Spring 2017

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Page 25 of 43

Austin's SEL director, Pete Price, admits he wasn't im- mediately sold on the notion of bringing SEL into Austin schools. At the time the idea was proposed, Price was the principal at O. Henry Middle School, and he wasn't con- vinced an SEL program would be effective for his students. But it didn't take long after seeing the program in action for him to change his mind."Being a principal, I noticed that some kids got along really well and other kids got frustrated more during the day," says Price. "I saw how critical these skills were to their success." Price quickly became one of the program's staunchest advocates, and he moved into the position of SEL director in July 2016. Austin's SEL team, which Price manages, includes 16 SEL spe- cialists, each of whom works with a team of schools. These specialists, whom Price refers to as "missionaries," provide SEL training to teachers, adminis- trators, and students throughout the school district. Price is a firm believer that there should be no strict blue- print for how schools incorporate SEL. When his specialists go into a school, they collaborate with staff and students to institute the program in a way that works for that individual campus. "The specialists have an arsenal of tools to teach the campuses, but it all depends on where the campus is," says Price. "It is highly subjective—needs based and strength based. We want to make this really grassroots." Relationships Propel Results Despite the recent interest in SEL, Price says the concept is nothing new. What has changed is our understanding of it. "When I started teaching in the early '80s, I did social emotional learning. But when I started teaching, we had no idea about brain research," says Price. "The last couple of decades, we have learned so much about the brain. Now we know with irrefutable evidence that learning is enhanced based on the social and emotional context. We know learn- ing with others can enhance academic achievement. We know that students who feel emotionally secure and valued by the teacher will achieve at higher levels." Price firmly believes that relationships propel academic results, not the other way around. "You can't pound kids with worksheets and 'drill and kill,'" he says. "You've got to make sure they know they're valued and that they're cared for, and then you'll see results." Emily Day's experience supports this idea. "I have noticed that my students don't feel embarrassed to try to grap- ple with concepts that they don't easily understand," she notes. Day believes her weekly SEL lessons have increased students' confidence levels by providing them with a greater understanding of their struggling classmates and equipping them with the social and emotional tools necessary to ask for help and explore new ideas. "We are all in this together and we actually have a responsibility toward each other to help everyone be successful," says Day. "The space we have created together allows for that." Research conducted over the years has confirmed not only that students do perform better with teachers like Day, who take the time to understand their emotional needs, but also that explicit SEL instruction has a positive impact on academic scores and overall long-term success. SEL has also been linked to a reduc- tion in the achievement gap. Students who have turbulent home lives or parents who are working multiple jobs may not be exposed to the same amount of social emotional modeling at home that other students might receive. For these students, SEL instruction at school can have a large impact. "A lot of SEL is preventive strategies to ensure students will be successful," Price says. "We have 60 percent poverty in Austin. We have kids who come from challenging situa- tions. If you don't provide them with an opportunity to talk, the trauma is going to pop up its ugly head sometime during the day. And it will be disruptive not only to that student but to other students' learning." Day, who has worked with students from both ends of the economic spectrum, agrees. "I have found it's the same for all students," she says. "Kids from both sides of town want to feel like they have a say in the classroom. SEL transcends all boundaries." Making Time for Empathy Despite SEL's documented benefits, many classroom teachers may be resistant to adding a half hour of lessons into their already overloaded schedules. Price acknowledg- es that our schools ask a lot of teachers and fears that for many educators, SEL may seem to be just one more class- room requirement. That's one reason he believes integrat- ing SEL lessons into academic content is so critical. Day confirms that juggling explicit SEL lessons along with traditional academics can be a challenge. But she also notes that dedicating time up front to modeling appropriate be- havior cuts down on discipline issues and helps her class run smoothly, which saves her time in the long run. "SEL has provided the tools to work stuff out, so it's not always the teacher's problem to initiate it," says Day. "We have so much on our plates all the time that it's hard when you have to stop Students who feel emotionally secure and valued by the teacher will achieve at higher levels. 26 ATPE NEWS » For links to the research discussed in this article, see the online version of this magazine at

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