SEL: It’s a Big (Data) Deal

Austin ISD’s Social and Emotional Learning plan was recently cited in a grant guidance report from the Department of Education. Yes, the national Department of Education, dot gov. Know why? Because research keeps rolling in on multiple levels, showing that what we are doing really, really works for students. From the federal report:

SPOTLIGHT: Many schools are incorporating SEL into their programs and services. For example, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) has succeeded in developing a model for systematic and systemic SEL for all of its 83,600 students focused on four core practices: explicit skills instruction, SEL integration, school climate and culture, and family and community engagement. SEL coaches are deployed throughout the system to support implementation of SEL.  Using a vertical structure, Austin started with two high schools and their feeder schools. As of 2015-16, all 130 schools in the district are receiving professional development in implementing SEL. Evidence-based SEL programs are one important part of AISD’s implementation strategy. Elementary and middle schools are using explicit instructional materials and lessons are generally taught weekly by the classroom teacher and reinforced and integrated into instruction in all areas of the school. In several high schools, ninth-graders attend a Methods for Academic and Personal Success (MAPS) class to develop skills to help with their transition to high school.  Results show those teachers’ ratings of their 3rd grade students’ SEL competencies were positively related to students’ performance in STAAR reading and math. Also, secondary schools with more years in SEL showed greater improvement in attendance and greater reduction in campus discretionary removals than did schools with no years in SEL.

This spotlight highlighting our work appears as an example for educational communities interested in applying for a federal grant to build Social and Emotional Learning programs. Our district’s process and structure for Social and Emotional Learning is held up as a beacon to others wishing to begin or deepen their own SEL journey, because our leadership has had faith in what solid research is starting to show: it is the equal teaching of SEL skills and academic skills that grows students into whole, educated, contributing members of society.


The faith factor is important, because the field of SEL in education is relatively new, and longitudinal research is only just beginning to show concrete evidence of positive impacts. Of course, teachers teaching Social and Emotional Learning skills to their students is as old as humanity itself. However, defining the nature of social and emotional skills, exploring how to teach them effectively, devoting significant resources to high-quality systemic implementation, and scientifically evaluating that implementation, takes a lot of time. More time, in fact, than the current educational system is traditionally willing to devote to a focus largely considered “non-academic.” While often various educational interventions and initiatives are expected to demonstrate positive student results within a year or two, “Research on systemic efforts in education suggest that this process takes a minimum of 5–7 years to realize impact at the student level (Aladjem et al., 2006; Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2003).” Austin ISD is just now getting to our 6th year of SEL implementation, and indeed, we are starting to see positive outcomes.


Our district’s most recent internal evaluation of our innovative SEL work has shown several important improvements.  For example:

–Secondary schools (middle and high schools) have experienced a reduction in the number of official disciplinary actions taken on students (like suspensions in-school or out-of-school, or removals to an alternative campus);

–Both elementary and secondary schools experienced a reduction in the number of students who are absent 15 or more days during the school year (chronic absenteeism);

–Students on all levels have self-reported feeling safer at school on district-wide surveys;

–Schools with high levels of SEL implementation have seen significant improvements in math and reading standardized test scores.

Check out the research brief and full report for even more SEL data on the good work we’re doing!


These results are consistent with recent findings on the national level. Transforming Education, an organization devoted to supporting Social and Emotional Learning at district, state and federal policy levels, recently published a working paper giving the “Research Case for Education Policy Action on Non-Cognitive Skills.” (‘Non-cognitive skills’ is another term for Social and Emotional Learning, akin to ‘soft skills,’ or ’21st Century skills.’ Transforming Education refers to these skills as “MESH,” or “Mindsets, Essential Skills, and Habits.”) They posit the following nine assertions, supported by data from several large national longitudinal studies:


With national data to back up each one of these compelling statements, Transform Education offers a look at the larger picture supported by our own local data: teaching SEL skills puts students on track to positive adult outcomes.

Mackenzie Gandomi

The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) keeps tabs on national research around SEL, and recently cited a report from the American Enterprise Institute and and Brookings Institution about the impact of Social and Emotional Learning on Equity and Poverty:

This report was developed by a group of bipartisan experts who agreed to set aside their differences and create a detailed plan for reducing poverty and increasing economic mobility. The authors noted that major educational and school reforms over the past few decades have not sufficiently focused on the SEL factors that are necessary to education, employment, and family life. The report also recommends an effort to scale up high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs as a core component of education for children. It made three recommendations to the federal and state governments:

(1) scale evidence-based SEL practices and policies;

(2) implement high-quality state SEL standards, preschool through high school; and

(3) establish SEL centers of excellence.

