How SEL inspired a transformation in my school


Don't miss this inspirational story of a schoolwide culture shift

When I accepted the position as principal at Langley Elementary in Washington, D.C., I had two objectives in mind: one, to empower teachers who truly care about supporting the whole child, and two, to inspire a schoolwide culture shift.

Langley Elementary has historically struggled with dropping student enrollment numbers, a rise in suspension rates, and an unimpressive student satisfaction rate—all factors linked to an incohesive school culture. A rise in charter schools in the area has resulted in a competition between public and private education, and the gentrification of area neighborhoods has tension at an all-time high. With behavioral challenges and no defined philosophy of how to interact with students, Langley Elementary didn’t feel safe.

There was a disconnect between teachers, students, and parents that was impeding on the learning process. My answer to this was to ingrain social-emotional learning (SEL) in every aspect of the curriculum.

Getting started
The main appeal of SEL is that it gets at the core of considering how we can instill the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that students need to understand and manage emotions, and how to use these skills to achieve positive goals.

Our school chose Conscious Discipline as our SEL program. Conscious Discipline is a research-backed, brain-based method of managing classrooms and building skills through SEL.

Prior to implementing, it was important to connect with teachers and introduce the concept and reasoning behind the idea. We had a trainer come in to work through strategies with teachers, and invested in a professional development program so that teachers felt both supported and familiar with Conscious Discipline before using it with students. The immediate feedback was positive, with many of our teachers bringing the things that they were learning home to use with their own children.

One of the key elements to a nurturing, successful classroom is having teachers who enjoy being there and feel that they are being supported. Since implementing the SEL program, educators at Langley Elementary have noted that the classroom environment has become nurturing, allowing optimal learning to happen.

Working through the process
Students immediately grasped the new concepts and strategies. Every morning, I wait for students to arrive and we do a greeting ritual, where each student gets to choose how they’d like to be greeted, with options such as a handshake or fist bump. This small interaction gives a positive start to the school day and is crucial to building relationships with each and every student.

Prior to implementing SEL, students were discouraged from talking in the cafeteria. Now we encourage students to have meaningful and positive discussions and invite staff to engage with students whenever possible.

Each student participates in a “brain start smart” at the beginning of the school day, where they are able to connect, prepare for the day, and get rid of any stress that they may have entered with. In addition, we hold “brain breaks” throughout the day—purposeful, activity-based lessons—to refresh and reengage the mind.

Recess has also seen a shift since incorporating SEL. We’ve enlisted an organization called Playworks to ensure that recess activities are positive, safe, and valuable to students. Part of our culture shift was to have a student-centered, safe environment and this strategy delivers on that promise.

A notable example of seeing SEL in action was observing a student who was struggling with a math exam. In the past, this student may have gotten upset and acted out physically; instead, he used a breathing exercise to calm himself and work through the rest of the exam.

Proof in the numbers
Today, one of DC Public Schools’ (DCPS) strategic priorities outlined in its five-year strategic plan, A Capital Commitment, is educating the whole child. That includes providing SEL to ensure all students are college and career ready. I know this system-wide focus on embedding SEL into DCPS’ culture and classrooms will pay off, because the changes seen after implementing SEL at Langley were drastic. Since implementation, our suspension rate has decreased from 65 percent to 23 percent, and our student satisfaction rate has skyrocketed from 70 percent to 86 percent.

Our kids enjoy that they are learning how to navigate difficult situations with peers, how to use their voice, and how to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Equally as important, teachers are enjoying how they are now being supported with new, positive strategies to interact with students. As a testament to the success of SEL, we’re currently over-enrolled by 110 percent, a positive signal that we’ve made the right decision.

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