SEL Skills Play an Important Role in Learning
Educators around the country now realize that the emotional and social well-being of students is critical for their ability to learn to their potential and deeply impacts the student’s overall school experience and health.
In addition to math and writing skills, learning in today’s world requires social and emotional engagement—asking questions, learning from mistakes and working cooperatively. Students need the right social-emotional learning (SEL) skills to operate effectively and thrive in this dynamic environment.
We would like to share with you some stories about how the social and emotional well-being of our PAUSD students is being supported by caring staff, K-12, every school day. These PiE-funded staff help all students learn healthy ways to bolster their SEL skills and offer extra support to students and their families when needed.
IN OUR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS
Creating Building Blocks for Well-Being
PiE supports many of the social-emotional learning programs that are giving Palo Alto children the internal building blocks they will need to thrive in today’s world. Not only are these programs creating better learners; they are having a positive impact on the classroom and on our whole community.
A recent 20-year longitudinal study published in the American Journal of Public Health supports this effort by revealing a link between young children’s social competence and their success across a wide range of health, social, and economic measures. Mark T. Greenberg, the study co-author describes to the New York Times, being surprised by “how much social competence outweighed variables such as social class, early academic achievement and family circumstances when it came to predicting outcomes.”
Megan Warter is a PAUSD psychologist at both Barron Park and Juana Briones and is a firm believer in the value of providing social-emotional education at the elementary level. She adds, “Building a strong foundation of problem solving skills and how to bounce back from setbacks really sets students up for success.” Building this resilience early is important because expectations of students increase as they get older.
In the younger grades, many students need a little extra help with social interaction,friendships skills, and conflict resolution. While some kids are naturally more resilient than others, every student today can benefit from an education that incorporates lessons in self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, and self-advocacy—all of which help build resilience.
An emotionally healthy learning environment is especially important for group work, where it’s vital that students feel good about themselves. “Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. When students feel good, groups work better together,” says Ms. Warter.
SEL in PAUSD Elementary Schools
PAUSD maintains a staff of psychologists and behavior specialists at the elementary level. Additionally, three mental health agencies, Cassy, Acknowledge Alliance, and Family and Children’s Services, provide a range of services throughout PAUSD schools. Programs vary by school site and are tailored to the unique needs of each school community. These services support the emotional health of all students and include: behavior coaching on both an individual and small group basis, facilitating Project Resilience workshops, leading small “lunch bunch” friendship gatherings to help new students integrate and providing teacher training in mindfulness techniques.
Sandhya Gupta, MFT and the PAUSD liaison for CASSY, says that when mindfulness techniques—such as breathing, guided reflection, and expressing gratitude—are taught, students can more easily calm themselves, let go of whatever happened on the playground and become ready to learn. Gupta sees the benefit of broadening this work down from older students in high school to also include the younger grades.
CASSY services, which were first delivered in PAUSD in 2010, have grown to be available at 7 of 12 grade-school locations. Gupta believes that exposing kids in younger years can help de-stigmatize mental health so there will be less shame should a time come when they need to seek help. According to Gupta, being proactive “needs to be a part of our culture. How can we make our [learning] environment more healthy?”
By continuing to incorporate social-emotional learning as part of a well-rounded education, Palo Alto schools, and PiE, are making an important long-term investment in our children.
IN OUR MIDDLE SCHOOLS
Counselors Support Students Through Their Middle School Years
“Every student needs support, guidance, and opportunities during adolescence, a time of rapid growth and change,” according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Guidance counselors are an important part of that support system for students at all three PAUSD middle schools.
Donations to PiE have made it possible for every student at all three middle schools to have the consistency of a single guidance counselor who works with them starting with their transition from elementary school through to their transition to high school. During their three years working together with the same counselor, students benefit in many ways—sometimes one-on-one, sometimes behind-the-scenes, and sometimes in groups.
Jeff Gielow, a guidance counselor at Jordan, talked through the many ways that counselors a teach of the schools work with students and support student development in these critical years at middle school.
It all starts before the students even enter middle school. A guidance counselor and an administrator from the middle school visit all feeder elementary schools to talk to all 5th graders about what students can anticipate in 6th grade. The counselor also meets with every 5th grade teacher to talk about each student in their classroom. They also attend all transition meetings for students supported with IEPs and 504s, working with other middle school and elementary school team members to ensure a smooth transition.
Once students enter 6th grade, the counselor focuses on supporting them to have a positive start. At Jordan, the counselor has an active role during the two-day orientation program, Jaguar Journey, which is similar to Panther Camp at JLS and Tiger Camp at Terman.
After 6th grade has started, the guidance counselor continues to assist students through the next three years. They work hard to maintain an “open door policy” for students, parents, and teachers, so they are available as needs arise. An 8th grade student at JLS shared that when she reached out to her counselor after seeing some unkind peer behaviors, “It was really nice. She was easy to talk to because she was very approachable and open.” Counselors work hard to achieve this level of accessibility. As Jeff explained, “In business it’s all about location, location, location. In counseling, it’s all about communication, communication, communication.”
