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Episode 31: SEL Integration—A Whole-School Approach

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Hello and welcome to this month's episode of DOE Digest. I'm thrilled to be able to share the amazing conversations that I had with educators who lead integration of social emotional learning in their districts and schools. As you listen, think about how you can be integrating social emotional learning into your classrooms, and schools, and districts, as you enter this upcoming school year. At the department of education here in New Jersey, we believe that social emotional learning are integral parts of the school day and of every subject area.

We start out by talking with district leaders about the ways that they're approaching integration of SEL in their schools. and then we do a little bit of a roundtable, which is a case study on SEL integration into the arts education classroom.

I hope that you find this information valuable and that you're able to apply it into your classroom school and or district .

Interview 1

Robin: Hi. I'm Robin Invanisik. I'm a Culture and Climate Specialist in the Hamilton Township School District in Mercer County.

Gayle: Hi. I'm Gayle Colucci. I'm from the Cranford School District. I am the District Coordinator of Culture and Climate. And we are located in Union County.

Jackie: Good morning. My name is Jackie Citro. I am the District Assistant Principal in Milltown in Middlesex County.

Ken: Okay. So the first question I wanted to ask is, in your own words, what is SEL and how do you think about integrating it into the fabric of the school? And why don't we start with Gayle for this one?

Gayle: So when I think about social emotional learning, I think about it as a process. And when I say that, it's a process that educators provide for students with two tools that they need to be successful, as well as to become the best version of themselves.

So I think of SEL, I think that SEL allows students to be aware of their feelings, aware of their emotions. It encourages students to understand how important it is to show empathy to each other. And students, through SEL, set attainable goals. These goals help them to make good decisions, decisions that they're comfortable with, all while having respect for themselves and others.

And one of the most important things that I think SEL does is that it just truly teaches children to be kind. And being kind in their everyday world will lead to success for themselves: academically, emotionally, socially, and when they become adults.

Jackie: This is Jackie. To me, SEL is the basis for every decision that you make in school, you know, for the success of children. I've heard it referred to as the plate on which everything else is served. When you think about the core competencies that Gayle was kind of referring to, they're very big, abstract ideas. Things like, you know, self-awareness, social awareness, self-management. Like, you know, what does that mean? So to me, those are the things that you have to integrate into the fabric of school. You have to really, like, simplify them for kids and make them concrete.

Robin: Hi. This is Robin. So social-emotional learning is the foundation to student achievement. And it provides students with opportunities to inquire, collaborate, and take risks within their learning. It also supports educators because it allows them to build relationships with their students, and understand the challenges that they may face in school and at home. And it also gives educators meaningful strategies to address the whole child. It also provides students with an environment that accepts them regardless of the choices that they may make throughout the day, and provides a restorative approach to learning.

Ken: That's awesome. What can educators do regardless of their role to integrate SEL into their environment? And why don't we start with Jackie on this one?

Jackie: So, I think one of the things we need to do as educators is to always be thinking about what it is we're asking our students to do and understand. So, you know, oftentimes you'll hear "that's not appropriate" or, you know, "what does it mean to have respectful behavior?" And, you know, like I said in a previous answer, "what does that mean?" Right? What does that mean concretely? Because what's appropriate in one situation, might not be appropriate in another situation. So we have to have that constant—constantly be thinking about what is it we're, you know, asking kids to do.

Ken: That's awesome. What can educators do regardless of their role to integrate SEL into their environment? And why don't we start with Jackie on this one?

Jackie: So, I think one of the things we need to do as educators is to always be thinking about what it is we're asking our students to do and understand. So, you know, oftentimes you'll hear "that's not appropriate" or, you know, "what does it mean to have respectful behavior?" And, you know, like I said in a previous answer, "what does that mean?" Right? What does that mean concretely? Because what's appropriate in one situation, might not be appropriate in another situation. So we have to have that constant—constantly be thinking about what is it we're, you know, asking kids to do.

