I worked in juvenile probation for eight years before becoming a teacher, so I’ve seen the potentially devastating effect of the emotional issues that kids deal with. Before I took over as principal at Bluebonnet Elementary, I was an assistant principal at the middle school, where many of our discipline issues stemmed from students not being able to problem-solve or maintain healthy relationships.
When I became principal, talking to my staff, my teachers, the families, and the community was an eye-opener for me. They pointed out areas of dire academic need, but underlying all of them was a lack of community.
So rather than focus on, for example, increasing test scores in math, my leadership team and I decided to start by integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into not just our curriculum but our entire community.
SEL for students, teachers, and ‘parent partners’
In those early conversations, I found that many of our students didn’t feel a part of something big. They needed a foundation of confidence in themselves and in their school as a community, and they needed to understand why teachers were trying to build relationships with them.
On the other hand, my teachers told me that, as a result of high principal turnover, there had been a lack of consistency, leading to distrust of the administration. My immediate promise to them was: “I’m in this with you. Trust me.”
Clearly, our teachers needed SEL themselves. Whether they’re in the classroom teaching or in the hallway talking to another team member, students hear the language they use and see the way they behave. I needed my teachers to build relationships among themselves so that, even if they had disagreements, they could do it in a healthy way.
To establish a common set of goals for the whole school, we put together a team of teachers. I helped them develop a vision, but they were the ones who presented it to the staff. Our performance objectives were attendance, discipline, and building relationships. Our thought was once we were on a better trajectory with those three things, we would start seeing improvement in academics. My own children had learned the 7 Mindsets, such as “everything is possible” and “100 percent accountable,” at the school they were attending, so we used that curriculum as our foundation.
We wanted students to be using the same language at home as they were at school, so we also engaged our “parent partners.” We call them parent partners because we see them as an indispensable part of our community. We got them involved by hosting a family event in the fall where we taught everyone what the 7 Mindsets are, why applying them in their homes would help their kids, and how we’re helping their kids learn them at school.
Our assemblies are pretty much 100 percent student-led and mindset-focused. We identify grade levels, then give them a mindset and tell them when they’re going to present and the highlights they need to hit. We have meetings far in advance so they know we’re supporting them in the planning process, but what the assembly looks like is totally up to the students.
It has been amazing. Some kids are very willing to go on stage and take over, but we’ve also seen kids who usually wouldn’t be so vocal come out of their shells and present in whatever way they feel comfortable. They might recite a beautiful poem, but they’ll do it behind a curtain, in a disguise, or in a video. They make those choices, but we always make sure that the end result is students recognizing students.
Developing student leaders
Like many schools, we develop leaders through our student council and National Elementary Honor Society. We also have passion projects that tie into our 7 Mindsets. Every student has to participate, but how they participate can be different. For example, some students develop “passion posters” that we place around the school to display what they’re passionate about.
We foster connections among different grades by having our 4th- and 5th-graders serve as reading mentors to our kindergarten and 1st-grade students. Once a week, the older students go read to the younger ones and help them develop their literacy skills.
To further build a sense of community, we have student ambassadors who help with morning drop-offs. They open every door, they say “good morning” to kids and families, and tell them to have a nice day. At our bus drop-off, they high-five or fist-bump every kid, then wave goodbye to our bus drivers and tell them to have a great day, too.
Improving attendance to build community
Making school a place that students want to be has greatly impacted our attendance. When I started, we were at just over 95 percent for the year. Our goal has been 97 percent for the past two years. Last year we were at 96.76 percent, so we didn’t quite get there, but we’re improving.
We’re also using attendance to reinforce our sense of community. Every week we communicate attendance to family members, and we celebrate the highest attendance for grade levels by awarding “Attendance Champion” banners that they display in their classrooms. We celebrate individual attendance for kids who have been at school every day for a week or a month. So we’re offering a number of incentives to get that data where we want it.
Using discipline data to strengthen relationships
Discipline referrals at Bluebonnet were high for an elementary school when I got here. We wanted to use a better metric, so our referral data for this year has been based on the number of admin-assisted calls.
We’re logging the frequency of our admin calls and the frequency of what each call is for. This year, we’ve been responding to these calls by going to classrooms and not just finding out what’s going on, but taking that teacher’s class so they can walk out and have a conversation with that student. We believe that the best way to improve discipline is to build relationships between teachers and students. From the start of the school year to November 1, 2018, we had 33 referrals. This year, as of November 1, we’d had just eight.
Connecting SEL and academics
Our academic performance has significantly increased, especially when it comes to reading. Our district’s goal is for each student to show 1.5 years’ growth in reading and math per academic year. At this time last year, 49 percent of our students were reaching 1.5 years; this year it’s 67 percent.
We use student/teacher conferences to reinforce SEL concepts. When a teacher shares positive academic data, she’ll say, “You see, everything is possible.” Our students are hearing the social-emotional component in every meeting, across all subjects, and they’re achieving at higher levels because they feel confident.
We talk the talk, and we walk the walk—literally. Our administrators do at least 10 walkthroughs a day. During our daily announcements, we let kids know, “We’re going to come see all the wonderful things you’re doing in class. We know that you’re 100 percent accountable. We know that you’re going to do great things.”