On Tuesday I was at our District Leadership Team meeting. This is the fancy title for all school principals and downtown administrators to get together once a month to listen, discuss or share important district-wide stuff. One of the handouts we got showed responses to a question about what we believe produce the greatest improvements in academic outcomes for students performing below standard. The numbers are a little suspect because the sample size was only 19 but it interested me very much in spite of that. The highest rated strategy for improvement was the "Use of Data and Assessments for Instructional Planning." Not surprising as this is a focus of much of our time and certainly the focus in hiring of new administrators. What concerned and shook me a bit was that "Focus on Social/Emotional/Behavioral Supports" was at the very bottom of the list of the six strategies. I was shaking my head at this because the first hour or so of our time that morning was spent sharing and promoting the same thing that rated so low on the survey. I felt compelled to comment on this survey and was waiting for a good time to do when I began to hear several topics that seemed to speak to the topic clearly. First, data was shared that correlated a number of factors to success on the Measures of Student Progress (MSP). Included were a number of factors that relate to students social and emotional states and it was clear it is something that highly impacts student learning. We also heard from our Middle School Principal of the Year for Washington State the significant positive impact the SEL program RULER has had on her school, including academic achievement. The funniest comment of the morning was the April 1st headline in the student newspaper from Nathan Hale HS that read something to the effect of "NHHS Student Suspended for Fixed Mindset" a very clever indication of how pervasive the understanding of growth mindset, Carole Dweck's work, is at their school. All these things give me hope--guarded hope--that our conversations at the principal and district level will be about something that we believe strongly at QAE and are committed to deeply--this non-data stuff matters a lot. As I had been thinking about that morning and about how to share more with our staff and with others I got an email from Meg Ferris, our PTA Board co-representative for SEL and a strong, strong voice for our program here at QAE. I've edited it a very small amount for privacy reasons but I'd like you to hear her voice on this topic. The rest of this post is her email...
In the past three years, QAE parents have asked me about the SEL programs, usually wondering if their child “is getting” SEL. I’m always happy to report all the great things, but sometimes realize that the parent really wants to hear that their child is getting the “cool” SEL program. I find that it is hard to communicate in a quick playground conversation what the SEL is that is difficult to see. I’ve taken to calling it Invisible SEL.
I had been thinking about this at home and talking to John (husband) about it since January. Then, as so often happens, I had a week of suddenly seeing examples of Invisible SEL everywhere. Today, I decided that I had to share some of them with you. You are welcome to pass them along to the staff.
I often get to see Shauna (Diller) and Ciara (Leckie) dismissing their classes. As you know, I’ve been loitering at classroom doors for pick-up for 8 years now. Usually I see teachers saying warm goodbyes, reminding children about permission slips, directing some children to after school clubs, and to be quiet in the hallways. Great stuff, to be sure. But Shauna and Ciara do more than that (as other staff also do). I see them really connecting with students, despite it being a very hectic time in the school day. What I see is that they are looking their students in the eye as they say goodbye, taking a moment with as many kids as they can. This sort of moment might seem to be just a teachers “style” or that “she just loves the kids.” True, but it is one of the most crucial SEL practices because it tells the child he/she is important to the teacher. That the child stands out to the teacher as a person, not just a kid in his/her class. The teacher giving this attention to every child, regardless of their academic or social behavior, fosters meaning and belonging. And trust, and love.
On Monday on the playground, I overheard Joe walk up to a student and say, “H, you know what I love about you? You notice the most amazing things every day. And then you share them with me!” It was spontaneous and authentic. And he was complimenting her on something that isn’t usually noticed or lauded at school. It was a classic Joe Bailey-Fogarty moment. He is great at connecting with kids and really noticing who they are as individuals. But as many times as I’ve seen him do this, this moment with H was still wonderful. What I noticed was that the interaction was rooted in that he wanted her to notice something neat about herself, and to feel it as a strength. Moreover, it was so utterly authentic. It didn’t seem to be that Joe did it because it would “help her”, but that he really thinks she is a great kid, and wanted her to know that people notice that she is a great. It is what my father calls “Unconditional Positive Regard”, and is Miracle Grow for kids.
Niki (Fischer-Meyers) and Julietta (Skoog) have been teaching Social Thinking and Zones of Regulation to many of the classrooms. Social Thinking teaches emotional literacy and social skill building, and Zones teaches self-regulation and cognitive, emotional, and sensory skills for up- and down-regulation. Most schools teach these programs in the resource room in 1:1 or small groups. However, just this week I was listening to an on-line lecture about interventions for kids with medium to profound ADHD. The speaker cited several studies that have shown that teaching social skills to ADHD and autistic kids has little or no positive effect, except for programs that are integrated into the classroom where peers and teachers also learn vocabulary and skills. I haven’t asked Niki and Julietta if they knew this already, or if they just wanted all of the kids to benefit from these programs. Either way, their dedication to delivering these programs to the kids is simply amazing. I cannot tell you enough how fantastically talented I think they both are.
In addition, Niki told me about how she too has noticed Invisible SEL. She told me that Devin (Liner) has a student in his classroom that has lots of self-regulation trouble (anxiety, I think). Devin often will help the child by quietly walking up to him or her, gently holding hands and just being with the child until he or she feels calmer. This is auxiliary self-regulation. Devin is helping the child down-regulate by helping the child to get centered and neurologically organized, but he is also modeling the emotional/alert state in his own body and behavior. It is so impressive, particularly for a teacher so new to teaching.
I could go on and on. I know that many parents would like a list of programs like Angela Duckworth’s curriculum for Grit, or acclaimed SEL programs like RULER. Those are great programs and we might want to investigate them in the future, but I know that what is happening right now—school-wide, everyday—is that SEL happens everywhere. It just happens to be invisible to most eyes.