Our very own Austin ISD has done concrete work on each of those three recommendations so critical to improving economic equity and addressing the national poverty crisis, according to this bipartisan report. We already use evidence-based SEL curricula and practices, and we are exploring even more. We wrote high-quality SEL standards in collaboration with teachers and stakeholders that are already being incorporated into district core content curricula and exemplar lessons. And we established a “SEL Demonstration School” designation, inviting schools who have truly adopted SEL as a campus culture and driving force to show off their structures within the district and around the country. We are truly on the leading edge of transformative SEL work!


Due to Austin ISD’s dedication to broad high-quality implementation of Social and Emotional Learning, we are using the most recent data-driven findings to serve our 86,300 students. We are also contributing to the growing body of research on how SEL skills taught in public school positively affect individuals and society as a whole. We are #AISDProud to be leaders in the national Social and Emotional Learning movement!


Other references and research articles of interest:

CASEL/NoVo Collaborating Districts Initiative: 2015 Cross District Outcome Evaluation Report: Executive Summary

Previous Blog Post: Data Backs our SEL Movement

Previous Blog Post: New Year SEL Research Round Up





Mindful Brain First-Aid for Test Season

breathing1Well, we’ve made it to Spring Test Season ’16! Students, teachers, administrators and parents experience this part of the school year in many different ways, but most would agree that it can be a high-pressure moment in our educational lives.  We all know about getting enough sleep, eating a good breakfast, and having our lucky socks and pencils on those upcoming test days, but what are some other ways we can prepare our brains and bodies to set ourselves up for success?

Practicing a bit of mindfulness at different points before and during the testing sessions can help us feel more calm and grounded, both good states to be in when we’re asking our brain to perform at high levels. What is mindfulness? How about a definition from a leading expert on it, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:


Notice the words “paying attention” and “non-judgementally” in particular.  The term ‘mindfulness’ is thrown around quite a bit these days, and often people think that it means working hard to make one’s brain completely empty and free of thoughts–if your brain isn’t perfectly clear and empty, you’re not doing it right!  This is simply not true, however; our brains are wired to think all the time.  Practicing mindfulness is learning to pay attention non-judgementally to all those thoughts, giving us some space and perspective to really notice and honor them.  Here’s an example of a simple mindfulness practice that can help us pay attention to our thoughts before or during a stressful testing situation…when we feel our bodies getting nervous and our brains buzzing with anxiety, try this strategy:

Describe 5 things you see in the room/area. (“The walls are light blue.” or “The trees outside the window are green and lush.”)

Name 4 things you can feel. (“My feet in my shoes, and my shoes on the floor.” or “The air in my nose.”)

Name 3 things you can hear. (“Traffic on the highway.” or “My own soft breathing.”)

Name 2 things you can smell. (“New pencil smell.” or “fabric softener.” Or remember 2 smells you really like.)

Name 1 good thing about yourself. (“I’m a thoughtful friend.” or “I’m feeling stressed, but I’m handling it.”)

Doing an exercise like this can help us take a step back from our buzzing brain, bring us back to the present moment, and allow us to gently observe and name our feelings. If we’re feeling a measure of panic or powerlessness due to test anxiety, being able to say “wow, I’m feeling pretty stressed! I can take a moment to remember where I am right now and give my brain a break” can help  us back into the thinking, logical, frontal part of our brains and out of our fear-feeling amygdala and mid-brain.  The strong feelings coming from our amygdala during stressful situations can help keep us safely out of physical and emotional danger, but it’s not the best place to stay when we’re trying to get our brains to work logically!


One of the best, simplest ways to come back to the present moment and pay attention non-judgementally to our thoughts is to intentionally notice our breathing.  Here is a basic breathing exercise adapted from Calm Classroom:

Sit up straight and comfortably in your chair.  Rest your hands on your desk or in your lap.  Close your eyes.  Feel your feet flat on the floor.  Relax your shoulders back and down.  Let your whole body be still.

Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 10 seconds]

Remember, when you breathe in, you will fill your lungs completely.  Make each breath slow, smooth, and deep.

Now, breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Now breathe normally and relax.  Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 20 -30 seconds]

Now, take a deep breath in, hold and exhale slowly.

