Austin ISD Circles Up!


This image represents a harm-focused, reactive approach popularized by the Criminal Justice System. Austin ISD is taking a proactive, education-focused whole child, whole adult, whole community approach to Restorative Practices. #RPAustinISD

Austin ISD is planning for a Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices (RP) approach in its schools. The district recognizes  the need to address systemic inequities and improve campus climates and cultural proficiency. The faculty, staff and administrators in the Akins vertical team, for example, have received basic training in Culturally Responsive RP to begin their restorative journey. Other schools around the district are exploring community-building circles in classrooms and with faculty and staff to deepen connectedness and build campus culture.  So what exactly are Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, and how do they fit into our district’s push to increase student voice, close achievement gaps, and address disciplinary action inequities?


In Austin ISD, Culturally Responsive RP are rooted in these Core Assumptions for the whole child and whole adult:


The core self may not be reflected in how people behave, but beneath the masks we adopt is a deeper, healthier self.


What we do to others, we are also doing to ourselves although we may not always be aware that this happening.


All people want to love and be loved and all people want to be connected.


All gifts are indispensable to the well-being of the whole.


There are rich reservoirs of talent and wisdom within our communities waiting to be accessed.


There is a connection between the mind, body, and spirit in all that we do.


We need practices which help us connect to our core self so we can live in alignment with our values and build healthy relationships in families and communities.

Adapted from: “Heart of Hope Resource Guide” Suffolk University, Center for Restorative Justice Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis 2009


Because the very nature of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices is doing it with, rather than to, an individual or community, schools exploring RP are introducing it authentically in ways that best serve that campus. Community circles are generally done with a centerpiece, to focus thoughts and words, and a passed-around talking piece, to hold space for equity of voice. However, circles can look lots of different ways!  Here are some pictures of how Restorative Practices look around our district right now.


Ms. Polk facilitates a circle with 7th graders in her classroom at Martin Middle School.


Secondary and elementary staff from the Discipline Alternative Learning Placement campuses debrief a professional development activity in community circles.


Staff from the Akins Vertical Team model a community circle during an RP training (for the whole vertical team!)


Ms. DeLaTorre at Walnut Creek Elementary facilitates a circle with her 5th graders.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Though these pictures are from all around our district, every one of them shows people talking to each other in circles. The circle is the hallmark of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, which is rooted in the ancient indigenous tradition of forming circles to communicate effectively in community. Austin ISD is exploring a whole school, whole child, whole adult Culturally Responsive Approach to Restorative Practices. Although circles are the most visible piece of the process, restorative practices is #MoreThanCircles. Restorative practices provides a framework that helps us create a school culture and climate that is safe, welcoming and inclusive. The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team supports Culturally Responsive RP community-building circles. We are excited about the deep Restorative Practice work beginning in Austin ISD, and look forward to seeing it serve the social and emotional needs of all our students and staff! We are #AISDProud that we are continuously working on #AISDEquity!

Check out this Restorative Practices Twitter chat from December 2016 to experience part of the larger, real conversation that is helping to move our Culturally Responsive RP journey forward. For more information about Austin ISD Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, contact Angela Ward (, who collaborated on this blog post!


Post-Election Resources

American election season has always been a highly charged time, and this particular election has brought up a lot of feelings for a lot of people. School communities can feel this very deeply. Students may have many questions and big worries, and school leaders may wonder how to support them and ensure that their campus remains a safe, welcoming and inclusive learning environment.  Students have the right to feel safe at their schools, and it’s the job of the adults on campus to create and maintain that culture of safety.


This article from Teaching Tolerance discusses how teachers can help students process their feelings and concerns regarding the outcome of the election, while maintaining a safe, welcoming and inclusive classroom environment.

Here is Austin ISD’s district anti-harassment and discrimination policy, and our anti-bullying policy. School leaders can use these as a basis to ensure that any kind of hateful acts or language are met with swift and unequivocal administrative action.

Here is a lesson designed with middle school students in mind that can be adapted to class time constraints and needs.  Learning intentions include helping students understand how the three branches of the United States government check and balance each other, and inviting students to share their views, concerns, and voices for the next president in respectful, powerful ways.


Young people on campuses may be worried about issues surrounding immigration and deportation. Resources that schools might share with students and families include:

American Gateways, which “provides free and low-cost legal services and education to promote justice for immigrants and refugees in Central Texas.”

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which also distributes these Red Cards so that families can know their legal rights under the US Constitution, which apply to everyone currently in the United States regardless of immigration status.

The Immigrant Defense Project, which works to protect and expand the rights of all immigrants.

Catholic Charities of Central Texas and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid also provide free and low-cost legal aid to immigrant families.


When educators, school leaders and communities pull together for safe educational environments, our children thrive and learn.  Thank you for being safeguards of learning and powerful allies to AISD students and families. We are #AISDProud of all our students, and #AllMeansAll, all the time!


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!


SEL Standards Assessment: Break It Down!

What do you get when 25 teachers, counselors, administrators and SEL specialists converge on the Sanchez elementary library for 6 hours on a Saturday?  Jazz hands, of course!

2015-03-28 14.50.41

Also, intense and effective collaboration to crank out innovative Social and Emotional Learning work.  This diverse cadre of educators tapped a profound well of expertise around social and emotional learning, classroom dynamics, and visionary planning to devise and revise SEL Essential Knowledge and Skills.

