New Jersey Department of Education

  • COVID-19 Information
COVID-19 is still active. Stay up to date on vaccine information. Visit:
COVID19 Alert NJDownload free COVID Alert app.

Episode 39: SEL and School Climate—Joy and Community

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


Ken: Hi. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Dr. Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform where we highlight resources the Department has to offer, as well as 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 students across New Jersey. Thank you so much for joining us.

As you may have noticed, we have a new theme song and we're also introducing a new format in this episode. Starting with this episode, we're going to begin each episode with a conversation between myself and a Department staff member about the work being done by the Department and the resources that we offer around whatever topic that we're covering.

In this episode, we're going to be discussing SEL {social and emotional learning} and school climate. I'm going to start my conversation off with Kathy Ehling, an Assistant Commissioner here at the Department. And then we're going to follow that up with an amazing conversation about school climate and culture with the Learning Community Charter School, as well as how to build SEL into a school district from the ground up, starting with preschool and looking all the way through high school with Ocean City School District.

Enjoy my conversation with Assistant Commissioner Ehling and let us know what you think of this refreshed format. Also, don't forget to join us for our third Tuesday #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat at 8:30 pm on March 15, 2022. Put it on your calendars and I'll see you there.

Kathy Ehling, Assistant Commission at New Jersey Department of Education

Ken: Hi Kathy. So excited to talk with you today about the resources that your Division's offering around SEL and school climate. Thanks so much for being with me.

Kathy: Thank you so much Ken. I'm extremely excited to be here. It's fun. I can be honest and tell you this is my first ever podcast. But I'm thrilled that it's on such an important topic. So thank you.

Ken: That's awesome. Well, in in our pre-interview, you had talked about how people talk about our radio voice. So, I'm excited for you to be able to use it here with us today for the first time. You know, we've known each other for a long time. Could you just introduce yourself and talk about your history with the Department?

Kathy: Sure. Yes. Thank you. So I started with the Department almost 18 years ago, which is amazing to me time. Flies after working as a fifth grade teacher in West Windsor, Plainsboro School district, decided to go to law school and then directly from law school joined the Department. I've spent the bulk of my career in special education, then had the honor of leading a new office, Fiscal and Data Services, and am now serving as the Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Educational Services.

Our division oversees not only special education, but our student support services, which houses the very important social emotional learning and mental health initiatives we have. We also support all of our federal title programs including our Title One programs, Title Two, Title Three. So a lot of interesting things that happen in our division.

Ken: Awesome. And I always have a soft spot in my heart for your Division as it used to be my division when I started at the Department.

So I'd love to hear a little bit about what your Division has been doing recently around school climate and SEL, and just what the Department has to offer in this area.

Kathy: Thank you. Yes. I'd love to do that. And I want to start by just focusing on the importance of SEL right now. The past two years has just been increasingly challenging for our world, for our students, for our educators. And we know that making sure that students feel connected, that they have positive relationships, that they feel valued in the classroom, can directly impact their performance.

So we need to make sure that only are we addressing any learning disruption that may have happened through COVID, but also just making sure that our kids are mentally and emotionally able to learn. And that's where SEL comes into play.

So we've had a number of initiatives over the several years. But we've been lucky enough to use some of our Federal emergency funds to support even more work around social and emotional learning.

One of the things that we're extremely proud of are what we call our SEL modules. And these modules—there's size of them; they're available on the Department's website—are really a soup-to-nuts toolkit for districts. Each toolkit has a PowerPoint deck, a facilitation guide. There's handouts ready. So it's all ready to go. Something that we are really proud to share.

Something else that we've been able to do is use some of that Federal emergency money to sponsor what's called the "Dreams Program." So the Dreams project is a collaboration between the Department of Ed. {Education} and the Department of Children and Families. We're providing 50 school districts with intense, trauma-informed training around healing-centered approaches to building those supporting environments. Again, that just makes sure that kids feel safe, emotionally-ready, and are able to learn.

And we've been holding webinars. We encourage educators to join us. There's a webinar coming up on April 5, and that will be available on the Department's calendar of events.

And if I could just something else, that I would like to highlight is that SEL day in New Jersey is March 11. Anyone in the state can sign up to participate using the website And recently, our State Board of Education recognized SEL day with a ceremonial resolution, which is just so exciting to see that we've got support across the state and across the department for all of this work that we're doing.

Ken: that's so great to hear. And it makes me think about when I was a teacher, how many of these tools would have been great for me when I was in the classroom. And I'm just so excited to hear about all of that and hear about the ways that folks can get involved. And also excited the day after this podcast drops is going to be SEL day, so I'm very excited about the alignment there and about all of the ways that folks will be able to engage with that.

