Happy International SEL Day 2022!
Can you believe that it is 2022? I still find myself wondering what year it is, what we've accomplished, what's changed, and how many years ago I left my elementary teaching position to pursue my BIG DREAM.
It's been a wild ride the past few years, and I keep reminiscing over this ONE memory over and over in my mind. You see, a few years ago, when I first started my position at my former district office, I remember my Superintendent walking into the office with his USC gear. I can't remember if it was a hat, or a flag, but I definitely remember a brochure. He put the pamphlet on my desk, and asked if I was going to be attending his meeting that night...a meeting that truly changed my life and my vision for my future.
He was a professor at USC, still is, and was promoting their incredible doctoral program. And as he stood over me, grinning, I thought..."Is THIS what I'm supposed to do?....Is this what we DO here?...Are these my next steps?...Is this the game you have to play in order to get to be where you want to be?"
I'm sure my face was bright red...or completely flushed...but I remember looking at him and asked if we could go and talk about it more.
You guys, walking into your Superintendent's office for the first time is no joke. I was sweating, and all I kept thinking was, "I can't wait to tell all my teacher besties! They're never going to believe this!"
So we sat down, and I'll never forget this, he asked me..."So, what do you want to do?"
I mean, I thought that I HAD MADE IT already. I thought THIS was my dream job. I thought that I was working at THE district office, supporting ALL elementary, middle, and high schools, and that THIS was the dream. And in this moment, I realized, boy was I wrong. This wasn't it at all. Teachers just don't stop here. They go on. They go on to become coordinators, or principals, or directors.
But there was a problem with that....
I didn't want that. I never wanted THAT.
I wanted to work with the PEOPLE. I wanted to do what I had done in my school district, and I wanted to do it all over AGAIN, and AGAIN, and AGAIN.
I wanted to show OTHER districts just how incredible this could be. I wanted to support even MORE teachers...Teachers all over the state, the country...hell, all over the WORLD.
And what did he say when I told him this????
Now THIS part I'll never forget...He looked at me and said, "Well, you can go and take your show on the road!"
Wait...What? Did that really just happen? Did he understand what I was DOING in HIS school district? Did he understand what I was doing FOR his school district? Did he truly understand the IMPACT that I was creating? The longevity? The sustainability?
And it was in that moment that I realized that change...true change...starts from educating the people at the TOP. I already knew that I could teach the teachers. I already knew that I could reach the principals and educate them. But it was truly eye opening to realize that the very people who had hired me to do this EXTREMELY important work were the ones that I was going to have to educate over, and over, and over again. Because I wasn't a band-aid. I wasn't running from classroom to classroom putting out fires. I was creating systematic change, systematic support, and a systematic district-wide TRANSFORMATION.
So how do you start to create this transformation?
Well, it starts in your classroom. It starts with ONE; One teacher, one Speech Pathologist, one Learning Environment Specialist, one incredibly special educator who knows that there is work to do. But this work gets to be easy. AND you get to not only support your students, you get to support youSELf too. Social Emotional Learning gets to be easy. And after working with teachers, district leaders, and education specialists around the world, I've realized that they all have 5 common SEL systems that are absolute non-negotiables when it comes to experiencing this classroom transformation. I'll break them all down for you below:
Becoming Self-Aware through Morning Greetings
Forming connections through Morning Meetings
Being Mindful, not MindFULL
Creating a Classroom Calm Space
Daily Feelings Check-Ins and Reflections
Teacher-student interactions are at the heart of every classroom. Greetings let your students know that you care about them not only as students but as people too. They're also a great way to check in with your students as they enter the classroom. Are they smiling? Do they seem distracted? Taking the time to greet your students gives you a chance to notice things like this and the ability to adjust to their emotional needs.
Leaving behind the events of the morning, or yesterday, and allowing the students to have a fresh start each day lets you to cultivate hope and optimism in your classroom. This allows your students to have open minds, and a willingness to try new and challenging tasks. When you build a relationship with your students, they won't let a bad moment they had yesterday (or in an earlier class) affect how they're learning in the here and now.
But how do THEY want to be greeted? This is huge! Because some of our students aren't aware. Some of our students are completely lacking these skills. Some of our students don't know what they need in the moment. So TEACHING them about this is crucial.
Some days I'm in a dancing mood. I wake up, take a shower, and I'm blasting Taylor Swift in the bathroom as I get ready and do my hair. But there are other days when I'm dragging myself out of bed. Sometimes all I need is a hug from my husband, my son, or a friend. Sometimes I'm lonely. And some days I have SO much energy in my body that I need to do something to "shake it off"...cue T-Swift again!