I also feel very strongly that to integrate it into students' environment, we need to really think about all the adults of the school, everybody.  Anybody a child comes into contact with, from the time they walk in the door to the time they leave—your bus drivers, office staff, lunch aids, child study team—everybody has an influence on that child. So everybody needs to know and be, you know, able to act on what is social emotional learning. And how can I help these children be more self-aware, and regulate their emotions, and make responsible decisions? 

To me, like, the number one thing is the relationship building, you know. Like, you got to have that relationship. Every child has to have at least one trusted adult in school, somebody they can go to for good and for bad. Right? If there's a problem. If they're being bullied. If they need somebody.

And that that's one of the things actually that I learned to do from one of the conferences I went to, was we survey every kid, every year. You know, if you have a problem at school, who are you going to go to? And then we look at those children who say nobody, or you know, "I would tell my mom" or whatever. And then we focus in on those children and we make sure we assign an adult buddy to them to really check in with them, because without…if they don't have that positive relationship, first of all they're not going to want to come to school, and then when they do come to school if there's trouble they're not going to know what to do.

Robin: Hi. This is Robin. So I think a positive school climate is necessary for successful social emotional learning integration. And this kind of includes the relationships of students to students, students to teachers, teachers to administrators, and teachers to families. Educators need to provide students and their families with knowledge and resources that can allow them to be aware of their emotions and how to regulate them. Social interactions also play an integral part of integrating social and emotional learning into the school day. These skills are needed to be modeled by faculty and the opportunities for practice and reflection are needed to support SEL.

Gayle: Hi. This is Gayle. I definitely agree with both Robin and Jackie about how SEL should be integrated from the moment we step foot in the door. And I think that all teachers, all paraprofessionals, all office staff, everyone, needs to have an understanding of what SEL is so that they can provide these elements through their--just through their actions to our students on a daily basis. So students need to feel welcomed. They need to feel accepted. They need to feel included in all daily practices. Such a simple thing is a greeting at the door. Making eye contact. Asking them how their day is or how they felt when they woke up this morning. It's all about making those connections.

Ken: Highlighting the fact that all staff need to be involved in this and it really needs to be a group effort is so important. And I think those are some great, individual, hands-on ways that folks can engage with students around SEL.

For this next one, I really want to think about what folks can do kind of systematically, throughout a district. Thinking about the instability that many students have faced recently, how can SEL help make schools places of healing-centered care for the whole community, both students and teachers?

Robin: This is Robin. I think we need to provide students with a learning environment that welcomes their individuality, their creativity, their perseverance. And when educators get to know their students, they're able to create an individualized approach to learning. Utilizing restorative practices for student achievement also encourages students to take responsibility for their learning and help students understand that working collaboratively with others fosters the environment in which all students can succeed.

Jackie: Okay. This is Jackie.

So yeah. Thinking about what we've all faced recently, I think the first thing we all need to recognize is that New Jersey, the country, the work, just like…we went through and are still going through what I like to think of—not like to thing of—but think of as a collective trauma event. Right? It's been a traumatic event that has affected every person. You know. Every walk of life. Every socio-economic class. Every race. Every religion. We've all been affected by what we've gone through this past year. You know. On the most basic level.

So how can we make schools a healing-centered place? Obviously one of the biggest ones is provide more psychologists, social workers, counselors. Students that, you know, might think are, you know, should be so well-adjusted and not, you know, suffer from anxiety or anything, it's going to come out in September when we come back. We came back for a while in May and, you know, behaviors that you might not have expected were seen.

I think another thing we really need to remember is to make sure our teachers and the adults—all the adults in the school—are taking care of themselves. If the adults in the school aren't taking care of themselves, then it's gonna be very difficult to help our children when they do come back. And, you know, in Milltown we placed a big emphasis on that in the past like year and a half. And I think that's going to be important to keep considering so that we can, you know, keep moving kids forward and, you know, and what we've all gone through.