Counselors meet with teachers weekly to talk about student needs and issues in the classrooms and they work with teachers around “Response to Intervention” (RtI) strategies. They also meet with the school’s administrative team and school support staff (therapists, behaviorists, nurse, psychologist, etc.) on a weekly basis, to discuss significant student health and academic needs and interventions.
The Counselors try to help students focus on the life lessons from their new experiences and help them process those in a healthy way. “Schools are a place for students to learn much more about life than only those lessons offered by academics. We see students navigating their identify, learning how to be good friends and classmates, and how to deal with the pressures of life,” explained Jeff.
Guidance counselors are available as resources to parents and referrals are a significant part of their role. They serve as a conduit to many different types of services that middle school students and their families might need. A big part of their job is to know what services are offered in the greater community and how to help families access and benefit from them.
Another important part of student development during the middle school years is building their Executive Functioning skills. Counselors meet with students to help them develop skills such as time management, prioritizing, setting up routines, organizing binders, and even the importance of stepping back and taking a deep breath.
Once students are in 8th grade, their guidance counselor provides a whole new set of services focused on facilitating their transition to high school, working closely with PAUSD’s high school counselors throughout the process. They help students plan their course selection, explain college admission course requirements, and help students understand what a high school course load will really feel like.
Through this three-year experience, the middle school students truly benefit from having a consistent counselor loop with them from 6th through 8th grade. The counselor gets to know the students, their families, and the group dynamics of the class, allowing them to more effectively support all students in the grade, and through these critical adolescent years.
IN OUR HIGH SCHOOLS
High School Students Spread Message of Hope, Help, and Strength
Let’s approach mental and emotional health the way we do our physical well being: by prioritizing good habits and by cultivating awareness, compassion, and support—this is the message that Sources of Strength (Sources), a PiE-funded program, hopes to send out to the community and it is taking a grass-roots approach to do so. This program challenges students to discuss and accept their emotional vulnerabilities without judgment or stigma. The students know that when they do need support, there are caring adults and other support systems around them.
As advisors for Sources, Jonathan Frecceri and Josh Bloom aim to train students as peer leaders who will help spread the message through social networks, on-campus activities, and conversation. Sources has been running at Gunn since 2011 and was brought to Paly in 2015. It is an evidence-based program that began in a tribal community in North Dakota, a community that was suffering from high rates of substance abuse, bullying, and suicide. “They were doing gatekeeper training, which was useful for some portion of the population but not all,” said Bloom. This program was designed to address the need for more upstream intervention. It makes use of the social networks within the community to address hope, help, and strength. “It’s about students . . . sharing their experiences, to discuss their struggles and how they overcame it,” he said.
And who better to reach students than fellow students? Sources deploys students to engage their schoolmates in activities and conversation that aim to improve the climate of the whole school.
At Paly, Bloom and Frecceri facilitate the formation of peer leader teams, comprising of about 60 students and 20 adults (teachers and other staff), and it is the students who plan activities that are designed to meet Sources’ mission.
In one campaign called “You’ve Been Pinned,” peer leaders handed out clothespins with several note cards attached to them. One of the cards was filled with a sentiment of gratitude for the recipient. The recipient took off that note and wrote a note of gratitude for the next recipient and passed on the pin. Each pin could be passed along to five people, significantly growing the number of students involved.
Layla, a junior at Paly who participated in this campaign as a peer leader, said her friends were excited about the activity, many of them even wishing they could get extra pins to pass on to more people. Layla said, “I was able to give it to some of my teachers. It improved my relationship with them and I got to know them better.”
In another campaign, peer leaders went to advisory classes and took photos of students with teachers who they see as their trusted adults. They arranged the photos into a video montage, which were shown on Youtube and on “In Focus,” Paly’s student-produced news show. “I just think it was a really great experience. I learned that there are so many more people you can talk to on campus besides your guidance counselor,” said Emiko, a freshman who took part in the activity.
Changing the culture around mental wellness requires reaching every segment of the school population. Bloom and Frecceri are bring back alumni to speak to students about how they reflect back on the stresses of high school and to begin a dialogue with the current students based on what they have learned beyond high school.
“A critical part of our effort is to get the parents involved and informed about the opportunities we are trying to provide,” said Frecceri. They are organizing events to bring parents into the conversation. During fall, for example, there was an information night for Sources, jointly presented by Paly and Gunn, as well as a talk by Stanford education expert Denise Pope, called “The Well-Balanced Student.” In the spring, they will be hosting a talk by Shawna Shapiro, an internationally-renowned expert on the science of mindfulness and wellbeing. Gunn will also be hosting a talk open to the public by Michael Riera, the author of “Staying Connected to Your Teenager.”
Students like Leyla are optimistic about the effectiveness of Sources. “At Paly, even though we have a very serious and competitive nature, people here are very caring and supportive . . . this is something that can be very successful at Paly,” she said.
Thank you to our volunteer contributors Vibha Akkaraju, Mimi Lyons, and Rebecca Thompson.