Notice how you feel. [wait 10 seconds]

Slowly open  your eyes.


The beauty of exercises like these is that they require no special preparation, space or equipment; they are tools at our disposal any time we need them, and they are highly effective at inviting our brains back into a calm, logical space.  For a special treat, however, definitely check out for some peaceful sounds and visuals anytime you have access to a mobile device or computer with the internet!

Even though testing time can be a stressful time in school, practicing a little mindfulness can help us all get through it with a little more awareness and self-compassion. Take good care of those brains and bodies, Austin ISD SEL fans!


What are Employers Looking For? Social and Emotional Learning!

Social and emotional skills like perspective-taking, collaboration, and adaptive thinking have long been considered “soft skills:” aspects of personality or character that cannot be taught or learned in a traditional sense.  However, as business environments become more complex, these so-called “soft-skills” are the cold hard criteria employers use to determine their new hires!  Let’s consider some infographics:


This research shows that communication skills, creative thinking and problem solving, as well as motivation and willingness to learn, are just as important as basic academic skills to potential employers. Here’s another from a survey by the University of Phoenix:


click for easier reading!

This infographic shows that, though desired skills vary a little by region, the top 5 across the board are the very skills AISD students are learning through explicit instruction and integration into their core curricula.  Here’s another perspective:


This graphic, based on a survey from Millenial Branding, speaks for itself!  Communication skills? Positive attitude? Adaptable to change?  These are topics specifically addressed in the SEL curricula from pre-K through 12th grade.  And one more, from the University of Oregon and based on research from here, here and here:


click for easier reading!

Growth mindset! Adaptive thinking! Collaboration skills! Creativity! Ethics!  Austin ISD scholars are developing these skills early and practicing them often through the innovative social and emotional learning happening on their campuses.  By next year, every single student on every single campus in AISD will be receiving these critical workforce skills.

Because AISD has made SEL a priority, our students are more prepared for careers and life than ever before! SEL experiences in school and via extracurricular activities such as Speak Up, Speak Out and Marathon High are generating 21st century problem-solvers and innovators.  Let’s go AISD SEL–onward toward the future!

Food Affects Your Mood, Dude!

Hey there, SEL fans!  With the beginning of a new year, lots of us consider our eating habits and think about changing them in one way or another.  People usually do this in the name of weight loss or gain, physical health issues, or ethical concerns.  All of those and many more are great reasons to carefully consider the food we put into our bodies.  Another reason gaining more and more scientific traction is this: research shows that the food we eat affects our brain chemistry, and our brain chemistry affects–you guessed it–our social and emotional well-being!


It’s easy to think of the mind and body as separate entities; after all, being angry feels different than having a headache, and feeling excited about something seems to be a different experience from enjoying a warm shower.  Messages from society reinforce the idea that our social/emotional and physical selves are distinct as well.  The fact is, however, that emotional events and physical sensations are all governed by hormones and other chemicals affecting the brain.  It follows that the foods we eat, and the chemicals released during digestion, have a profound effect on what’s going on in our heads.  Let’s look at how some foods may affect brain chemistry!

[DISCLAIMER: This is not medical advice!  I am not a doctor or nutritionist!  I am interested in this topic, and I have collected information from different sources, serving them up with a side of grains of salt for other interested parties to consume as they see fit!  I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading.]


BANANAS: Have cartoon monkeys been on to something this whole time?  Bananas can contain up to 10 milligrams of dopamine, an important brain chemical associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.


BERRIES:  We hear a lot about how berries contain healthy antioxidants, which can help strengthen our immune systems and fight toxins in our bodies. But a particular antioxidant, anthocyanin, is not just an immune-booster–it also can be a mood-lifting stress reducer!  It’s also the purple pigment that produces the rich hues of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.  Becoming a purple eater may be brain beneficial!


FISH: Consuming both lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to boost mood and reduce feelings of stress.  Fish has both!  Fatty fish like sardines, salmon and anchovies have a high dose of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, as do flax seeds, avocados, and walnuts.  Since our brains are 60% fat, and omega-3 fatty acids look very much like our brain fat, it makes sense to feed them to our brains! [You’re welcome for that image.]


WHOLE GRAINS: Complex carbohydrates allow our brains to generate seratonin, another important feel-good brain chemical like dopamine.  No complex carbs, no (well, less) seratonin!  So go get some steel-cut oatmeal, or a whole-grain english muffin, or some quinoa, and get that seratonin pumping good feelings into your brain.