Gayle: So…hi, this is Gayle. I do agree with everything that has been said. So one of the things that we, as a district are, looking into…we are going to get trained in what we call grief-informed schools? Again, it's not just…yes, we have had a lot of loss in Cranford, as all of us did. But it's also to help our students navigate. So we're having our administrators trained. Our staff trained. And then we're focusing in on our transition years, especially the sixth graders and ninth grader. And we're bringing in some experts.

And then we're also doing a lot of SEL work, just from the beginning. Right? When our teachers start on September 1, we're taking those two days to do a lot of reflection and giving tips and strategies on how we can move forward to help our students heal, and to help our staff heal, and to help our community heal.

It's so important to find out exactly what happened for a child without going into confidentiality. So we're going to be sending out surveys and inventories just to get a pulse of what each child is going through and how we can then best attack that from an educator's point of view, from a counseling point of view.

We also are hiring more counseling staff and we've actually also increased our child study teams. We're tripling them this year as well.

[end of interview]

Transition to Next Interview

Ken: As we think about the day-to-day integration of SEL or social emotional learning, it needs to go beyond those special programs or the special rooms that are SEL specific and carved out just for SEL. This next section of the podcast is a bit of a case study where we look at arts education and the ways that educators are conceptualizing integration of SEL. It's inspiring to think about the ways that they're using the core of arts education, their core standards ,and on top of those standards putting those core competencies from SEL and integrating them throughout as they consider how to build out their daily lessons and engage students day-to-day.

I hope that you enjoy this interview and you're able to glean some insights about your subject area and the ways that you can have an orientation towards social and emotional learning in whatever area you teach or administrate.

Roundtable Discussion

Latasha: My name is Latasha Casterlow-Lalla and I'm the Supervisor of the Visual and Performing Arts and Gifted and Talented Education for the Passaic Public Schools.

Margie: I'm Margie Thomas and I am the General Elementary Music Teacher. And I teach Beginning Strings and Chorus at Campbell Elementary in Metuchen, New Jersey. And we are in Middlesex County.

Kerri: I'm Kerri Sullivan. I'm the District Supervisor for the Arts for Bridgeton Public Schools located in Cumberland County.

Ken: So, for question one. Why do you think SEL integration is important in the arts? And we'll start with Latasha and then everybody else can just pitch in.

Latasha: Sure. So when we're thinking about social emotional learning, and we're thinking about our students, the core of that is getting to know who you're servicing. And so SEL allows us to have our students share the parts of them that we can't just see from the external, and it helps us connect to what students value the most, what they enjoy, what helps them move and grow and motivate them. And having SEL in the arts is very natural because it connects to our expressiveness and our ability to connect our life experience with the artistic forms of expression.

Margie: This is Margie Thomas.  I think there's so many parts to it, and that SEL integration is important in everything. I think the arts are very interesting disciplines, because they're inherently emotional and they're also inherently judgmental. So it's easy for anybody, whether you are an artist or in the audience, to say "I like this," and "I don't like that." But one of the things that SEL teaches is to look at the person's perspective. So to look at the artist's perspectives to see where they're coming from and how they evolved to a certain point. And I think that that enhances, as a viewer as an audience, our—I'll use appreciation—but appreciation for the art.

And then, I think also in school, I feel like our students are…their immediate is always…their feedback is always immediate. And it can be hard to accept what could sound like criticism. So, with SEL, we get to kind of help students understand that we're really trying just to help them be more successful at their craft. And it's not like a direct..some students, I think, feel attacked. So it helps them to kind of understand where they're coming from and maybe assess their abilities a little easier.

Kerri: This is Kerri Sullivan. I think SEL and the arts are naturally integrated, right? You can't really separate them. I think when you create and connect in the arts you're putting something of yourself into the work, and that can't happen without some level of self-awareness. Creating and performing and producing are iterative processes that require passion and intrinsic motivation, perseverance, commitment to a purpose, and even collaboration. I think it also requires social awareness and responsible decision making since an artist has to think about their audience and how their work might be received. Right? Responding in the arts is about embracing multiple perspectives and being willing to approach things from a different angle.

