DA Op-Ed: SEL takes center stage

How introducing a districtwide system of supports leads to better outcomes
By: | Issue: March, 2019
February 21, 2019

Social-emotional learning has taken on a new level of importance as schools and districts adapt to meet the increasingly complex needs of students. SEL informs how educators approach culture, climate, management and discipline, and how they deliver the supports needed across schools and districts. There are many aspects to creating a robust system of supports that ensures schools and programs in the district not only speak the same language, but also have a shared understanding of resources and expectations for success.

The community contributes

A year ago, our district partnered with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health to train staff on trauma-informed practices. Small teams of educators from seven schools learned to better understand the impact that adverse childhood experiences have on students. We now recognize the impact that trauma and certain disciplinary actions have on students’ decision-making.
This training now includes all 52 schools in the district. School-based teams have served as leads in providing hands-on support for their colleagues.

Another partnership in the tiered support system is telehealth services for parents and students in a rural area of the district. In the district’s urban center, the United Way provides health services, job training and related assistance to families to help boost student attendance and academic success.

Each school has created a mentoring or support program for students who may need additional interactions with positive, caring adults. One of the most important resources for assisting schools with this work is the partnership with community and state agencies, as some issues can be greater than districts and schools alone can handle.

We recognize the impact of trauma not only in students’ decision-making and actions, but also the impact certain disciplinary actions may have.

New views on behavior

As a district with a poverty index over 74 percent, we needed to equip all of our certified staff with classroom strategies to cope with the neurological impacts of poverty and the associated trauma. Administrators and teachers now understand the science behind certain student behaviors, and how educators can create a healthier social landscape.

Over the past two years, the district has aligned programming and other activities in a tiered and strategic approach to SEL. School communities are different, but their ultimate goals are engaging students and staff, maintaining a positive school climate with high expectations, and ensuring that students know that caring adults work in every building.

That said, we had to look systemically at the approach to certain aspects of SEL. We revised the student code of conduct so that level 1 offenses (minor infractions) now lead to activities such as mediation, community service and restorative justice, as well as training and information sessions for parents. At the elementary and secondary levels, schools now have the ability to tailor level 1 interventions to meet the needs and circumstances of the student.

A big difference

We are in the early stages of aligning the many steps and activities required to be a trauma-informed district, as it relates to meeting the social-emotional needs of our students. Trauma-informed practices are an important tool embedded in our SEL activities and our tiered support mode of operation. We find that these activities and training make a big difference as we strive to improve outcomes, options and opportunities for all students in the district.

Craig Witherspoon is the superintendent of Richland County School District One in Columbia, South Carolina.