Social Emotional Learning: Teaching empathy in the classroom - MetroFamily Magazine
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Social Emotional Learning: Teaching empathy in the classroom

by Erin Page. Photos provided by Amy Lounsbery and Oklahoma City Pubilc Schools

Reading Time: 9 minutes 
Therapy dog Hank relishes giving and receiving hugs from elementary students.

Hank visits his mom’s classroom once a week, sparking joyful giggles, inhaling errant crumbs and providing reassurance when a classmate struggles. The 2-year-old English chocolate labrador is a certified therapy dog who’s become a mainstay for a room full of second graders during a tumultuous year.

“When Hank is at school, the mood shifts,” said Amy Lounsbery, Hank’s human mom and a second-grade teacher at Rose Union Elementary School in the Deer Creek School District. “The kids are calmer and he provides them confidence and connection.”

This year marks Lounsbery’s twentieth in the education industry, and she has been incorporating daily social-emotional learning in her classroom for years. This is Hank’s first year to help with animal-assisted therapy, and Rose Union Elementary has adopted incorporating morning circles in all classrooms this year as well, with team leads piloting social-emotional curriculum.

“Social-emotional learning improves [student] achievement by an average of 11 percent,” said Lounsbery of the research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) that first motivated her to prioritize teaching social and emotional skills in her classroom. “It increases social behaviors like kindness, empathy and sharing, improves students’ attitudes toward school and reduces their stress responses.”

Lounsbery adds when students get comfortable, they can take risks, and new skills or concepts aren’t often conquered without first a willingness to try.

While the concept of social-emotional learning is not new, and having a classroom therapy dog is icing on the proverbial cake, the pandemic has brought to light what many in the mental health and education industries have been shouting from the rooftops for years: children must first feel safe, secure and connected before they can successfully learn academia, and building social emotional skills endures beyond the classroom.

“If we can instill lifelong skills that create kinder, more empathetic people, that will take us so much farther than any academic skills,” said Sarah Kirk, school counselor specialist for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

What is social-emotional learning?

Social emotional learning (SEL) involves developing healthy identities, learning to manage emotions, goal setting, feeling and demonstrating empathy, developing relationships and responsible decision making, all imperative soft skills needed for human development and eventual success in the workforce.

“Empathy should be a subject in school, just like writing, math and science,” said Lounsbery.

A 20-year study in the American Journal of Public Health by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that kindergartners who are more inclined to share, cooperate and help are more likely to succeed in higher education and their careers. For every point higher the kindergarteners scored in social competence traits, they were 54 percent more likely to graduate high school, twice as likely to earn a college degree in early adulthood and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job by age 25.

When students feel they belong, that quantifiably increases their levels of hope, which has a direct impact on academic achievement, attendance and behavior, according to Beth Whittle,  executive director of counseling for OSDE.

Just as kids aren’t born knowing how to solve a word problem, they don’t inherently have social-emotional skills. When OSDE has received pushback on the value of SEL, with naysayers in favor of a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps methodology, Whittle is quick to explain it doesn’t work that way: “A kid can’t do that if they haven’t been taught skills to be resilient.”

Kirk adds for SEL to be truly effective, the practices must be embraced and employed by an entire school and encompass how all parties in the school talk to and treat one another.

“We’re not doing SEL if we’ve checked things off a list or read a story about feelings,” said Kirk. “To be effective, it has to be done with fidelity. Lots of schools say ‘we’ve done SEL’ but then a student gets in trouble and the principal isn’t talking to the child through an SEL trauma-informed lens.”

Social-emotional learning in action

When preparing for the 2020-2021 school year, Dr. Marsha Herron, chief of equity and student supports for Oklahoma City Public Schools, says a few powerful words by Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown have directed their efforts: We need to know every student by name and by need.

“Whether a child has a problem at home with their family or even if financial resources aren’t there, they lead to the same thing — insecurity,” said Herron. “Worrying about things can cause thoughts to manifest into unproductive academic decisions or problematic behaviors.”