So the arts and SEL are naturally intertwined. I think what's important is for curriculum and teachers to be thoughtful about isolating individual competencies and practices in order to really develop them. So an arts teacher is going to impact a student's social emotional development either positively or negatively, whether they intend to or not. So it's important that teachers are aware of that connection between SEL and the arts and that they're intentionally working to ensure that that impact is positive.

Ken: Excellent. A lot of educators who are coming in and thinking about the content that they need to teach in their classroom or through their curriculum, and then integrating SEL and the different core competencies within the CASEL framework.

So, as you think about that, how do you balance your arts standards and the SEL core competencies in your classrooms? And why don't we have Kerri start off with this one.

Kerri: Sure. So I think for me, the key is authenticity. Right? There's so many natural connections between the arts and SEL. So you have to find those authentic connections that will help your students in any given moment, and bring them...bring those standards and competencies to the forefront. Right? You have to be responsive to the students who are in front of you and what their social emotional needs are in this moment. So thinking about how your lessons can be adjusted to nurture the students and support their social emotional development. I think that's at the classroom scale. Right?

At a larger scale, it's about connecting the student learning standards in the arts with specific SEL competencies, again in an authentic way. And I think this can be done in the curriculum so that teachers have a guide. So when I'm devising curriculum, I start with the art standards. And once the standards for a particular unit have been identified, I look for those authentic SEL connections. And when the art standards and the SEL competencies are established for a unit, I then can begin to design learning experiences that really blend both of those, while still being mindful of the students' cultural context and what will be relevant to them.

Ken: That's great hearing about that way…the way that you really crosswalk that and think about how to build that in.

Kerri: I think it's both directions, right? From that lesson perspective as well as the curriculum. You have to hit it, kind of, from both angles.

Margie: Yes, so I agree, I think [laughing], with Kerri on that. I think that the art standards have to come first. And so we have to take into consideration our curriculum and the standards, and then, depending...I work with little students [laughing]. I have elementary school kids. So depending on the activity and the age, then you can kind of choose the competency that could go with your activity. We spend a lot of time in elementary school in the self-awareness and the self-management competency. [laughing] You know. We're trying to get them to figure out what's going on around them, and with, you know, in their own space and to try to manage themselves.

But if they're...if it's an activity that requires pairs or groups, and maybe I would think about using a social awareness or responsible decision making and relationship skills. Although, responsible decision making, I think, could go anywhere. So, I mean,  I could take one like practicing. Right? I want them to practice, especially  my beginning strings. And, you know, knowing that they should practice that might be responsible decision making. You know? Trying to set up a practice schedule with them or have them do it, or knowing what and when and how to practice. That might be their self-management.

But they also need to know that they're going to affect a larger group. They're part of an ensemble. So the relationship skills or social awareness might come into play there. So kind of depending on where your lesson fits in [laughing] with other people, other students, other classes, or just with the one student, again, knowing where they're coming from. Just start with that activity and the curriculum, and then you build the competencies from there.

Latasha: Hi Ken. It's Latasha. When I think about this—I mean, the ladies have spoken so wonderfully to this piece—I think about this question…I think about vision. And I think about "what do you want your students to walk away with?" And I think about the importance of us having art makers and art appreciators. And in order for them to do so, the competencies come right into it. Because, as Margie said, it really does speak to when you need a specific activity for a specific task.

And so for…we really look at self-awareness, starting when they're in those K, 1, 2 pieces. But we also try to evolve that conversation with our students as they get older. And looking at self-awareness from a cultural context, from a social context also. Form what we're trying to do and how we're trying to create the artistic expression that we're working on. And that requires you to be aware socially. It requires you to think about, "well, how am I going to be able to manage what I'm doing? And how does that impact those around me?" That goes into responsible decision making and relationship skills.