So what's the best way to do this? Check out my tips below:
Put up images of greeting options
Be at your students' level: Make eye contact with each student and lower your body to be at their level
Pause and connect: Take time to ask them a question about their morning or compliment them on a new haircut
Check in: Be sure to say their name and ask them how they're feeling
Morning Meetings reinforce social emotional learning concepts. They take place at the start of the school day where students and teacher sit in a circle. The circle can be on top of desks, in chairs, or on the floor. It is important that all students are able to make eye contact with everyone around them. These quick, 20-minute sessions strengthen teacher-student connection, reduce bullying, absences, and behavior incidents, as well as improve school culture.
There are four basic components to morning meetings:
Greetings where teachers and students welcome each other
Time for engaged sharing where students and teachers share about something in their lives, and students are able to listen and ask follow-up questions
Activities that promote teamwork and give additional time to practice social-emotional skills
A morning message that explains the day's learning objectives
Morning Meetings not only strengthen connections and relationships skills, but they also increase self-confidence, promote social awareness, and encourage positive behavior towards others.
From time to time, our favorite little people can find themselves up against big emotions. Whether it’s an argument with a friend or putting an end to a preferred activity or task, frustration and anger can bubble to the surface, and chances are it won’t be at the time or place of your choosing.
And while these situations might be unpleasant for you as a teacher, imagine how difficult it is for someone who doesn’t know how to handle them. When tempers begin to flare, breathing exercises are one of the most effective calming strategies for kids who are dealing with difficult emotions.
When it comes to deep breathing exercises for kids, the key is to make these exercises fun and easy to remember when things feel topsy-turvy. Remember that when you introduce these mindful breathing exercises to your students, be sure to do so outside of an emotionally charged situation.
Here are some tips for being consistent and effective all day:
Practice deep breathing before and/or after transitions
Have students get comfortable. They can sit on the carpet or at their seats, on top of the tables, or in a space around the classroom
Add choice and voice: Have a student of the day choose what types of mindful moments they want throughout the day
Peer leaders: Have students model for their peers at the front of the room
Sometimes our students just need some time to check in on their emotions, choose strategies that will support them, regroup, and then come back and join the class.
Allowing them this time for themselves alleviates the stress of trying to continue to stay in their racing thoughts or big emotions and gives them time to regulate themselves so that they can continue to co-regulate with the people around them. With less disruptions and big outbursts, a calm space is the perfect tool for some students.
A calm space does not have to be in a corner in your classroom. It can be up against a wall, or any spot that you can fill with tools and strategies that your students might need. A bucket or basket of fidgets, a journal or paper to draw, kinetic sand, pictures of puppies and calming images, blocks, a lava drip, stress balls, slime, anything and everything you think that would benefit your group.
It's important to teach your students that everything inside the calm space is a TOOL not a TOY. It is imperative that they understand HOW to use each of these tools, how to set the timer, and how to leave them space when they are finished.
Virtual calm spaces can also be used. Videos on an iPad, relaxing music with headphones, and an interactive Feelings Journal can all be used to help support kids when they need to take some time.
My tips for making it WORK:
Create a small space WITH your students: Have them name it, create a list of tools, and decide as a group what the expected behaviors will be in the space
Fill it with tools...not toys
Show them what it looks like, and sounds like, to use each tool
Add two sand timers, and put velcro on the bottom so that they can flip it over and stick it on another piece of velcro to create that "one and done" sensation
We want to teach our students how to build awareness of their feelings and utilize a variety of tools and strategies for regulation, prosocial skills, self-care, and overall wellness. This includes exploring tools and strategies for mindfulness, sensory integration, movement, thinking strategies, wellness, and healthy connection with peers and adults.
We also want to provide a common language and a compassionate framework to support positive mental health and skill development for all our students, while serving as an inclusion strategy for neurodiverse learners, those who have experienced trauma, and/or have specific needs in terms of social, emotional, and behavioral development.
Our goal is to help move students towards more independent regulation, get them to think about their future selves, allow them to reflect on the strategies and tools that they choose in the moment, and make a plan for the following day.
Here are my tips for effective Check-Ins:
Create a toolbox of strategies with your students
Have students identify how they are feeling (Use the Zones of Regulation or the Mood Meter if you're familiar with them)
Have students choose strategies and tools that they might use throughout the day
Have students reflect at the end of the day: What happened during the day? What tools did they end up using? Did they support them in the way they had hoped? What might they add to/take away from/change up their toolbox for the following day?