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





And the First SEL-ie Award Goes To…

Social and Emotional Learning isn’t just gaining credibility and attention in the national education scene; with new compelling data and new, engaging ways to share it, SEL is popping up more and more in pop culture.  Inside Out, Pixar’s latest movie, is a delightful example of this national and global trend.


Based in real neuroscience, Inside Out explores the evolving emotions of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who experiences some challenging life changes.  The story largely plays out inside the “control room” of Riley’s brain, in which her lead emotion, Joy, tries to effectively manage the other guiding emotions of Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness.  With colorful imagery and  a solid scientific background, the film engages the viewer in a deep and intriguing new form of empathy–we are literally in Riley’s head, seeing through her eyes, experiencing her life events with her perspectives and filters.  Inside Out underscores the ways emotions color experiences and shape memories on a personal, sometimes visceral level.  It winds up being a movie experience that invites self-reflection and the exploration of the viewers’ own emotion-tinged memories.


Pixar/Disney-Pixar via Associated Press

When I went to see it, I was excited by the Social and Emotional Learning aspects it promised to address.  I was surprised and touched by the film’s creativity, authenticity and emotional immediacy.  The over-arching story was simple enough to be relatable, and to allow depth and complexity to emerge organically from the interactions of the emotions in Riley’s brain.  It also left me with some intriguing questions:  What happens to the emotion characters after Riley enters adolescence, that  notorious rollercoaster of neurological pruning and emotional development? Why is the mom’s lead emotion Sadness, and the dad’s lead emotion Anger? Will they ever discover pizza other than the organic broccoli pizza place down the street?  I can’t wait for the sequel!


I should also mention the traditional Pixar short film that precedes the feature, called Lava.  It is also based in actual science, geology this time, and tells a musical love story between volcanoes(!) that takes place over a few million years. (That’s right, it’s a short that takes place over MILLENIA.) Lava had me first laughing, then sobbing(!), then mentally singing the ukulele ballad for days (DAYS!) afterward.  Luckily, Inside Out even made a quick reference to why songs get stuck in our head, so now I know why I’ve been singing bits of Lava ever since. Turns out there was a recent study using MRI technology that sheds even more light on the “earworm” phenomenon we are all so familiar with, but I digress.


In conclusion: because Social and Emotional Learning is gaining traction in the pop culture scene, and because Inside Out so beautifully exemplifies this trend, I would like to name Inside Out as the first recipient of the SEL Media Award for Excellence in Bringing Social and Emotional Learning to the Forefront of Popular Consciousness, or SEL-ie Award (for brevity’s sake).  Keep your eyes out and suggestions coming in for future SEL-ie Awards, dear Readers!  Happy emotional exploration!

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

Pareido-WHAT? Or…You are an Emotion-Reading Facial Recognition Machine!

Hello once again, SEL fans!  And a very happy Halloween to everyone!   Let’s start with a little experiment this week.  Does this group of shapes do anything for ya?


Not really? How about this?


That one looks like a slightly bemused squareface guy, right?  Same shapes, different arrangement, and all of a sudden we’ve got a new little buddy on the screen.  Well guess what, dear reader: you have just participated in our neurological word of the week…

Pareidolia! (pear-uh-DOL-ee-uh)—The illusory perception of non-existent faces .[i]

Humans are hardwired from the moment we are born to recognize faces.  Newborn babies have underdeveloped distance vision, but they are capable of seeing clearly up to about 12 inches—just about the distance at which nurturing caregivers hover to feed, smile and coo at the new little human.   From this early foundation we continue to focus on faces…after all, we don’t usually show off pictures of our family and friends’ ears or knees!  Studies have shown that we have a special area of our brain that contains neurons dedicated only to recognizing faces.[ii]


Further, as you may have done with this rather enthusiastic cup of coffee, we don’t just recognize facial features; we also are so good at reading emotion that we almost always assign a feeling or personality to faces we see.  After all, humans have over 40 different facial muscles, allowing us to perform thousands of distinct and complex facial expressions that we use for nonverbal communication with each other. [iii]


Our expertise in both recognizing faces and facial expressions could come from an advantageous evolutionary adaptation.  For tiny baby humans, being able to interpret and respond to parental faces early on could help kickstart bonding, leading to more positive attention from caregivers and therefore more opportunity to thrive.   Also, being able to quickly recognize friendly faces vs. hostile faces may have promoted the early survival of our species. [iv]


You were a little worried about that mop, right?  You emotion-interpretation expert, you!  How about this one?