So what we try to do is kind of build it into all of our lessons as a reminder, not just of what's good to as artists, but as a good people. So that's about the vision that we want you to be both in the role of maker and appreciator, and knowing that you can very easily switch in and out, and do it in a way that's responsible and helps to create an environment that is maximized for learning and growth.

Ken: What is one piece of advice or insight from someone else that has helped you integrate SEL into arts education? So just thinking about the experiences that you've had engaging with folks around SEL, what's one piece of advice that you've heard from them that's helped you? And why don't we start with Margie on this one?

Margie: Sure. It can be very overwhelming to start. I think, for me, was when I, like, I'm going to intentionally place SEL in my lessons. And I think one of the best pieces of advice I got is to just start where I feel comfortable. So start where you're comfortable. You don't have to...You don't need to make a big lesson out of it. Like, " I'm going to teach SEL now."  You just start at your comfort level. And your comfort level is going to be with your lessons, your units, those activities that you are very, very, very ,comfortable with. That you can teach in your sleep, you know? And maybe you just want to switch it up. so SEL might be that way, but it can be very simple. The little terms and the questions that you use. Just infusing, maybe swapping out your vocabulary or the language that you use for an SEL vocabulary. I think that that helps and doesn't have to be on a grand scale to start out with. Once you get comfortable doing it in a small way, you will want to. And  you'll feel your way through and how to add it a little bit more and more into different areas of your teaching.

Latasha: This is Latasha. I think when I...the best thing that I've learned in conversations—from SEL folks and experts and just sharing the knowledge—is to start small. It's to simply start small. And it's small check-ins. It's those two to four-minute check-ins, just finding out where your students are. Seeing what's going on with them. Just doing that check-in and creating that space for a more personal relationship where there's a connection or…some type of…just a check-in, I think, is the most important thing. Because, I think, people feel they have to throw everything out of the door and stop instruction to do it.

And it's: 1. Empowering our teachers so that they can be the champions for their students. Because if our teachers aren't feeling safe and secure, if they're feeling uncertain, that's going to translate to the classroom environment. And climate and culture is the most important piece. So utilizing that either in the beginning, in the middle, or towards the end of that lesson just to see where students are in a number of ways—with technology, in person, on paper— is really critical and  really helpful in the process. Because those moments create more opportunities for learning.

Kerri: This is Kerri. And building off of what Margie and Latasha just shared, I think one of  the best pieces of advice I got... right? One thing that was really an insight that really helped me—well, there's two, but I think the first one, building off wat they were saying—is that teachers are already doing this work. It's not a fad. It's nothing new. Right? The integration of arts and social-emotional learning is something that arts teachers have been doing exceptionally well, for the most part, for decades. And I think the key now to be really intentional about that. Most of the things that you've always done. It's just a matter of increasing your awareness about the connections between arts and SEL so that you can ensure that your impact is positive.

I think the other thing that someone said that that really resonated with me and kind of helped frame my thinking around arts and SEL is the importance and the kind of that…the natural connection between culturally relevant practices. And I think we have to realize that SEL is embedded into everything we need to do.

So again, it's about being intentional about it. And the same is true for culture. Right? We can't have these conversations without really thinking about our actual students and everything that they're bringing into the classroom, and everything that they're brining to the learning experience. And I think if we're not considering culture in this context and embracing it and elevating it, then we're ally missing a critical component and we're not being authentic.

[end of interview]


Ken: I'd like to thank you for listening to today's episode. And I'd also like to thank our guests, as well as the Office of Student Support Services for helping with pre-production on this episode. And Elizabeth Thomas, as always, who transcribes this podcast to make it accessible for all. Please join us for our third Tuesday Twitter chat at 8 30 pm at the #NJEdPartners on August 17, 2021 and we will be talking about this subject.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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