Education Opinion

How Social-Emotional Learning Helps Military-Connected Students Thrive

By Matthew Lynch & Stephen Noonoo — May 09, 2017 5 min read
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More than one and a half a million students in U.S. public schools have at least one parent deployed on active duty--and for them, life is anything but typical. Military-connected students on average move three times more frequently than their civilian counterparts, and research out of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public health has shown that frequent moves, coupled with the stress of parental deployment, mean that these students often have difficulty adjusting and connecting to their new communities, which can lead to social and academic problems down the line. For military-connected students, school serves as a protective environment, and proper support from teachers, counselors, and other staff can mitigate risk factors and help them grow, both academically and emotionally.

With some help from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), two Texas school districts are focusing on the unique challenges of this population Both Lackland Independent School District and Randolph Field Independent School District received Education Partnership Grants from DoDEA in 2016 specifically to develop social-emotional support programs for military-connected students. Here’s a look at the districts’ goals, their implementations, and how they measure success.

College and Career Readiness for Military-Connected Students

According to Jason “JJ” Johnson, the project director at Lackland ISD, the district applied for the DoDEA grant “in order to better prepare military-connected students for college and career through a program designed to assist them in overcoming transitional challenges and the stress associated with high mobility and the deployment cycle.”

To make that mission a reality, the district partnered with the Military Child Education Coalition to provide a Military Student Transition Consultant (MSTC), who works to support military-connected students during their transition to and from the district. The MSTC also helps students in developing resiliency tools and creating post-secondary plans.

Lackland ISD’s program to promote social-emotional skills also includes a peer-to-peer mentoring program called Student 2 Student, as well as a teen leadership class for 6th-grade students and a conflict-resolution class for 5th-grade students.

Meeting the Needs of the Whole Child

“Our long-time focus on academics yielded positive gains for us for many years,” said Susan Bendele, the Assistant Superintendent at Randolph Field ISD. “In the midst of that focus,” she added, “we realized we were missing a key component in our overall school approach to meeting the needs of the whole child.”

With the support of the DoDEA grant, Randolph Field ISD has begun new initiatives to boost its students’ social-emotional growth, using programs such as Franklin Covey’s The Leader in Me and the Flippen Group’s Capturing Kids’ Hearts, as well as the early-learning program Second Step and yoga for stress reduction.

Like Lackland ISD, Randolph ISD has established Student 2 Student groups at each of its three campuses to help properly welcome and engage new students when they arrive at a new school. The district also makes counseling services available for small groups with specific social-emotional needs.

“In general,” said Bendele, “we are providing opportunities linked to the positive character traits and social skills necessary to foster leadership and a successful learning community where everyone feels valued.”

Students participate in the ‘Let’s Talk: College and Career Readiness’ event at Lackland ISD

Measurement and Sustainability

In today’s data-driven educational landscape, the social-emotional learning programs at Lackland ISD and Randolph Field ISD are like every initiative: they need to be monitored so that the districts can be sure they are providing the greatest possible benefits to their students. Both districts have opted to use Panorama Education’s social-emotional learning survey, which was developed in partnership with researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is available free and open-source online.

The survey asks students to reflect on their social-emotional learning skills and supports. School officials then use Panorama’s dashboards, heatmaps, analytics, and student-level reports to chart and visualize the growth of students’ social-emotional learning in areas such as Growth Mindset, Grit, Self-Management, Emotion Regulation, and Sense of Belonging. These surveys are available not only for the military-connected students at Lackland ISD and Randolph Field ISD, but for the whole student body.

Lackland ISD’s Johnson said that his district uses the surveys to “determine where best to allocate resources, target professional development, and mitigate transitional challenges for our students. Using social-emotional learning programs and data from Panorama across the district adds to the engaging and enriching educational experience our teachers create with our students.”

Johnson acknowledges that creating an environment for social-emotional growth requires a long-term investment and a commitment to adjusting the programs in response to feedback and results. His goals for the DoDEA grant are “deeper than just showing an x% increase in something.” Instead, he aims for a “sustainable focus on improvement” which will guide the district to “embed the processes of doing surveys and get in the mindset of dedication to improvement of our services for students.”

Like Johnson, Bendele is “relying heavily on our custom-built Panorama social-emotional well-being survey” to assess the impact of the district’s approach to students’ overall wellness. Also like Johnson, she measures success not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. As she put it, “We are striving to build and maintain a solid reputation as a school district that embraces new students and remains committed to meeting the needs of the whole child.”

At the same time, she always bears in mind that “RFISD students are very special. They serve our nation by virtue of the sacrifices they endure daily as children of members of the armed forces. They are asked to be strong and brave well beyond their peers who are not military-connected. Resiliency is a must as far as these students are concerned, so helping them find strategies to help build that characteristic is key.”

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.