For Jackie Henderson, social-emotional learning is more than just a box to be checked. As the school social worker at Marie L. Greenwood Early–8, it’s something that she and her Whole Child team have worked on for years. When the pandemic hit last spring and schools moved online, experts like Ms. Henderson knew the work would need to pivot, and fast.
And she was right. In April of last year, the Colorado Education Initiative and Colorado Department of Education conducted a “Colorado School District Needs Inventory” and found that student emotional support was listed as the number one priority for six out of the eight regions surveyed.
This and other data helped inform the need for daily social-emotional learning for all students at DPS during periods of remote learning.
For Ms. Henderson and the team at Marie L. Greenwood, the opportunity to infuse social-emotional learning into daily remote learning schedules was a welcomed opportunity. With support from principal Blake Hammond, the Whole Child team took a multi-level approach to offer remote social-emotional learning to all students at Marie L. Greenwood; from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Engaging with Elementary Students
To engage with younger students in grades kindergarten through fifth, the Whole Child team (which consists of a full-time school social worker, school counselor and school psychologist) knew they needed to take a personalized approach. This began by virtually visiting every elementary classroom to introduce themselves, explain what they do and how the students could reach them if they needed to talk.
“We also talked about different feelings using an ‘Inside Out’ video clip. We wanted the kids to know that it was normal to be feeling a lot of different feelings. Some might be comfortable and others might be uncomfortable feelings,” Ms. Henderson explained.
The team then dove into explaining and practicing different coping strategies that the younger students could use every day. Strategies included:
- Demonstrating deep breathing using the concept of smelling a nice flower and then blowing out birthday candles.
- The power of counting to 10.
- The importance of reading, getting exercise, listening to music and engaging in healthy habits.
- Explaining how the Safe2Tell phone numbers work and how to use them.
Finally, the Whole Child team ended with a mask show-and-tell. This way, when the students returned to the building, they would remember that it was Ms. Pistone smiling behind her cheetah print mask, Ms. Henderson behind a colorful elephant mask and Mrs. Kellogg with a colorful flower mask.
Meeting Middle Schoolers Where They Are
To support their middle school students, the Whole Child team started by partnering with an educator in each grade (6-8) to hold a daily Character Education class.
Ms. Henderson then created a survey to ask the middle school students what THEY wanted to talk about. “We knew that we needed students to buy-in if this was going to really work,” she explained. “The results of the survey are what guided our lessons. We covered topics such as stress, anxiety, depression, healthy coping skills, how to create a schedule, empathy, growth mindset and more.”
In addition to the Character Education class, students filled out a daily check-in form to rate how they were feeling, how they slept, how they were eating, what they were grateful for, and any additional feelings and thoughts they wanted to share. The Whole Child team then reviewed these check-in forms daily and followed up with any students who requested additional support.
Starting the Day with Morning Meetings
In addition to specialized support for elementary and middle school students, every class – from kindergarten through eighth grade – starts the day off with a morning meeting. This allows teachers and students to connect with each other before they dive into academics. Teachers are able to get a “temperature check” on the students and see who might need a little extra support that day.
Morning meetings also include reviewing the class’s social contract. This is an agreement based on behavior that students in each class create with their teacher. The contract is agreed upon at the beginning of the year and then reviewed daily.
The morning meetings don’t end there. “My personal favorite part of the morning meeting is ‘Lion Love,’ which is where students and teachers give affirmations to one another,” said Ms. Henderson. “It is so powerful to see how students light up when they hear a peer or teacher give them Lion Love! I also believe that students giving affirmation is a great social skill and we allow them to practice it every day!”
Maintaining Support Through In-Person and Remote Learning
At the start of the spring semester, schools began the process of gradually returning to in-person learning. Amidst this transition, students at Marie L. Greenwood continue to receive daily social-emotional support through their morning meetings, regardless if they are learning in-person or remotely.
As they returned to the building, the Whole Child team took the opportunity to ensure their team members felt supported as well.
“We know this has been a year full of challenges and changes, and the fear of COVID is still very real,” Ms. Henderson said. “The school counselor and I led a self-care staff meeting where we talked about the importance of the teachers and staff taking care of themselves so they can be the best for our students.”
During the staff meeting, the Whole Child team introduced ideas on how to practice self-care in the classroom. They reviewed breathing exercises and had the staff listen to a progressive muscle relaxation video, explaining how to share the techniques with their younger students. They even shared self-care calendars that classes could do together throughout the month.
The feedback from the meeting was immediate.
A teacher shared her gratitude with Ms. Henderson, writing, “Thank you all for the presentation on self-care yesterday. It came at a time I needed it most! I also took ideas from yesterday to use with my kids today…You could SEE the tension release from their little bodies. They were giggling and smiling, some of them even shed some happy tears (me included)!”
Another teacher has taken the resources and assigned a daily self-care activity as homework for her students.
Overall, Ms. Henderson is positive about the transition back to in-person learning. “I have been very impressed to see how the kids – especially middle school – are adjusting to being back in-person after being gone for so long. They all seem very happy to be back and to see their friends. The teachers and staff are really enjoying just connecting with our kids in person again and meeting them where they are at.”
The Effects of Daily Social-Emotional Learning
As the Whole Child team continues to implement social-emotional learning throughout the school, positive changes are apparent.
“I see students sharing Lion Love affirmations with each other in class more. I also see our middle school students communicate with teachers and staff more often and are able to let them know when they are struggling,” Ms. Henderson reflected. “I noticed a big change with our middle schoolers in particular. They are able to identify how they are feeling and communicate it to teachers,” she added.
And the students have chimed in too.
“Even though talking about feelings can be hard, I am glad we still learn about them because it is important we take care of ourselves and our friends,” said seventh-grader Jonathan Grey.
“Social-emotional learning is important because it gives you many ways to help you with stress, coping skills, anxiety, and etc. I know that Coach K [Recreational Specialist, Katherine Ortosky] and Ms. Henderson helped me and other kids to learn many ways to deal with what we are feeling,” said eighth-grader Alessandra Alonso-Martinez.
“Social-emotional learning is important,” said sixth-grader Presley Vigil-Stein. “I say this because getting to know how you feel and what to do in those feelings is great, especially if you’re panicking about something. At the beginning of sixth grade, I was anxious about how school was going to be and if I wasn’t prepared for it. But with SEL, I was able to cope and help with that anxiety.
“I really like morning meetings. Lion Love lets you give love to your friends, family, or anyone.” added first-grader Mayar.
8th grader, Shaila Duran Cruz, summed it up by speaking about how SEL affected her own experiences and feelings throughout the past year,
“In my opinion, I think Social Emotional Learning is an important topic to teach at schools today. SEL was able to help me calm my nerves and help me have a better understanding of the emotions I feel. When COVID-19 first hit I remember being happy that I was able to watch a lot of movies without any school work. Starting school virtually felt emotionally exhausting since it really was just seeing a screen without much human interaction. I didn’t really reach out to people since it felt pointless as a result of most conversations being boring or I was just busy. Most school days felt boring and basically the same, but with SEL I was able to explore and experience new methods to keep myself up during virtual learning. Also, many teachers were able to relate with us in many ways we wouldn’t have known of, SEL basically opened a better opportunity to communicate. To sum up, SEL was an important topic that was brought up.”
For Ms. Henderson, receiving this feedback from students is the absolute affirmation.
As the year continues, the Whole Child team at Marie L. Greenwood remains dedicated to incorporating social-emotional learning opportunities throughout the school. One of their newest additions is a middle school Gay-Straight Alliance club that meets once a week.
To learn more about Marie L. Greenwood, visit greenwood.dpsk12.org.