{end of interview}

Transition to Second Interview

Ken: Next up, we're going to hear from the Learning Community charter school about how they leverage joy and the home cultures of students, and all the assets that exist there, to build a school climate where students can be successful, both academically emotionally and socially. I hope that you enjoy hearing about the amazing perspectives that they have. And I also want you to listen out for the way that they utilize Harry Potter style houses in their school to build school climate.

Learning Community Charter School

Colin: Hi there. I'm Colin Hogan. I'm the head of the Learning Community Charter School. We are located in Jersey City New Jersey, serving 654 students in grades pre-k through 8. And we are located in Hudson county.

Felicia: Hi. My name is Felicia Henderson. I am a first grade teacher at Learning Community Charter Middle School. I am also the social justice coordinator and the BIPOC leadership committee chair.

Ken: First, I just wanted to ask about creating a community for SEL and how that can lead to joy and belonging. So, in your experience, how can SEL create school climates of joy and belonging where students can thrive?

Felicia: Well, my name is Felicia. And I believe that a school climate filled with joy and belonging is absolutely necessary, especially in these times. The most important thing for teachers to do in order to create an environment that's filled with joy is to really get to know the entire child. Learning who we are teaching, understanding their norms, their cultures, their strengths, just as well as areas where they need to grow. All of that is really important. And if we are able to take that time out to really get to know our students, then we form this climate where they're happy to come to school. They're ready to be themselves. And they're just like really just joyful. And I think that's just the main thing for us.

Colin: This is Colin. I just want to build on what Felicia said, because I'll never forget the first time I met Felicia. She came in and did a demo lesson. And she introduced herself to the class as Miss Pumpkin Pie. And it was really great. And everybody started laughing because it was kindergarten. And that's really the essential piece about it, you know. We cannot do any of the work that we do without joy. And I think that's something that we really need to focus on at this moment. It's really the secret sauce that we've got at our school is about this particular issue.

Ken: Excellent. And that's such a great point around joy being something that we need more of. I know in my life I can always use more joy. That's not something that I ever get enough of. So that's such great points. So, as you're thinking about educators and them leveraging SEL, and thinking about social emotional learning, how can they do that for equitable school climates? What can they do to really leverage SEL so that schools are equitable? Classrooms are equitable? And you're building an environment of equity for them to thrive in?

Felicia: This is Felicia. And i believe that educators can definitely leverage SEL in order to create an equitable school climate one of the greatest things about LCCS {Learning Community Charter School} is that we are a very diverse community. Having that opportunity to meet so many amazing people, and families and students, it allows us to really have so many resources. As well all of our students who come from different cultures and different climates, like it's really important for us to get to know what are their norms, understanding what makes them feel good. Understanding their social environment and how they can relate to certain things that's going on. So us being able to really connect with our students and using those resources that are so diverse really helps us to create an equitable learning environment and really connect.

And one of the stories that we actually read was called Bravo Anjali! And it was a really amazing story about a little girl who she's from Indian culture. So I have I have some students who can connect with that culture. And soon as I bring up the book, they're like, "I love this story! They have Indian culture like me. I'm American but I'm from India." And that makes me feel so warm inside. And it makes my heart so happy that just me showing the cover and introducing the story allows my students to just be so excited, and it brings joy immediately. And so then I begin to read the story. And the story is about a little girl who loves to play the tabla, but she's a girl and the culture ...the norm is that the tabla is usually for boys. But she's like, "No way! I love to play it."

And my students are able to make that connection like, "Yeah. You know someone told me that I shouldn't be able to do this because I'm a boy or I'm a girl." You know. So making that text-to-self connection is has been pretty amazing. And also, I have students relating to the culture, and the story. And the moral of the story is just pretty much just "have self-confidence." You know. Be confident in yourself, and not to let anyone dim your light. And so it's really exciting to have my students relate to that and just love to hear more stories about those kinds of things.

Colin: This is Colin. And I want to say that like when I...when you go into Felicia's room, it's just so apparent, because the kids are so excited about talking about their experiences. But what is really amazing about it is that they are able to really connect back to the academic work that they're doing. So, what winds up happening is you create a loop where student experience becomes a driver for achievement. It's really important work, but you have to look at infusing it in, like, the following areas like: curriculum, calendar schedule, professional development, messaging, the work the kids do, and then support.

