Student Well-Being

How One District Is Spreading Social-Emotional Learning Across All Its Schools

The Tacoma, Wash., district uses a well-rounded approach that focuses on relationships
By Evie Blad — March 09, 2018 9 min read
Students walk around the park while eating lunch at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, Wash., where a districtwide social-emotional learning strategy focuses heavily on building supportive relationships.
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Tacoma, Wash.

Students in algebra class at Jason Lee Middle School gathered in small groups to teach each other how to work through a complex math problem. Some of them stood. Some sat at desks. And some pedaled away on stationary bicycles.

In the front of each group, one student stood at a white board, circling the part of the problem he or she didn’t understand. The other students asked questions until they could navigate their classmate to the right answer.

As these Tacoma middle school students worked together on math earlier this school year, they were learning relationship skills, how to communicate effectively, and how to press through frustration, said Principal Christine Brandt. And, hopefully, the end result would be a deeper knowledge of concepts like order of operations than they would get through a traditional classroom lecture.

What happens if they get stuck and they feel like they just can’t figure it out?

“That’s when we do emotional labor,” a student told a group of policymakers, educational leaders, and researchers observing the class last fall. That might mean reassuring the 6th grader standing in front of the math class study group before he looked for a new way to examine the question he’d posed.

Sophomore Ethan Haller sketches a leaf during an Outdoor Education class at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, Wash.

That language of emotional labor, or “grinding it out” through tough learning challenges can be heard in classrooms throughout the 30,000-student Tacoma district. It’s one of several concepts that Tacoma has emphasized through an ambitious, cooperative, communitywide plan to bring social-emotional learning, student engagement strategies, and an emphasis on supportive relationships to every school.

Districts around the country have increasingly explored social-emotional learning strategies, which emphasize student skills like self control and social awareness and encourage positive interactions between students. But Tacoma stands out. Through a comprehensive effort, the school system seems to have leaped over hurdles that have stopped the growth of social-emotional learning strategies in other schools, hurdles like a lack of teacher buy-in and a struggle to infuse SEL concepts into traditional classroom work.

The visitors to Lee Middle School earlier this school year were assembled by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, a group that is exploring similar efforts in schools around the country. The group is seeking broad input before it releases a final report in the fall outlining policies and practices that will make schools more sensitive to the development of students’ nonacademic skills.

Working with the Center for Strong Schools at the University of Washington, Tacoma, the district’s “Tacoma Whole Child Initiative” worked systematically to bring a focus on social-emotional learning that touches everything from student discipline policies to how teachers approach lessons on traditional subjects like poetry and algebra.

Rather than introducing a new program that teachers would see as just another mandate, the initiative started with administrators, who spent a whole year “braiding” duplicative school programs together, eliminating ones that weren’t necessary, and establishing a common vision for what “whole child education” should look like. That plan was then disseminated to schools gradually, allowing teachers and principals to develop their own strategies for carrying it out.

Emphasizing Relationships

Tacoma’s deliberative process helps address some big challenges districts face when introducing social-emotional learning, leaders of the Aspen commission said. School and district leaders say they are drawn to social-emotional learning by research that shows effects like reductions in misbehavior and improvements in attendance and achievement, but they often struggle with how to get started.

In a nationally representative survey of 884 principals released in November, just 35 percent of respondents said their school was fully implementing a plan for incorporating social-emotional learning into policies and classroom work.

Among the biggest barriers: a lack of time to train and support teachers, a lack of consensus among school staff that social-emotional learning is important, and a lack of funding to carry out plans, according to the survey, which was commissioned by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

“In some ways, there is a tension in the data: while the vast majority of leaders believe that social and emotional development is essential to education, the pathway to change is not always clear; moreover, the time and training to make the necessary changes are in short supply,” CASEL co-founder Tim Shriver, former Michigan Gov. John Engler, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in a letter about the survey results. “These experts tell us that there is a lot of will, but not as much clarity and support, along the way.”

Inside the open floor plan school, students work together on algebra problems at the Science and Math Institute.