LEGUMES: Beans, beans, the magical fruit.  The more you eat, the more you….provide your brain with selenium, which can reduce feelings of stress and have a positive mood effect.  Nuts and seeds also have lots of selenium, especially Brazil nuts (those big huge ones in the mixed nuts can).  Legumes also are an excellent source of protein, zinc, and B-vitamins, all of which are good for emotional health and well-being.


LEAFY GREENS:  Kale yes!  Leafy vegetables like chard, kale, and spinach contain all kinds of beneficial nutrients, and have a high content of B-vitamins, iron, protein and fiber.  Since swings in blood sugar and insulin levels directly affect mood swings, leafy greens (and legumes, and whole grains, and fish) can help regulate sugar absorption, keeping us on a more even keel.  They also contain a lot of magnesium, a mineral which can help lift and stabilize moods.


EGGS: What a great food is the egg!  Eggs have lots of thiamine, which can help increase well-being and sociability, as well as B-vitamins, iron, and protein.  Worried about cholesterol?  Eggs actually have been shown that they don’t raise cholesterol in the blood significantly, and that their health benefits out-weigh the cholesterol factor in most people.  Don’t like eggs?  Thiamine can be found in whole grains like brown rice and oats, yeast, and cauliflower!


DARK CHOCOLATE:  Yup, it’s true.  Cocoa polyphenols are found in dark chocolate, and these chemicals have been shown to produce feelings of happy calmness in the brains of human test subjects.  (How do I get to be a chocolate test subject?) Dark chocolate in moderation has even shown promising evidence that it improves brain function!  Let’s have dessert!

In conclusion, one can’t help but notice that the foods we know we’re supposed to be eating for good health anyway–lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables–are the very foods that studies are now touting as really good for our mental health and well-being.  Not that surprising, really, considering our brains are an organ in our bodies as much as our heart or liver is.  Have fun eating these delicious healthy foods, and know your brain will thank you with awesome feel-good chemistry!  And then you will thank your brain.


FURTHER READING (and sites that helped out a lot):

US News Health: Food and Mood: 6 Ways Your Diet Affects How You Feel

Healthline: Mood Food: Can What You Eat Affect Your Happiness?

Best Health Magazine: How Food Affects Your Mood

New Year SEL Research Roundup!

Happy New Year, SEL Fans!

The beginning of a new swing around the sun is a great time to get back to basics. What is social and emotional learning, and why is it important to academic success? That’s the essential question, and a growing body of data from around the country shows that teaching social and emotional skills as explicitly as reading, writing, math and science improves academic achievement, reduces behavior problems, and sets students up for success as adults.

SEL Competencies WheelThis wheel graphic shows the five core competencies defined by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), with specific behavior lists clarifying each competency.  What exactly is CASEL?  So glad you asked!  From the website:

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)[‘s]…mission is to help make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school. Through research, practice and policy, CASEL collaborates to ensure all students become knowledgeable, responsible, caring and contributing members of society.

The Austin Independent School District is one of eight large urban districts participating in CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative:

Given the importance of district-level leadership and coordination, in 2011 CASEL launched a national initiative aimed at supporting districts’ capacities to promote SEL for all students. Called the Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI), this effort recognizes that positive student outcomes depend on improving classrooms and schools, which in turn depends on improving districtwide capacities and conditions.

AISD is in good company with school districts from Anchorage to Reno, Oakland to Cleveland.  These and many other schools and districts across the country have adopted evidence-based, CASEL-vetted explicit SEL instruction curricula.  We also work to build a culture and climate that integrates and reinforces SEL skills, from each classroom to the whole district.  But why?

Again from CASEL:


[Teaching SEL Skills] provide[s] a foundation for better adjustment and academic performance as reflected in more positive social behaviors and peer relationships, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved grades and test scores.

So the next question becomes, is it working?  When students receive explicit SEL instruction and go to school in a culture and climate that promotes social and emotional well-being, do they show increased academic success?

Data points to a resounding YES.


Two recent nprEd articles discuss social and emotional learning on a national scale, and cite large research studies showing that schools teaching SEL skills see marked increases in academic success.  In “Why Emotional Learning May be as Important as the A-B-Cs,” National Public Radio cites the FastTrack Project, a research inquiry that followed 979 kindergartners for 20 years.  These students were randomly assigned to a 10-year intervention track or a control group. The results (published in the American Journal of Psychiatry last September) showed that the children who received early social and emotional skill building and reinforcement throughout their school career had achieved higher academic success and had fewer arrests, emotional problems and substance abuse issues in their adult lives.