Curriculum is one where students learn how to understand themselves, and they sort of begin by sort of understanding their own identity, finding that within the curriculum, and then using that as a window for understanding the world. So you see a lot of work in terms of everything from the books that students read in all grades, from whole class novels to class read alouds, really reflect the diversity of student experience and the different voices and peoples that make up our school, and really make up the world in general. Because our kids really have an eye on, not only what what's within the building, but what's going on outside. And that's a really big focus of our curriculum.

In fact, our eighth graders are in "How to Take a Global Studies" course. But the whole idea is how can you take everything that you learned at the school, and then apply it outside into sort of the world beyond when they leave our school. So we really think a lot about that.

And as a social justice coordinator, Felicia works with the other social justice coordinators to kind of audit our curriculum to see if those voices are there. So with our schedule, we've actually created a space in the school day—it actually happens today if we have a double period—which is completely dedicated to SEL and also social justice work. So that's when we have our school-wide assemblies. That's when students do specific social justice learning. That's also where classes get together and have class meetings. And we also have our house meetings that occur at those times. And so this is a real time. It's actually a really joyous time. It's probably my favorite part of the week.

I will tell you the truth about the houses is that it is not is not my greatest moment of creativity because I have really borrowed a great deal from Ron Clark Academy on this one. But the house system—a lot of schools have it—but what we did with our house system our school has six values—we call them the circle values—which are:

  • community,
  • independence,
  • respect,
  • courage,
  • leadership, and

And what we wanted to do was...we wanted to create more opportunities for student leadership, and to create communities within the school. The houses meet on a monthly basis. There are student house leaders that lead all the activities in the house. All the houses do community service work. All the houses lead our school assembly, teaching about that school value. And all the houses have all sorts of special things that I'm not even privy to, that they have, you know, special ways that they greet each other. They have a special animal that represents them. They have colors. All sorts of things like that. But it's really to create a family within the school.

You know, every student should hear their name at school. They should be able to see a lot of adults at the school that know them and care about them. And the house system allows our students to—whether you're in kindergarten or whether you're in eighth grade—to walk the halls of our school and know that they have relationships with peers in all the grades and adults that work within our school, whether they've had them as teachers or not. The house system allows for that. So we think it's a really wonderful vehicle for that.

And finally, like I said before, it captures the ability for kids that might not shine academically or artistically or athletically, but they might be amazing with helping other kids. Or they might be amazing at leading a group activity. Or they might have other skills that really can shine through with this system. So we're looking for all sorts of ways to celebrate our kids and our teachers, and this is a great way to do it.

Felicia: This is Felicia. I want to share that social emotional learning is important for students. But it is also equally as equally as important for staff as well. And something that LCSS has been able to do this year is to create the BIPOC leadership committee, and that has been very, very comforting and very rewarding for BIPOC staff. BIPOC staff meaning black, indigenous, or people of color. And it is an opportunity for BIPOC staff to have a space to build community, to also share resources, support each other emotionally, academically. As well as, you know, just being there for one another. And it is a really great space for us to meet. And we meet by week bi-weekly, which is really amazing.

And something else that we get to do is create resources for all staff. So even though it is a committee focused on BIPOC, we do create events like one that we had right before the break. We had a book tasting, which was really amazing because we were able to introduce so many diverse stories so that teachers can create, you know, a wish list for their classrooms, and really get to experience some books that probably they've never seen before, or probably would not have picked up, you know, ordinarily. So it was really amazing to have those kind of event for staff.

Ken: Awesome. You said "book tasting" I was like "What? What?" Oh, that's such a neat term. I love that.

So what is a tangible example of something that worked for you, related to SEL, that other schools could consider.

Felicia: I will share one thing that LCSS is doing that has been absolutely rewarding for teachers. One thing that teachers always complain about. And I'm a teacher, so I know. We always complain about time. Right? Time to complete tasks. Time to complete all these new things that we have kind of like building up. {laughing}

And one thing that Mr. Hogan  and the rest of the admin has created was builders blocks. And builders blocks is a segmented time in our schedule on Wednesday. So we get two periods on Wednesdays where we get to focus on SEL and social justice. So that's been really amazing as a teacher. So I can thank Colin and all of admin for that, because it really has made a difference for us to really take time to teach our students the best way.

Colin: I would just echo back and thank Felicia, because I think that having the social justice coordinators is really important. And creating a position—and it's a really great teacher leader position to create within your school—because facilitating this kind of work from a teacher-to-teacher level is really helpful. And it's prioritizing your time to make time to talk about this really matters now. I think one of the most important things is support we really have to support each other, because doing this work is tough. And sometimes you need to tap out and reach out to a colleague.