Did you empathize with that twig a bit?  A ha!  There’s the distinct social and emotional aspect of pareidolia.  Even though our ability to identify faces and facial expressions may have been an early adaptation for safety and survival, our frontal cortex—the part of our brain responsible for higher thinking—gives us the ability to imagine how we would feel undergoing the emotion or experience that we recognize in others.  Pareidolia, this innate tendency to search for and see faces, could be an ancient sign of our profound human capacity for empathy.

happy chairs

So the next time you are startled by a creepy countenance emerging from a wooden door:


Or feel cheery with a cheese grater:


Feel connected to your ancient roots, and your wondrous frontal cortex.  You are a finely-tuned human expert!

[i]  (Jiangang Liua, 2014)

[ii]  (Vincent, 2014)

[iii]  (Ekman, 2008)

[iv]  (Vincent, 2014)

Works Cited

Ekman, D. M. (2008). Facial expression analysis. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from ScholarPedia:

Jiangang Liua, J. L. (2014, January 13). Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from Science Direct:

Vincent, J. (2014, May 9). The Independent. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from Pareidolia: Scientists say ‘don’t worry, it’s normal to see Jesus on a slice of toast’:

To Sleep…Perchance to Dream

Hello there, SEL fans!  I’m your friendly new blogger, Katie Cameroneil.  I became part of AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning team this past July, and boy am I glad to be here!  I’ll be posting weekly, usually on Fridays, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for the most interesting, useful, smart and tasty tidbits the world has to offer related to Social and Emotional Learning.  I give you my first blog offering (bloffering?)…I hope you find it dreamy.

We talk a lot in SEL about the amygdala.  The amygdala is our primal brain, and the center of strong emotions and self-preservation.  When we are really angry or afraid, or so happy we get choked up, our amygdala is firing all over the place.

Luckily, when we’re awake and doing day-to-day things, we have our frontal cortex—our rational, logical brain—to keep us from doing anything crazy!  We may have really strong feelings sometimes, but we generally don’t hurl ourselves on the

floor screaming, or attempt to fly, or run howling through the streets.   Good thing we have our frontal cortex to keep society (mostly) civilized!

That’s when we’re awake…but what about when we’re asleep?

Excuse me…Your Amygdala is Showing

Research shows that the amygdala is highly active when we’re dreaming, while the frontal cortex is basically turned off  (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  The amygdala can run wild with feelings and emotions, with no interference from the logical cortex (Big Think Editors, 2014)!   This is why dreams can seem so vivid, colorful, intense and even really scary (Big Think Editors, 2014).  Dreams can even stick with us, the emotional experiences coloring our day.   The amygdala is a powerful influence in our brain, and unchecked, it can come up with some pretty wild scenarios.  Often the activity from the amygdala during dreaming radiates into other parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which could explain why dreams sometimes seem to have a linear or logical story structure (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  But, for the most part, dreaming is the amygdala’s time to shine!

Luckily, our brains are also usually equipped with mechanisms that prevent our physical bodies from acting out the events of our dreams.  So, dreams are very complex brain functions (Cromie, 1996).  Why do we have them?  Why do we appear to need sleep and dreams?  Guess what—scientists don’t know yet (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  All they really know is, good sleep appears to be vital to having a high quality of life, and that extreme sleep deprivation can be fatal (Cromie, 1996).  So what could this mean?

Dream On!

Could it be that sleeping gives the frontal cortex a time to rest and rejuvenate, at the same time allowing the amygdala to get some unfettered free time to explore feelings and fears (Big Think Editors, 2014)?  Neuroscientists have also shown that tell-tale signs of learning occur in the brain during sleep and dreaming (Nir & Tononi, 2010), perhaps demonstrating that the wandering amygdala can present scenarios to our brains, however crazy, that help us become more functional humans during our waking hours (Cromie, 1996).  Could dreams allow us to deepen our empathy and perspective-taking skills?  The latest sleep and brain research is seeking the answers to these questions.

In conclusion, thank your amygdala for creating our dreams, and thank your brain for being such an amazing tool.  And next time you have a dream, keep in mind that it has possibly enhanced and enriched your brain’s experience.   Even though they are ‘just dreams,’ they affect the brain in a very real way.  So sleep well, and keep on dreaming!  Happy weekend!

Works Cited

Big Think Editors. (2014, October 14). Big Think. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from This is Your Brain on Dreams, with Michio Kaku:

Cromie, W. J. (1996, February 8). Research Links Sleep, Dreams and Learning. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from The Harvard University Gazette:

Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010, January 10). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from National Institute of Health Public Access Author Manuscript: