were to their success.” Price quickly became one of the program’s staunchest advocates, and he moved into the position of SEL director in July 2016. Austin’s SEL team, which Price manages, includes 16 SEL specialists, each of whom works with a team of schools. These specialists, whom Price refers to as “missionaries,” provide SEL training to teachers, administrators, and students throughout the school district.
Price is a firm believer that there should be no strict blueprint for how schools incorporate SEL. When his specialists go into a school, they collaborate with staff and students to institute the program in a way that works for that individual campus. “The specialists have an arsenal of tools to teach the campuses, but it all depends on where the campus is,” says Price. “It is highly subjective—needs based and strength based. We want to make this really grassroots.”
Relationships Propel Results
Despite the recent interest in SEL, Price says the concept is nothing new. What has changed is our understanding of it. “When I started teaching in the early ‘80s, I did social emotional learning. But when I started teaching, we had no idea about brain research,” says Price. “The last couple of decades, we have learned so much about the brain. Now we know with irrefutable evidence that learning is enhanced based on the social and emotional context. We know learning with others can enhance academic achievement. We know that students who feel emotionally secure and valued by the teacher will achieve at higher levels.”
Price firmly believes that relationships propel academic results, not the other way around. “You can’t pound kids with worksheets and ‘drill and kill,’” he says. “You’ve got to make sure they know they’re valued and that they’re cared for, and then you’ll see results.”
Emily Day’s experience supports this idea. “I have noticed that my students don’t feel embarrassed to try to grapple with concepts that they don’t easily understand,” she notes. Day believes her weekly SEL lessons have increased students’ confidence levels by providing them with a greater understanding of their struggling classmates and equipping them with the social and emotional tools necessary to ask for help and explore new ideas. “We are all in this together and we actually have a responsibility toward each other to help everyone be successful,” says Day. “The space we have created together allows for that.”
Research conducted over the years has confirmed not only that students do perform better with teachers like Day, who take the time to understand their emotional needs, but also that explicit SEL instruction has a positive impact on academic scores and overall long-term success.
SEL has also been linked to a reduction in the achievement gap. Students who have turbulent home lives or parents who are working multiple jobs may not be exposed to the same amount of social emotional modeling at home that other students might receive. For these students, SEL instruction at school can have a large impact.
“A lot of SEL is preventive strategies to ensure students will be successful,” Price says. “We have 60 percent poverty in Austin. We have kids who come from challenging situations. If you don’t provide them with an opportunity to talk, the trauma is going to pop up its ugly head sometime during the day. And it will be disruptive not only to that student but to other students’ learning.”
Day, who has worked with students from both ends of the economic spectrum, agrees. “I have found it’s the same for all students,” she says. “Kids from both sides of town want to feel like they have a say in the classroom. SEL transcends all boundaries.”
Making Time for Empathy
Despite SEL’s documented benefits, many classroom teachers may be resistant to adding a half hour of lessons into their already overloaded schedules. Price acknowledges that our schools ask a lot of teachers and fears that for many educators, SEL may seem to be just one more classroom requirement. That’s one reason he believes integrating SEL lessons into academic content is so critical.
Day confirms that juggling explicit SEL lessons along with traditional academics can be a challenge. But she also notes that dedicating time up front to modeling appropriate behavior cuts down on discipline issues and helps her class run smoothly, which saves her time in the long run. “SEL has provided the tools to work stuff out, so it’s not always the teacher’s problem to initiate it,” says Day. “We have so much on our plates all the time that it’s hard when you have to stop and figure out these class issues that come up. I don’t have a lot of behaviors that I have to stop and take care of because students have the tools to work things out on their own.”
Price notes that administrative support for SEL is a major factor in how successful the program is on each campus. If administrators are enthusiastic about SEL, they can provide the tools necessary to help teachers juggle their time. Day agrees with this assessment. “Zilker is a great place for SEL,” she says. “It’s encouraged by the administrators, who put great stock into the happiness of the kids who attend school here.”
More than a Curriculum
In addition to her early greeting, Day begins every class with a morning meeting, a 15- to 20-minute ritual that involves students’ sitting in a circle, acknowledging each other, and sharing thoughts and feelings.
During each morning meeting, Day asks her students a few simple questions, for example, “How do you show kindness to others?” and “What brings you joy every day?” Students pair up and discuss their answers, and Day praises them on behaviors such as making good eye contact and politely inviting others to partner with them.
“What morning meeting does is allow everyone to have a say or voice their opinion about things in a respectful way,” says Day. “We look each other in the eyes, we smile at each other, and we give firm handshakes.”
Day’s morning ritual is just one of many ways she encourages empathy and understanding in her classroom. She conducts half-hour weekly SEL lessons, which are drawn from Second Step, AISD’s preferred curriculum for elementary and middle schools. A typical Second Step lesson includes classroom or small-group discussion around a social scenario.
These lessons are important to students’ understanding, but in Day’s classroom, SEL instruction is more than a curriculum. She makes a point of modeling appropriate behaviors whenever she can. “We have to model what we expect. We have to model what good conversations look like,” says Day. “I’ll have a conversation with somebody so that everybody can watch. They’re more successful because they know what is expected.”
Price says SEL lessons have the greatest impact when they are absorbed into daily routines, as in Day’s classroom, but he admits that not all teachers and students are ready for that level of instruction. In the coming years, Price hopes to usher in a new understanding of SEL. “Too many teachers think SEL is just those lessons,” says Price. “SEL is who we are. It’s how we treat others. It’s all day long. It’s our culture. It’s the fabric of AISD’s culture. We’re not there yet. That’s where we want to get.”
A More Balanced Approach
Price is proud of how far his team has come in the past six years, but he hopes the coming years will bring even greater success for Austin’s SEL program. Within the next year, Price plans to implement what he calls “SEL 2.0,” which involves increasing the program’s focus on school climate and providing SEL lessons to the adults in each school community (staff, teachers, and possibly even parents).
Most of all, Price hopes his department’s work will help offset the ever-increasing emphasis on testing and accountability that public schools face. “What are schools for? People say learning, but when you really think about school, the purpose is to help kids become,” he says. “I want my children to become productive and compassionate members of society. I really think we’re on the right track in creating a more balanced approach in teaching.”
At the classroom level, Day’s goals are similar. She is sure her students will learn the academic skills they need. What she wants most is to know that they feel happy and safe in her classroom. With each morning greeting, Day hopes her students understand her true meaning: “No matter what happened yesterday, we’re starting differently today. It’s a fresh day. I love you. I’m so glad you’re here.”