Even for kids who aren’t experiencing instability, living through a pandemic has increased the need for SEL and relationship-building.

For elementary-age students, SEL in the classroom often looks like discussions about feelings, mental health checks or get-to-know-you games in a morning meeting. In Lounsbery’s second-grade classroom, she spends 30 minutes each morning focused on SEL. Some days the students play silly “would you rather” games and sometimes they go around the circle and rate how they are feeling on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 really low and 4 great. When Lounsbery wraps up circle time, she reminds students to celebrate with friends who shared exciting news and consider how to be a good friend to those who are hurting.

“This year there have been a lot of ones,” said Lounsbery. “It’s been heavy — things like parents splitting up, a grandpa dying. I teach my children to listen to those things and then I model validating their feelings, for the highs and the lows.”

Whittle says when a child has the opportunity to share their story, it helps that child understand their own experience a little more. For the child whose parents were getting a divorce, Lounsbery watched with admiration as another student approached her to share his similar experience.

Lounsbery also looks for organic opportunities to build SEL skills. If she notices a classmate being left out, she’ll read a book about friendships or have students circle up to share about a time they felt left out.

“I introduce vocabulary like inclusion and talk about what that looks like,” said Lounsbery. “Then I watch to find kids who are practicing it. Celebrating kids is equally important.”

For older kids, like Lounsbery’s children who are in middle and high school, SEL looks like celebrating a child for good character and teaching coping strategies for students who are feeling stressed, and then noting and encouraging when students could benefit from employing those strategies.

“In my role as a school counselor, I tried to help teachers understand that SEL doesn’t have to be another ‘thing,’” said Kirk, a finalist for the 2019 national school counselor of the year. “When it’s done at the highest level, it’s ingrained and implemented throughout everything. Whether you start the day with a morning meeting or journaling or implement brain or breathing breaks, it’s stronger when normalized in everything in the school.”

In discipline, SEL looks like a student in in-school suspension working with a counselor to process better behaviors that lead to better outcomes.

“We have to look at the language we use,” said Whittle. “Why not call [in-school suspension] in-school placement and give kids more tools and resources to help in their development, not feel even more disconnected?”

Giving students voice and choice in activities and assignments builds resiliency, hope and relationships and gives students ownership, particularly important when they have been through trauma or chronic stress, including living through a pandemic.

“We use tough situations to skill build and build replacement behaviors when something isn’t working,” said Kirk. “We’re creating more resilient people.”

Getting creative during the pandemic

As the pandemic has increased isolation, teachers have added SEL practices to virtual school, from relationship-building activities on Zoom to calm-down rooms in Google classrooms.

“The pandemic has created new challenges but one of the benefits has been that it is the perfect time to try outside-of-the-box activities and relationship builders,” said Kirk.

In a Zoom-based SEL lesson focused on predicting future consequences, the teacher private messages a scenario to a student who acts it out. Other students show thumbs up, down or sideways depending on whether they think the student handled the situation appropriately and then discussion ensues, shares Whittle.

Lounsbery never dreamed she’d bring her dog to work, but she’s been fully supported by her administration. When Lounsbery is teaching, Hank stays in his specified place, and then when prompted meanders the room while kids work.

“He just knows and finds the person who needs him,” said Lounsbery, amazed that Hank intuitively places his head on the reluctant reader struggling with an assignment or a child without a partner for a group project.

At recess, Hank is a bridge for kids who are loners or have a hard time inserting themselves in play, as they chat with other kids while petting Hank. By the end of the day, an exhausted Hank often snores through Lounsbery’s lessons, providing levity and giggles.

Not everything about pandemic life has been bad; in addition to having a class therapy dog, because of smaller class sizes on an A/B schedule for much of the year, Lounsbery says she’s able to spot problem areas for students and intervene more quickly, both with SEL and academics.

OKCPS staff created Routes to Resources to provide support and material goods directly to students’ neighborhoods and homes.

