SEL is Key

Intentionally growing together, today and every day.

March 27, 2020 is the first International social and emotional learning (SEL) Day and has been proclaimed Austin SEL Day by Mayor Steve Adler. During this time of social distancing due to COVID-19, we have an opportunity to reflect on the value of SEL for our children and ourselves.

Image of Austin SEL Day proclamation letter from Austin, TX, Mayor Steve Adler

Human beings engage in social and emotional learning every moment of every day, either intentionally or unintentionally. As social beings, we have the capacity to be aware of our and others’ emotions, manage our emotions, build meaningful relationships, and make responsible decisions; or, we may struggle with these skills, depending upon the experiences that shape our worldview. This starts the moment we are born and continues until our last breath.

Our brains are wired to learn through social interaction. We internalize expectations that are taught with or without intent through our relationships with our parents, family members, friends, teachers, co-workers, and partners over the course of a lifetime. Depending upon those individuals, we will learn attitudes, behaviors and dispositions that may contribute to our long-term health, happiness, and goal achievement or not. When SEL is not an intentional and consistent practice, those long-term outcomes are not as predictable and equitable as they might otherwise be.

Austin Statesman Article: How Social Distancing is Bringing Families Together

From the board room, to the classroom, to the living room.

Over the past decade, school districts and communities have come to understand and value the power of intentional social and emotional learning for children and adults throughout the United States and across the globe. Austin ISD was one of the first urban school districts to embrace and prioritize SEL. Over the past nine years, we have built a system of intentionality for school environments that seeks to create common language for learners of all ages to support growth and resilience. Additionally, data indicates that strong implementation of SEL improves test scores, reduces discipline rates, and increases pro-social behavior.

Each campus community in Austin ISD engages in SEL in a way that is informed by its own data, setting goals to create processes that support both academics and SEL. Adults learn together so they can model the skill-sets students need to achieve their own goals. By creating shared agreements for the ways in which members of the community engage with one another and approach their learning, students and adults are able to feel the sense of belonging that comes with embracing their own identity and honoring the unique gifts each person brings. This creates an environment of collaborative learning and resilience that builds academic tenacity over time.

Recognizing the enormous role families serve in building their children’s social and emotional competencies and engaging them in the intentional practices the campus is putting in place is imperative. This process enables children to see the connections between different aspect of their lives, transferring skills into multiple environments while honoring the teachings and customs of their own families and cultures. At a time when schools are closed in order to keep everyone safe, families’ ability to engage in social and emotional learning with their children is paramount.

Austin ISD’s SEL department offers resources for families to engage in SEL at home:

Austin ISD’s SEL At-Home

The human brain cannot access learning without a feeling of safety and belonging. SEL is key to ensuring environments are created for optimal teaching and learning. In this way, we build strong communities that radiate out to the city at large. Today is International SEL Day and has been proclaimed Austin’s first SEL Day: let’s celebrate the beauty of our diversity and the many ways we intentionally grow our next generation, together.

Authored by Caroline Chase, assistant director of Austin ISD’s SEL department

SEL Plays an Integral Role in Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices

In 2010, Austin ISD leadership noticed the distinct differences in the demographics between its staff and students, along with disproportionate rates in both special education and disciplinary referrals. As a result, the district committed to providing ongoing, meaningful professional learning opportunities for staff to engage in critical self-reflection on their interactions with students, staff and families in a manner that considers the diverse needs of all.

In growing our understanding of student needs and learning what evidence-based practices were being used at state and national levels, Austin ISD’s cultural proficiency and inclusiveness team, led by Angela Ward, PhD, Administrative Supervisor for Race & Equity in Austin ISD, began to dive into restorative practices.

Nurturing Identity-Safe Spaces

Restorative practices offers the opportunity to create culturally responsive communities, focusing primarily on building relationships & maintaining positive connections with students and families. In 2017, Austin ISD was awarded an Education Innovation & Research Grant to support whole-school implementation of culturally responsive restorative practices, which took efforts around nurturing identity-safe spaces for staff, students, and families to the next level.

