For about two minutes during the school day, Eman Raza and her fifth-grade classmates take time to create a calm classroom.
With their teacher’s help, everyone pauses, breathes, and refocuses. Raza likes how it can turn the entire day around.
“Whenever I’m troubled or worried these breaks help my mindset,” Raza expressed. “It helps me focus in class.” It’s a skill she uses sometimes even if the teacher isn’t guiding the activity. “I can always do the exercises when I need it,” Raza shared. “I don’t have to worry about what troubles me.”
It’s a technique students turn to regularly at Christa McAuliffe Elementary. Maddie Shay, first grade teacher, uses it often after lunch or recess.
“It’s very helpful and effective,” Shay shared. “They are learning about how to calm down when feeling big emotions, which is a necessary life skill.”
It’s also one of many Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills social worker Caren Howes has helped students and staff implement. This exercise can help students overcome a high-stress moment and practice to help with future challenges, Howes explains. She and her colleagues compare it to a fire drill.
“You have to practice it before you need it,” Howes added. “If you have a ‘fire’ of emotions or feelings, you have a strategy you can use. If you practice techniques, it is easier to access them.”
At Christa McAuliffe, sometimes students will sit for a time in a designated calm space in their classroom. Or, they will visit a reset station located near Howes’s office, where they can find resources like crayons and fidget tools to gain a sense of calm. Educators also use SEL activities in classroom routines and lessons in a variety of ways.
“When a student is having challenges, the answer isn’t always to pop out of class and come meet with your social worker, though there are lots of students who benefit from that,” Howes shared. “Having it be a part of the daily educational process is what makes it so successful.”
Supporting interpersonal skills and academic goals
During the pandemic, Howes has seen more traffic in her office. Students are dealing with stress and anxiety and seek support. But, the SEL techniques she and educators throughout the building are proactively teaching have even broader goals. The Kansas State Board of Education was one of the first to adopt social-emotional and character development standards in 2012. Social-Emotional Growth is one of five measured outcomes set by the State Board as part of the Kansas Can Vision for Education.
One of the three main objectives in the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) strategic plan is that “every student will develop interpersonal skills to be an engaged, empathetic member of the local and global community.” Gone are attitudes that students can and should leave their feelings at the classroom door, explained Dr. John McKinney, director of student and family services. These commitments acknowledge students must have basic needs like safety and belonging met before they can achieve academically. They also acknowledge students need to build skills like grit, resilience, and empathy for future success.
“Research, along with personal experiences of educators and mental health professionals across the country, taught us that working through social and emotional issues productively and proactively has positive short-and long-term outcomes for students and staff,” McKinney expressed. “I’m thankful boards of education are acknowledging the value of integrating these standards as part of a comprehensive public education.”
To measure outcomes, as required by the state, one resource the SMSD uses is Panorama. This is a confidential survey given (with parental permission) to students in third through 12th grades, which provides data on a variety of skill sets such as growth mindset, grit, self-management, and social awareness.
“The survey responses students provide give us invaluable insights into our students’ experiences and help us all see where more support is needed,” McKinney noted.
This year, with the help of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, the SMSD has a full-time social worker in every elementary and middle school building and two full-time social workers in high schools.
This has allowed more opportunities for social workers like Howes to work with students and staff on implementing strategies to better support student learning, along with social and emotional well-being. Howes also meets with families to help them learn strategies and techniques to apply together.
“We’re a team,” Howes shared. “My approach is ‘How can we partner together to help your child be successful?’”
With a full-time social worker on staff at Corinth, parent Sarah Mackay said she has seen a noticeable shift for the better. She notes that with much of her child’s socialization happening at school, it makes sense to have expert support in that environment.
“Having a social worker provide ongoing lessons in the classrooms seems to be accomplishing a few things – it provides a shared language for kids and teachers, helps to build skills, and creates an existing relationship between students and social workers in case a hard time arrives,” Mackay expressed.
A team approach to addressing SEL is just as important in middle and high schools. For example, Melissa Osborn and Tina Clark, social workers at Shawnee Mission Northwest, work to address a variety of critical SEL topics throughout the year. Students and staff join them in hosting assemblies and campaigns to address topics like suicide awareness and prevention, managing stress, breaking down mental healthcare stigma, and raising awareness about mental health resources. Osborn and Clark meet with individual students, but having peers and teachers reinforce SEL topics is powerful, Clark shared.
“When it’s a part of the everyday experience and we have it peer-led, that makes it much more comfortable for many students,” Clark said.
SEL helping students achieve their personal best
SEL efforts in SMSD schools provide students with different ways to apply what they are learning. One key strategy that supports SEL is to provide opportunities for involvement.
“If students are involved in the community, their mental health is often better because they are connected,” Osborn, emphasized.
Amy Nine, Westridge Middle School social worker, noted a mural club created this year as one example at her school. The opportunity gave students a chance to work with artists from InterUrban Art House, interact with each other, and create art on the school walls.
Seventh-grader Tinuviel Harshbarger jumped at the chance to join. The club has provided stress relief and a way to contribute something lasting, Harshbarger explained.
“I was like ‘Oh, I can leave my mark on this school,’” Harshbarger shared. “It’s a unique feeling to know I did this with people who have the same interest as me.”
The opportunity for students to learn and practice social-emotional skills is the biggest and most important gift that can be given to students, according to Carron Montgomery, a Corinth parent and local mental health therapist and author.
“We don’t come out knowing how to understand and respond to our feelings and it can be very overwhelming, especially for children,” Montgomery expressed. “Not understanding the purpose of feelings can be terrifying, especially as it relates to anxiety and depression. Early education and prevention normalizes this and helps kids make sense of these feelings before they get too big and are so overwhelmed that they aren’t in a place to learn about them.”
All of these skills will be useful to students for college and career, Clark noted.
“We are driven toward not just creating scholars, but citizens in the world,” she expressed. “We’re promoting active involvement in the community and empathy. If we’re teaching those skills we are helping to meet that long-term goal.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Inside Shawnee Mission School District. Click here to view the most recent issue.