Last year we had a situation where there was...we were remote first part of the year. And we had a situation with some Zoom bombing. And there was a lot of, when it occurred, it was some students within our school doing that to each other. And when it occurred, some of the language was really, you know, we saw some homophobic language. We saw some racist language. We saw a lot of, like, inflammatory words.

And the teachers, it was really amazing because Felicia and the other social justice coordinator at the time, joined the class to talk to the kids about it and to help work with the teacher in that class to process that experience. And for the kids to really talk about how it made them feel, and how they could really move beyond that.

And really after that experience we saw that kind of thing fade, really fade, into the background. And we were really proud of that. And I think that has to do with just really that message of support.

Ken: Such rich, rich information. Thank you so much for sharing with me.

Any final thoughts for folks listening? Anything that you want to add that we didn't get to?

Colin: I just want to say that it's really exciting because, since we received the Lighthouse Award, I've been contacted by a few other districts. and it's really amazing to hear what other people are doing. I have to say that there are so many people across the state that are doing really amazing work. We're always happy to partner with anybody, and talk to anyone about what we're doing, and any way that we can help, because we really believe in this. Because, you know, we want everyone's kids to thrive. and so this is not competitive. This is about collaboration. So we're really ready to help in any way that we can.

{end of interview}

Transition to Third Interview

Ken: One common thread in both the interview you just heard, and the interview you're about to hear, is the importance of resources that are in the community, whether that be your school community or the greater educational community of New Jersey. Both at LCCS and Ocean City, whose interview are about to hear, they mention the importance of reaching out, making that communication with other districts. And I highly encourage you to do that outreach. Google our lighthouse districts. Reach out to them. They all have profiles. You can read about the work that they're doing and think about if there's any overlap with what you are doing in your school.

I hope that you enjoy this next interview with ocean city and hearing about the amazing work that they're doing.

Ocean City School District

Lauren: Hi Ken. I am Dr. Lauren Gunther. I am the director of student services in the Ocean City School District. And we are located in Cape May county, New Jersey.

Karin: Hi Ken. I'm Karin Stanton. I'm a special education teacher that provides support through a consultative model to our preschool students. I also am the chairperson for the Early Childhood Education Advisory Council for our preschool program. And I also am the community and parent involvement specialist for our program.

Ken: Well, thank you both so much for being here with me. I'm so excited to talk about social-emotional learning and how you have seen it really make a difference in your school climate.

So, I just wanted to start out with that as a first question. How has SEL made a difference in your school climate across the district, and also in the specific schools, as you interact with students?

Karin: So Ken—this is Karin— the social emotional learning has really made a great impact on our preschool students. our students are building, daily, skills to cope, to manage and regulate their emotions and their behaviors. Through the guidance of teachers and curriculum, they continue to problem solve and to make positive choices for themselves. And it's really a magical moment when I can go into a classroom, often I'm found on the floor, sittin' right there with the students, as they're interacting with their materials in specific centers. But I equally enjoy just sitting back and observing the interactions and listening into their conversations. You see them practicing what they've learned, and see what they've learned for pro-social behavior, such as taking turns, sharing and using kind words with one another.

Lauren: You're going to hear, throughout our answering of questions, how our SEL initiative is really inclusive of community. And that's key in everything that we do SEL. And the impact not only shifts our school climate, but also our community. I think one of our biggest takeaways is to, number one, rely on our community and to engage our community. And that's the expectations, that we have to communicate when we're sharing our SEL initiative with our school families.

So one of our goals of SEL is to establish a caring community as we raise our responsible students. And that's through sharing our curriculum that incorporates SEL lessons into our day-to-day learning. So I think if we commit to do this, then we need to commit to involve our community in these practices. And I think one simple way that we do this pretty well—is something that we initiated—is by creating wellness newsletters.

And we think, "Yeah, we can share our wellness newsletters with our students, and our families, and our parents." But we also have to share with our community members, so that they can be on board with the mission and the initiatives that we're sharing with our entire school community. And this all goes back to embracing and leading that school climate of change through SEL.

Ken: That's awesome. And I love to hear about the ways that you're really seeing this make an impact in in the classroom. Karin, as you mentioned, really sitting on the floor, being down on students' levels and seeing the way that that interaction impacts them. And then also, as you said Lauren, when it comes to that family newsletter and making sure that it goes, not just in the classroom, not just even in homes with families, but to the entire community. So the community can share that experience and really be able to engage and thoughtfully construct an environment that embraces social emotional learning, and embraces a community that really gathers around that as an ideal. So that's excellent. Thank you so much for sharing.