“Over the years, we’ve learned our staff need to develop a critical consciousness, understanding their view of the world impacts those around them,” states Dr. Ward. “They need to understand their role in creating a sense of belonging in their classrooms and work environments for others to feel safe, welcome and included.”

It’s an Inside-Out Approach

Critical consciousness starts with self-awareness, the first of the social and emotional learning competencies. Ultimately, Dr. Ward shares, culturally responsive restorative practices work is at the heart of social and emotional learning. The two work hand-in-hand.

It takes all of us building each of the competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, executive functions and responsible decision-making) to effectively create safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging and equitable learning environments.

Dr. Ward concludes with a message for educators to remember:
“Your unique perspective plays a vital role in our ability to all grow as equity-centered social and emotional leaders.”

Self-Management is a Practice

Self-management starts with self-awareness. Understanding the state of our body and what energy we bring to a situation helps us to know what we need to manage. Learn more about the first SEL competency of self-awareness in our recent posts.

In this video, Teri Wood, Ph.D., Trust Based Relational Intervention and Brain Development Coordinator for Austin ISD, dives into the importance of self-management in our everyday relationships and tools to help us regulate and manage our energies.

Self-Management in Austin ISD

According to our 2018-2019 student climate survey, data shows that 88% of our students are aware when their feelings change, and 77% of those same students are able to use tools & practices to calm themselves down. These are great self-management results for our student population. Of course, there’s always room for growth, but that goes for people of any age!

As adults and educators, we need to remember that the energy we bring into schools and classrooms impacts the students with whom we interact. Here are a few simple steps to help you manage your energy like a boss:

  • Take a moment to slow down and notice your feelings.
  • Use the tools and practices you need in order to regulate your bodies. This can range from a walk and talk, stretching, breathing techniques, or using a fidget to get your body centered and your mind back to the present moment.
  • Be open and honest with those around you. Let others know when you’re feeling anxious or low energy, etc. This is especially important in the classroom, because students will notice.
  • Don’t forget to practice self-compassion through the process.

Self management is a work in progress because we, as humans, are a work in progress. Don’t forget to practice self-compassion. Some days will be easier than others!

We are all learning socially and emotionally every day. #WeAreSEL

Self-Awareness: The Mind-Body Connection

In support of our monthly theme of self-awareness, Meagan Butler, Austin ISD secondary counseling coordinator, shares a brief video to help us build an understanding of how our bodies function and the importance of the mind-body connection. 

Through the video, Meagan describes the role of the vagus nerve and its impact on different areas of the body when we are experiencing different emotions. For example, when we are stressed, we might noticed our stomach feeling upset or our heart rate increase. The Atlas of the Human Body article, shares maps of the body experiencing different emotional experiences. It’s no wonder we would have different bodily sensations with regard to different feelings.

Train Your Brain

Through a few simple practices, you can help your mind understand your emotions and the impact they have on your body.

A four step strategy from Dan Siegel called SIFT, encourages you to take a mindful moment to notice your sensations, images, feelings and thoughts related to a particular emotional experience.

Doing regular body scan check-ins with yourself throughout the day or during particularly high or low emotional moments are another good way to begin understanding your mind-body connection. Use Meagan’s “Recognizing Body Sensations and Checking in with your Body” checklist to begin your practice.

“Looking deeply requires courage.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

The World of Difference A Breath Can Make

Ultimately, with what we understand about our emotions and the impact they have on the sensations in our body, we can use that information to hack our brains and disrupt negative feelings in our bodies. So, when we are noticing our body react to feelings of stress or nervousness or frustration, we can take a few intentional, deep, slow breaths and introduce a sense of calm back into our bodies. Your vagus nerve will thank you!

Using Morning Meetings to Create a Community for Learners

Ms. Wilson teaches kindergarten at Barbara Jordan Elementary in Austin ISD. Through this video, we take a sneak peek into her classroom during her Morning Meeting class time. This daily ritual provides her students with the opportunity to greet one another, share experiences, build community and more.

Ultimately, Ms. Wilson offers us an excellent example of a practice used to help create a safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging and equitable learning environment.