The pandemic inspired creativity for Herron and her team at OKCPS, too, who’ve had the added challenge of a mostly-virtual school year. They decided since students and families couldn’t come to them, they’d go out into the community.

The Routes for Resources program was born, with district buses transporting social workers, counselors, tech support teams to help with devices and connectivity issues, food, clothing, hygiene kits, undergarments, masks, coats and much more into their communities and to students’ homes. The team also made calls to families, identifying those without utilities, who’d been evicted or on the verge of either, then secured funding to help 159 families through one source and more than 230 families throughout the initiative.

Herron says while most people wouldn’t think family evictions were a school district problem when kids are experiencing instability or hunger or are without a warm coat, they can’t truly focus on learning. Routes to Resources became one example of many of the lengths she and her district will go to ensure students and families have the social, emotional and physical supports they need, especially during trying times.

Those supports extend to teachers and staff, too. OKCPS is working on a staff wellness plan because teachers who are unwell cannot be expected to spread wellness to students. Throughout the pandemic, even with the best-laid protocols, mask mandates and new ionization systems to clean the air in every school, security has been disrupted for everyone, teachers included.

“We can’t forget about our teachers in this process,” said Herron. “It can’t be lost on us that just because they are adults they don’t have fears. [We have] to model and provide [SEL] for our teachers, and then let them model it for our students.”

Compassion fatigue has never been more real, for teachers and for parents playing the role of teacher.

“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” said Kirk. “Self-care is important but so is collective care — asking for help when we need it and collaborating to meet those unique needs.”

The future

Hank listens to second graders read.

As OKCPS has returned to the classroom this spring on an A/B schedule, Herron and her team will focus on mental health. Herron hopes they can provide therapy scholarships for families on an application basis.

“COVID-19 dismantled the structure of so many homes in so many ways,” said Herron. “We need to provide access to therapy in our communities, not just student counseling because that doesn’t solve the problem if the root of the issue is not within the child but within the structure of the home.”

Reducing stigma around the need for mental health services is important to OSDE as well. Whittle says under Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister’s leadership, SEL and mental health support have been prioritized like never before, with newly created offices such as school-based mental health integration and school climate transformation.

In fact, OSDE is developing competencies for the state of Oklahoma in SEL. Information will be provided to teachers on how to seamlessly integrate the SEL competencies into lessons they are already teaching. The competencies are expected to be in place by June 2021.

“SEL is not just the counselor’s role but a systemic school climate and culture initiative,” said Whittle, who adds that implementing SEL practices, language and conflict resolution is just as important at home.

In that vein, OSDE is developing a complementary app that will be available to every teacher, student and parent in the state to help reinforce SEL concepts in the classroom and at home. The app is slated to be complete in 2022.

While SEL has gotten a boost, there’s been an underlying refrain that students are “behind” in academia, a narrative many teachers and OSDE staff declare vehemently is false.

“‘Our kids are behind’ is a standard created by society — it’s not real,” said Kirk. “Before COVID, if you were to walk into any classroom, you have a wide variety of levels and student learning styles. That’s what teachers are highly trained and ready to handle; we meet kids where they are and can make up for anything they lack, academic or social emotional.”

The challenge, though, is that even before COVID, teacher turnover in Oklahoma was what Kirk calls “atrocious,” with 20 percent of teachers leaving.

“Not so long ago we were out of school because of the teacher walkout because teachers are overworked and underpaid,” said Kirk. “We have to continue to put resources into our education system so when we come out of the COVID crisis teachers are prepared to handle student needs.”

When the pandemic does end and students and teachers transition back to a typical classroom experience, Kirk hopes lessons learned over the past year will create a new normal.

“I hope we don’t go back to normal because ‘normal’ in education was very large equity gaps, large systemic racism and overworked and underpaid teachers,” said Kirk. “I hope this reset allows us to bring back what was working and leave behind many systems that weren’t.” 

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