3 steps for returning to school with SEL

Learn how this Texas district is focusing on SEL skills for students and adults--all in an effort to strengthen connections during the return to school

Across the country, school and district leaders are asking lots of questions—from how we can foster connection as we return to school to how to intensify a spotlight on the impact of societal inequities on education. To my mind, social and emotional learning (SEL) is a key component of this work.

Related content: 6 actionable strategies to support classroom SEL

As an assistant director of SEL, I’ve seen first-hand its benefits. In Austin Independent School District (AISD), we invested in SEL implementation more than nine years ago. In this new school year, we’re drawing upon that foundation to support both students and adults during these challenging circumstances.

Start with adults so they can serve students

When we first started implementing SEL, we focused on kids. Later, we discovered we’d missed an important piece of the puzzle to support students: adult SEL. So when we were faced with the current challenges, we quickly realized we needed to recognize the impact on adults. We asked, “How do we take care of our adults so that they can take care of our kids?”

To answer this question, we’ve drawn on our prior work fostering adult social-emotional growth. We’ve created daily guided mindfulness practices accessible through Twitter as well as a mindfulness website with practices and resources for teachers, staff, and families. Our professional learning centers around self-care and how to incorporate those practices into routines with students. We center our adult work on helping administrators create a culture of belonging through welcoming and engagement strategies and frequent well-being check-ins with staff so that all feel they’re part of a community of caring. Through intentional modeling of mindful practices and self-care, administrators and teachers encourage students and families to consider how to incorporate those practices into their lives.

Throughout these efforts, a key tool we’ve relied upon throughout this challenging transition are the 3 SEL Signature Practices. Since introducing them three years ago, the 3 SEL Signature Practices have underpinned all our gatherings, from staff meetings to classroom lesson.

For those not familiar with these practices, the first is to launch each gathering with a welcoming ritual, such as inviting each person to share the story of their name with a partner. It’s always been a beneficial practice, but even more so when we’re meeting virtually.

The second is to include opportunities for brain breaks and engaging practices. Now that we’re in the time of Zoom, we’ve begun using breakout rooms for small-group discussion to ensure we’re all engaged.

The third practice calls on us to end the meeting with an optimistic closing, such as asking each participant to share in one word how they’re feeling about what they learned. At a time when we’re separated physically, this final moment of affirmation helps us to connect across the divide.

We’re also ensuring that these three practices undergird classroom instruction as we move into different formats. Our academics department included them into all the blended learning courses created for the first several weeks of school this year.

Those interested in learning more about the SEL 3 Signature Practices can find more information in Reunite, Renew and Thrive: SEL Roadmap for Reopening School, a free guide developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in partnership with 40 organizations.

Give leadership the guidance and opportunities it needs

Just as all adults need support for their social-emotional health at this time, leaders need guidance and opportunities to strengthen their own competencies and incorporate SEL into their work.

In addition to the 3 SEL Signature Practices, which are now used throughout our central office, our annual summer Leadership Institute offers our leaders a time and space to connect. Administrators rarely get to share their perspectives. During the Institute, they’re given the opportunity to think about how current events are impacting them and what they need to support their kids.

During the Institute this past summer, all administrators were asked to go to the same four breakout sessions as a form of “brain break.” A departure from the “sit and get” mode we’ve used in the past, this approach ensured everyone received the same information, but also allowed time for leaders to process the learning, consider the implications for their campuses, and have planning time with their teams.

The feedback on this format was very positive. We heard from attendees that the smaller breakout groups helped them stay engaged and build relationships, even while meeting virtually.

Listen to what students say they need

Attending to the SEL of all adults and district leadership is an important foundation to our work. However, it is the students we serve, and so ultimately, all our efforts are aimed at supporting the needs of our youth.

To help support this aim, we have focused our efforts on lifting up student voice. Early in the summer, we sent out student surveys, which we’ve used to inform our plans for the school year. We asked them how learning went in the spring after schools were closed, using their feedback to organize reopening activities.

Our counseling team also developed what it is calling a “One-Minute Meeting”–a basic check-in to uncover what students need and how we can support them. It helps us address what kinds of practices and structures we can use, such as morning meetings, “restorative practice” circles to help resolve conflicts productively, and other community-building practices.

Armed with this student feedback, we were able to help teachers build community with their students. Our SEL team organized morning meetings at the elementary level to address concerns from the student survey. We’ve also given teachers information about how to build virtual relationships.

In times like these, when our accustomed rhythms and processes are disrupted—when we’re physically separated—we have to work all the harder to build the bonds the bring us together as a community of educators and students. SEL is a powerful means to bring us back together so we can adapt and continue to thrive.

About the Authors:

Caroline Chase, M.Ed. serves as Assistant Director of Social and Emotional Learning for the Austin Independent School District. Caroline taught high school English and Communication Skills for eight years, middle and high school students in residential treatment for two years, and middle school self-contained social behavioral skills for six years. She also served for five years as a Special Education Behavior Specialist. She was a founding member of the SEL Department in July, 2011, and serves as the team lead.

2900