So what does collaboration for SEL look like in your school as you're thinking about, especially teachers and also students? You know, I would love to hear about what that collaboration looks like and even with the creation of different content, like the newsletter that you mentioned, or other things that there may be collaboration on.

Karin: Sure. So to continue with what Lauren is saying about making those strong connections with our community in school, it gives me a unique opportunity as a community parent involvement specialist for a preschool program. And what I do is I provide trainings for our parents in social events for families, where the families and students are together for a common purpose. And these trainings and social events support the strengthening families' five protective factors. And this "strengthening families" is a framework approach to increase family strength and enhance child development.

So with that in mind, in the beginning of each school year I provide families with a survey of which they're expected to, hopefully, complete. And when I get the results of the survey, it helps me and our Early Childhood Education Council Committee to identify family and community needs. And then, as a committee or council, how we can address them through ongoing parent trainings and social events.

So thinking of our protective factors, our first is resiliency and helping our families to build resiliency within themselves and as a complete family. So one of our very special events was, we conducted a yoga night over Zoom. And we had parents and students participating together.

Our second protective factor is social connections. And we have provided families with a friend finder, which is the old-fashioned list of families' names and phone numbers, and how each other can contact one another and encourage the parents to provide play opportunities outside of school while strengthening supportive parent connections amongst themselves.

We also have a "In the Kitchen" series, which is a fantastic program that families volunteer to host cooking in the kitchen out of their own home over Zoom. Other families participate by just viewing and observing, or they too have the menu and the list of ingredients, and they cook along with our host families.

We also have the preschool "Little Readers Club," which is families volunteer to host a special family storybook. And at the end of the reading, the families have been provided with craft materials to support the story in creating some type of a craft.

Moving on to social emotional competency, that relates back to our creative curriculum and second step curriculums, which really promote the social emotional learning through lessons that the teachers are doing specifically. We have knowledge of parenting and child development. We have had preschool age developmental milestones for parents, where they're understanding the natural development of a child.

And our last protective factor is supporting families in concrete times of need. And we always have, as needed, and identified through conferences or ongoing communication with parents. So looking at all the trainings and special events, it's my hope that a strong family-school connections are created by providing these trainings and events for our preschool families.

Lauren: Just to reiterate what Karin said, I know that what she described primarily is unique to our preschool program. Here in Ocean City, we really feel strongly that this model is the building block to any foundation of a solid SEL program. So if you take a close look at the unique needs of any students in any district, through either maybe a SWOT {strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats} analysis or a needs assessment of a building or a district, you could easily identify protective factors or attributes that can be a priority focus of a district.

So I was just trying to brainstorm a few. So I thought maybe conflict resolution, positive self-esteem, how to have students be successful at school, strong social supports. So these protective factors would be applicable to a middle school or a high school. So using some of the things that Karin talked about in engaging parents and identifying protective factors, I think that would be a good starting point for schools to identify how they could build an SEL program.

And again, although this is kind of ground up for preschool, our SEL program actually didn't start in preschool. Our SEL program began with a wellness initiative. So I just want to speak briefly on that, in case there's some upper level teachers listening today.

It started with a creation of a wellness center at our high school. And what we have learned is that schools are really an ideal place to provide mental health services. And our goal is to really remove barriers to mental health services, and provide wellness service services here at school where students spend the majority of their time.

And we feel that opportunities for SEL and wellness are just as important in a student's schedule as math and science and English. So what our wellness center does at the high school is offer a variety of groups, initiatives, services, to students. We host therapy sessions with dogs. We have yoga club. We have groups focused on improving social skills, regulating emotions. We have grief counseling. Additionally, our students can just schedule a daily check-in with our social worker if they need a space to calm down or regroup after they've had a stressful test or a stressful day. So again, that wellness center started at our high school. And we're really proud that we were able to bring a wellness center to our intermediate school, and we also have a wellness center at our primary school.

And a lot of times you think, "Well, geez. Do you really need wellness needs at the primary school?"  And especially after this pandemic, the answer is "Yes. There are wellness needs for our littlest learners." So we are proud to have that there. And we hope that anyone listening feel free to reach out to us, and we'll give you ideas of how to start that initiative. It really is amazing how much work can be accomplished when we leverage the resources around us and work in community for social and emotional learning and school climate.

{end of interview}


I'd like to thank all of my guests. I would like to thank you listeners for tuning in and I'd especially like to thank Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing these episodes so that they're accessible for all.

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 podcast, 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

to top