In nprEd’s “Teaching 4-Year-Olds to Feel Better,” the story cites research commissioned by the Federal Health and Human Services Department that looked at thousands of pre-schoolers in all regions of the country.  The study, conducted by MDRC and HeadStart, showed that when students were explicitly taught skills to self-manage and get along with others, they spent more time engaged in learning.


Closer to home, the AISD Department of Research and Evaluation published its study of the efficacy of our own Social and Emotional Learning district-wide program.  It shows that not only do SEL schools see marked improvement in academic achievement and school climate, the longer a school has been participating in SEL instruction and integration, the more academics and climate improve.

Finally, a recent compelling study from Columbia University shows that school districts investing money and resources in social and emotional skill instruction get a significant positive return on that investment from the increased academic achievement and attendance levels of students.  In fact, because children who receive social and emotional education during their school years tend to be incarcerated less often and make better life choices, it benefits the economy on a national level.

So, in conclusion, who are we and why are we here?  We are AISD Social and Emotional Learning, and we are on the forefront of a national movement to improve the academics and lives of students everywhere! #AISDproud

Ode to Gratitude


Gratitude: An attitude? Or maybe it’s a trait?

A momentary feeling? Or could it be innate

To human beings globally, because we celebrate

Across the world’s traditions, that thankfulness is great?


Gratitude is noticing, and feeling thankful for

Acts and gifts and service, stuff we have that we adore.

And if we notice and give thanks for things we might ignore,

Our gratitude increases, and in this case more is more


Scientific studies show that happiness and peace

Can come from feeling thankful, and that these thoughts increase

Connectedness to others, empathy, and life’s own lease

Grateful people just might get a few more years apiece.


Though Thanksgiving gives gratitude a dedicated day

Here in the States, it might be good to seek out other ways

To get a daily dose of it.  To look in work and play

Finding gorgeous tiny moments that inspire us to say,


Thank you Sun for warmth and food, and every morning’s greeting,

Thank you Earth for rain and dirt and life, however fleeting.

Thanks for laughter, thanks for friends, that moment of our meeting—

Thanks for work and holidays, and to you, Reader, for reading!

Empathy–I Feel You! (A Learning Cybersift)


The word gets thrown about often, but what exactly is empathy?  How is it different from sympathy?  Let’s ask the internet!

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary offers these definitions: Empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Sympathy – the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

Grammarist offers this comparison:

Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own. Meanwhile, sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.

The United Kingdom’s RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce!) offers this video illustration of the contrast:

So empathy seems to be about connecting deeply and personally with someone else’s feelings. Sympathy, in contrast, is caring about and feeling sorry that someone else is having a hard time, but not truly connecting with them on a deeper emotional level.  When I have empathy for someone, I am experiencing them as an extension of myself.

We might imagine, then, that empathy is a higher-level brain function reserved for creatures with fancy pre-frontal cortices–we human beings.  After all, having empathy for others sounds like a big part of morality and justice, and humans are the only animals able to process these complex concepts, right?  Not so!  Various studies have shown that apes, monkeys, elephants, and dogs, among other animals, have showed persuasive evidence of empathetic behavior.


even chickens!

Recently, an interesting study showed that a rat would work hard to free a trapped roommate, even if there were distracting and delicious chocolate chips to be had in another part of the test area!  In fact, even if the free rat sampled a chocolate chip or two before releasing the trapped rat, she would save some chocolate for her buddy.  How’s that for non-human empathy!

rats1 (1)

The fact that other animals of different species seem to display empathetic behaviors suggests that there is a deep, ancient biological basis to empathy.  For some reason or another, empathetic behavior contributed to the survival of our species and others. Considering how social we are, this makes some amount of intuitive sense–indeed, all the animals mentioned in this post live in social groups and/or close physical proximity to one another.


There are many more studies and resources around the internet regarding empathy, and the sheer amount of information available speaks to the important role empathy plays in daily human life.  Austin ISD social and emotional learning involves explicit instruction designed to help students develop their natural empathy, and supports the integration and reinforcement of empathetic behavior throughout the daily routine at school and at home.  We would love to know your favorite empathy resources, from parenting to neuroscience (to the neuroscience of parenting)!  Leave us a comment!

Thanks for reading, SEL fans, and have a spectacular weekend.