Does that sound like official Texas Education Agency language?  You bet it is!  The goal of this on-going process is to create SEL standards that will eventually become official Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS–the basis of Texas public school curriculum as required by TEA.


One example of our standards assessment dry-erase posters showing the student learning objective, supporting knowledge and skills, and our process questions. (Before the Vis-A-Vis storm!)

Small groups of teachers, administrators and counselors from across AISD convened in their grade bands to address the EKS that the SEL department has used since the beginning of the SEL roll-out three years ago.  Those standards, based on official language from the national Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning and tailored to serve Austin schools, have served us well.  But now, since SEL is widely taught throughout AISD and is poised to reach every student in all vertical teams as of academic year ’15-’16, it is time to utilize the diverse experiences and skills of Social and Emotional Learning educators to revise, update and further tailor the EKS language.  This process ensures that common vocabulary and collective vision inform these standards, so that all district SEL content is high quality, authentic, relevant and measureable.

Wielding large laminated posters and Vis-A-Vis pens, SEL specialists facilitated the small group discussions that resulted in approving, revising or devising the standards’ language.  Each SEL student learning objective and its supporting skills were “posterized” for collective consideration, and the groups talked, wrote, doodled, marched, chewed and cheered about them until the posters were covered with changes and notes.  Participants considered six key questions while examining each student learning objective, with emphasis on the cultural relevance and appropriateness of each standard, and how it could be demonstrated or measured.


2015-03-28 10.24.15

In the next few weeks, the SEL department will compile all the thinking and vision represented on each poster into a new draft of the standards.  These will become the foundation of the high caliber SEL content, lessons and professional development that are hallmarks of Austin Independent School District.


The aftermath! For each student objective, the groups had to decide how the supporting skill standard would be measurable: via Factual Knowledge (FK) recall, a demonstration of a Skill or Process (S/P) learned, or a demonstration of Understanding (U) the objective.

The SEL department is deeply grateful to the dedicated educators who gave a Saturday to help keep AISD SEL on the cutting edge of the national Social and Emotional Learning movement.  With this kind of innovative collaboration, Austin ISD is continuing to work toward giving each and every student the skills they need to succeed in 21st Century careers and global society.  We are #AISDproud and #SELsmart!

2015-03-28 14.50.26

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

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.


A Shared Mission

Social/Emotional Learning: Explicit skill instruction and concept integration systems that build a culture of inclusion, respect and connectedness in schools and districts.

Restorative Practice: Systems implemented to build personal connection, belonging, equity, inclusive decision-making, and problem solving in a school, district or community.  The basis of restorative practice is the structured circle conference.


I recently had the privilege of attending two intensive workshops addressing Restorative Practice and Restorative Discipline.  The first was led by Sherwynn and Kim Patton, the visionaries leading Life Anew, a local non-profit bringing Restorative Practice to schools and the community in Austin and Manor.  The second was a statewide conference for teachers and administrators presented by the University of Texas Institute of Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialog in partnership with Life Anew.

Life Anew and the Institute are dedicated to Restorative Practice and Discipline via facilitated discussions in the restorative circle.  The circle is an intentional space created to foster belonging and empathy, critical aspects of building relationships and healing harmful conflicts.  The philosophies behind SEL and Restorative Practice are beginning to gain traction in educational policy-making at the state and national level—compelling data from schools implementing SEL and RP show significant reductions in disciplinary referrals and significant increases in academic achievement.


At the most recent training, I told Kim and Sherwynn that I would like to blog about the natural partnership of Social/Emotional Learning and RP/RD in the school system.   I asked if Sherwynn would give me his “elevator speech” about Restorative Practice, and how he thought it relates to SEL.  After we came back from lunch, he gave me the following…which is now AISD SEL Blog’s first Guest Blogger Bloffering!


The Perfect Marriage:  SEL and Restorative Practices

By Sherwynn Patton

At its core, restorative practice helps students and adults connect with one another in a way that promotes the development of empathy, social support, accountability, responsibility and communication skills.  All of these are important within the context of peer to peer relationships, as well as peer to adult relationships.  The way this happens in restorative practice is the promotion of active listening.  Typically, when we converse with others, we are either waiting for our opportunity to be heard or competing for the opportunity to get our point across.  In the restorative process, we learn that everyone receives the opportunity to be heard and that listeners are most important.

This process allows us to develop the social and emotional skills we need in order to be able to develop healthy relational practices.  We use the restorative circle method to create a space where people can develop socially and emotionally.  It actually gives students and adults a real opportunity to measure and use  their social and emotional skill development.  The best way that I can describe the relationship between restorative discipline and social emotional learning is that it is a perfect marriage.


In a perfect marriage, each individual complements the other; there is mutual edification, a clear line of communication, and a shared vision.  Restorative practice and SEL are the perfect marriage—both relationally-driven processes complement each other by using listening as a tool, allowing people to engage socially and discover the reciprocity in every relationship.  We can then work together to establish core values that govern our interactions, resulting in mutual respect and the deepening of relationships.  In short, the marriage of Social/Emotional Learning and Restorative Discipline gives birth to EMPATHY.

I am so thankful that Kim, Sherwynn and the Institute are doing this work, and that I get to learn from their great passion and expertise.  I am excited that Social-Emotional Learning is in partnership with Restorative Practice on the mission to create more just, peaceful, and equitable schools and communities.