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SEL as Culture: Nashville Schools Go Beyond Strategy

Once considered an experimental approach by some, many educators and school leaders are now looking to social-emotional learning as a means to transform student behavior and success.

A recent report from the Aspen Institute found that learning is inextricably tied to students’ emotional and social development.

Not only are socially and emotionally-oriented instruction strategies beneficial to students–they are essential, the report’s authors say.

From coast to coast, major school districts are taking heed of this and other research, and looking for ways to not just include SEL lessons in their classrooms, but to tie SEL to everything teachers, staff, and school leaders do.

Take Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).

As Edutopia reports, in 2011 the district applied for and received a grant from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to help them turn around issues with student discipline and stress.

With a majority of students (70 percent) considered academically disadvantaged, nearly 20 percent English-language learners, and a large swath of students behind in reading proficiency, the district hoped that a holistic, SEL strategy would help turn things turnaround.

So far, it’s working.

According to Edutopia, expulsions in the district are down 64 percent, while suspensions are down 24 percent. Since 2012, the district’s graduation rate is up four percent.

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A clear definition

As Nashville’s director of social and emotional learning Kyla Krengel told Edutopia in a recent video interview, one of the biggest obstacles to implementing a full-scale SEL program is proving it’s value.

A key aspect of Krengel’s approach was creating a clear definition of SEL:

“We worked on our definition [of social-emotional learning] for the district. We say that social-emotional learning are the skills that students and adults have in order to be life-long learners. So, there’s self-awareness; there’s self-management; relationship skills; responsible decision-making; and social-awareness.”

A district-wide endeavor

It’s important to note in Krengel’s definition, social-emotional learning isn’t just a student concern. For SEL programs to be successful, adults also have to understand and embrace these skills, experts say.

MNPS works with every school in the district to provide training, professional development, and support, so that faculty and staff have the tools and knowledge to embark on their own SEL journeys.

Teachers use similar techniques–including Socratic discussion circles and mindful practices like breathing exercises–to take stock of their own social-emotional needs, which they can then apply to their classrooms.

“We’re using those very strategies that we’re asking teachers to go back to the classroom and use,” says Babs Freeman-Loftis, project manager for social-emotional learning at MNPS.

A culture shift

There’s no shortage of SEL-type strategies for MNPS teachers and administrators to use: restorative practices to turn misbehavior into learning opportunities; talking and sharing circles; group work; providing clear rules and expectations; safe and inclusive learning spaces that are mindful of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are just a few.

The key is that no single strategy, by itself, accounts for the breadth of social-emotional learning. Teachers and administrators in Nashville have come to understand that to really make SEL work, districts must commit to changing their culture.

As Todd Dickson, CEO of Valor Collegiate Academies, two charter middle schools in the district, tells Edutopia:

“[SEL] has really positive impacts on culture. It helps build the skills and mindsets that kids need–and also adults need–to be pushed with to be the best versions of themselves.”

As school districts across the country look to foster positive school climates and cultures, SEL may well play a critical role in that discovery.

For more, check out the full Edutopia video report:

What steps is your school or district taking to embrace social-emotional learning as a tool for positive change? Tell us in the comments.