Educators focus on social-emotional learning as foundational to student success

By Sarah Earle

Dean Cascadden, Superintendent of the Bow and Dunbarton School District, demonstrates a counting challenge with keynote speaker Jessica Huizenga at the Best Practices Conference on Social Emotional Learning at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord in September. Photo by Sarah Earle.

Had they known they were going to have their sense of rhythm put to the test, some of the educators who gathered at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord last month for the Best Practice Conference on Social-Emotional Learning might have found excuses to wander in a bit late. 

But there they all were, standing face-to-face in pairs, counting, clapping, stomping – and cracking up. The activity was meant to illustrate the value of a challenging task in building self-efficacy, but the laughter that bubbled through the crowd felt just as important. 

Schools have been placing a growing emphasis on social-emotional learning for the past several years, but at a time when student needs are acute and staff and resources stretched thin, the topic seems to resonate more loudly than ever. Schools have spent a sizable chunk of federal relief funds – about $15 million so far – on social-emotional learning, according to a new tool that shows district-by-district spending, and many educators say it’s a key priority for the 2022-23 school year. 

“What we’ve seen has been a lack of social connection. Students lost almost two years of relationship building,” Dr. Carl Ladd, Executive Director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, explained during a break between conference sessions. “I’m also concerned about educator well-being. There’s an expectation that adults are going to be okay … I’m not sure we’re doing enough to address their needs.”

The Heart of the Matter

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a teaching method that focuses on helping students understand and manage their emotions, build healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. It is seen not so much as a branch of learning or a subject matter to teach, but as a foundational element necessary for learning to occur. 

“When kids are feeling secure and happy, then they can learn,” said Dr. Sydney Leggett, Superintendent of the Grantham School District, which is devoting a chunk of its federal relief funds to a new SEL curriculum. “It’s got to be part of the fabric of the everyday school experience.” 

That’s especially true as schools try to repair the fabric of the everyday school experience after more than two years of disrupted learning. Interviews with numerous educators, as well as findings from a recent statewide survey, reveal that disciplinary challenges have escalated and special education referrals have ticked upwards over the past few school years. 

“Kids are hurting,” said Dean Cascadden, Superintendent of Bow and Dunbarton schools, where SEL is also a post-COVID priority. “We’ve got a lot of programs going on to help kids look at their mental health.” 

Adults are hurting too, said Dr. Samantha Broadhead, who led a session on mental health in New Hampshire during the conference, providing context and resources for educators. “Students are navigating a world where caregivers are under stress, then they get to school and their teachers are also overwhelmed and unsupported,” said Broadhead, a school psychologist and independent consultant. “Your ability to access what you know, take in new information, be part of a community, is so limited when those needs aren’t being met.”

From Relationships to Data

Along with providing educators a chance to examine their own feelings and enjoy time with their peers, the conference addressed SEL from a variety of angles, offering tips and techniques ranging from the practical to the philosophical.

In a lively keynote speech, national education consultant Dan St. Romain explained that many educators feel out of their element in helping students understand and process their emotions because they themselves grew up in an era of punitive discipline with minimal regard for the student experiences and emotions at the root of negative behaviors. 

“Teachers don’t need strategies so much as a change in perspective,” he told the crowd. “It’s all about relationships.” 

That ethos has already been embraced in schools around the state in various ways. In Franklin, for example, educators are working on building robust advisory groups for students through a grant-funded program called We Connect. Students get to choose their advisors, and they meet twice a week in small groups that focus on building relationships, explained Franklin High School Principal David Levesque. 

Along with creating the right conditions for learning, effective SEL practices should be embedded in the learning process, said keynote speaker Jessica Huizenga, who led teachers in the boisterous count-clap-stomp activity as part of a presentation on self-efficacy. 

Huizenga encouraged educators to give all students – not just the high achievers – access to challenging tasks and to cheer them on as they attempt them. “So many of our kids don’t get access to a difficult challenge … they never get to develop a sense of self-efficacy,” she said. “If you raise the bar, you actually increase your ability and confidence.” 

Traits such as confidence can be tricky to measure. That’s one of the challenges schools face in implementing SEL programs. There are tools, however, for tracking progress. Conference participants got a look at one such tool – a  technical assistance center launched last year by the NH Department of Education’s Office of Social and Emotional Wellness in partnership with Keene State College. The center was created in response to 2020 legislation directing the DOE to support MTSS-B (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavioral Health and Wellness) development in NH schools. It provides detailed information on mobilizing people, using data, implementing plans, and monitoring progress at both the school and district level.

Addressing Obstacles

Another challenge is making time for SEL in an already hectic school day. Despite its intrinsic importance, educators say it’s still sometimes treated as an obligatory add-on. 

Schools that fully invest in SEL, however, reap meaningful benefits. Most importantly, students get the help they need. The school culture, in turn, improves, creating better conditions for academics. 

At his former school in Laconia, Levesque said the We Connect program had a measurable impact in a short amount of time. “You can see the results in discipline referrals. We were able to cut referrals in half. That amounts to instructional time,” he said. “It’s hard to fit in, but at the end of the day, you get it back.”

Attitudes occasionally present obstacles to SEL as well. Though the practice has been widely embraced in New Hampshire and across the country, some conservative groups have recently attempted to connect SEL with controversial topics such as critical race theory.

To prevent the spread of such misinformation, local educators say they’re communicating regularly with the community about SEL practices and progress. 

“We are very open and transparent about everything that we’re doing,” Leggett said. “It would be really hard for parents to dispute what we’re doing . … It’s really not anything that’s groundshakingly new.” 

Signs of Hope

If the laughter that floated through the conference room last month was therapeutic, it may also have indicated a changing mood. After two difficult years – and despite ongoing staff shortages and other challenges – many educators say they’re feeling hopeful about the school year. A sense of normalcy is finally returning, and the extra work they’ve done to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs seems to be making a difference. 

“It’s been the nicest opening in a few years,” Leggett said. “Everybody’s feeling like it’s been a normal, good, positive, happy opening.” 

Others agreed. “We haven’t really gotten into the groove yet,” Levesque said, “but I think everyone’s cautiously optimistic.” 

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