The pandemic’s on students’ social and emotional well-being continues to be felt in schools nationwide. Here at Lincoln County R-III School District in Missouri, we are no different. Many of our students are struggling with regulating their emotions. We’re seeing students needing more social and emotional support.

The Lincoln County Resource Board (LCRB) Mid-year School Based Programs Assessment (January, 2022) listed the most critical behavioral/mental health (BH/MH) issues school personnel believed students were facing. 

  • The second most critical BH/MH issue was “anxiety, worry a lot, fear” (93 percent).
  • The third most critical BH/MH issue was “controlling emotions, anger management, and conflict resolution” (78 percent), similar to the May and December of 2020 results

These challenges are not unique to our school district; in fact, the demand for social and emotional learning (SEL) programs has grown rapidly as more and more districts see this need grow and recognize the value of implementing these programs. A 2021 Tyton Partners report noted school and district spending on SEL grew approximately 45 percent between November 2019 and April 2021 and that student wellbeing had become the top priority among schools and districts.

Our district implemented a social and emotional learning initiative in 2019, which
includes a PK-12 SEL curriculum (RULER), a SEL screener (DESSA) and interventions and preventions such as SEL focused Building Intervention Teams. We also adopted online student safety and wellness courses for students, which reinforce some of these SEL skills such as managing stress and developing healthy relationships.

We learned during this process that it’s important to take a multi-pronged approach to SEL. Here are some ways to do this:

1. Prioritize SEL at the district level. Our district recognized we needed a more
systematic approach to social and emotional wellness for students and staff. So, we created the Director of Social Emotional Learning & Support position. The Director of Social Emotional Learning and Supports is primarily focused on developing and leading all District social and emotional supports for students and assisting school staff with appropriate interventions as necessary. This position also coordinates with outside community agencies for student support. We’ve selected RULER as our SEL curriculum and the DESSA as our SEL screener. We created plans for interventions on SEL wellness, dedicating time to helping students specifically work on skills they need instruction with.

When implementing an SEL initiative, it’s important to have a systematic approach and to take it slow. To aid with the districtwide approach it’s helpful to have it a part of the district level comprehensive improvement plan.  Then, each building can develop their building level improvement plans to set targeted goals to help reach the district’s end goal.

2. Find programs that help cover multiple bases – and set aside dedicated time to do them. Our district adopted online Student Safety and Wellness Courses from Vector Solutions because they are excellent tools to help promote discussions about important issues like bullying, stress management, having healthy relationships, and more. The courses help reinforce social and emotional skills and also help us meet state requirements around some of these issues. Adopting programs that serve multiple needs can help a district be more efficient and more targeted in how it’s supporting students. We look for tools that are going to check multiple boxes.

Once you have those multi-purpose tools, create dedicated class time to use them. Our district has what we call “WIN Time” (“What I Need”) – a dedicated period of time during homeroom for intervention. It can be used for academics or SEL. A teacher can use that time, for example, to have students watch and have a group discussion around one of the Vector video-based lessons.

3. Practice – and reward – positive behavior. This can go a long way toward helping students grow their social and emotional skills and in creating a positive school climate. Troy South Middle School, which serves more than 800 students in grades 6-8, is a great example of a school with a strong focus on this. Middle school can be a tough transition for some students. Troy South Middle School implemented a school wide Positive Behavior Support program with the goal of helping to build positive relationships between students and their peers and teachers while also outlining/explaining
building-wide expectations. The school’s Positive Behavior Supports Matrix describes positive behaviors students can practice in various settings such as using positive language with staff and peers in the classroom or being a responsive listener and active participant during assemblies. Students can earn “RRAP tickets” (Respectful, Ready to learn, Accountable, Positive) for making good behavioral choices, which can be redeemed for various privileges and/or rewards.

The school also does kindness challenges in the fall and spring to support positive behavior. And teachers reinforce behavior by using positive language. For instance, the school has a “chill zone” and a “focus room.” Instead of having negative connotations, it’s explained to students that they don’t go to these spaces because they’re in trouble, it’s because they need space. You need to set the right language and tone of your voice. If a student is having a negative reaction to a situation, we have them take what RULER calls a “Meta-Moment”–a brief step back from the situation where they pause and think about how to turn that reaction positive.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to SEL. However, implementing SEL on a district-wide level, using high-quality curriculum, assessments, and courses that check multiple boxes, and emphasizing positive behavior will all help to provide a well-rounded program.

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