The Tacoma initiative started in 2011-12 and is set to last 10 years, with new layers of implementation and training happening each year. The effort was designed with help from business leaders from companies like Starbucks and other organizations who shared their insights into organizational change.

The aim is to bring change to educational strategies that is meaningful, lasting, and supported by teachers. Because social-emotional learning relies so heavily on building healthy relationships among students and between students and teachers, it’s important that strategies are designed locally and rely on input from everyone involved, including students and teachers, researchers have said.

“This is chemistry,” said Josh Garcia, the deputy superintendent of the Tacoma district. “It’s not something you can just do and say ‘here’s the playbook.’”

Greg Benner, the executive director of the Center for Strong Schools, said the university helped found the initiative as a way of becoming more engaged with the community and to give its students immersive learning opportunities. Students who are in his course on classroom management, for example, observe teachers and provide feedback on how they are interacting with students.

“Don’t admire any problems,” Benner recalled a university leader saying. “Go out and help fix these issues.”

‘Drop-Out Factories’

And the district had some problems: Crime and domestic violence rates in the city were among the highest in the state, students faced challenges associated with poverty and trauma, and researchers at Johns Hopkins University once labeled all of its high schools “drop-out factories.”

After a year of planning at the administrative level, leaders of the Whole Child Initiative rolled it out gradually in schools, requiring a yes vote from 90 percent of each school’s staff before bringing it on board. In each cohort, leadership teams made up of administrators and teachers from every grade level learned more about the approach to social-emotional learning and made plans for carrying it out in their school, relying on baseline survey data from each school’s teachers that explored their knowledge of social-emotional learning and their views on teaching.

Teacher-leaders then worked with their professional learning communities to put those strategies into practice within their schools. Building-level strategies could involve addressing school climate issues, like bullying, Benner said.

The entire district adopted positive behavior interventions and supports, or PBIS, a strategy that teaches all students what good behavior looks like and provides additional tiers of support, like counseling, for students who need it. Teachers also learned a set of common strategies, like how to greet students at the doorway and assess their mood and how to address problematic behavior.

At Jason Lee Middle School, for example, teachers can send students to a “reset desk” in each classroom to reflect on how their behavior affected their classmates. Students can also send themselves to the reset desk to take a break before re-entering the classroom conversation.

Leaders of the initiative also provide supplemental training about issues like student trauma. And they’ve trained support staff like bus drivers and volunteers at community afterschool programs in social-emotional learning strategies so that children hear consistent messages from adults throughout the day.

Whole-Child Focus

The district has brought a relationship focus into practices like hiring, Garcia said, by asking applicants questions like “tell me about the last time you got in a fight.”

District leaders track about three dozen indicators to see what’s working in schools. They include the number of volunteers in a school, how many students participate in extracurricular activities, the percentage of students who haven’t been suspended, how many high school students have been accepted to college or another post-graduation institution, and input gathered through school climate surveys.

Students observe the nearby Puget Sound, looking for Orca whales during an Outdoor Education class at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, Wash.

A 2016 evaluation of the Whole Child Initiative shows it moved the needle on many of those indicators. Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the number of students who were not chronically absent—defined as missing 15.5 or more school days in a year—climbed from 86 percent to 96 percent. Students saw school climate more favorably in 2015-16 than they did four years prior, and surveys of parents and staff showed modest gains as well. More students participated in multiple extracurricular activities, and the percentage of seniors with verified acceptance to a post-graduate institution climbed from 41 percent in 2012-13 to 73 percent in 2015-16.

In 2017, the district’s on-time graduation rate reached 86 percent, an increase from the 2012 rate of 70 percent, district data show.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Superintendent Carla Santorno said. “It takes everybody in the community being unique and connecting to do the work.”

And “the work” looks different at Jason Lee, a school that families once avoided because of problems like student fights, and schools like the district’s three innovative high schools, which embed students in Tacoma’s science, industry, and arts communities.

The Science and Math Institute, for example, is adjacent to a zoo in the city’s sprawling Point Defiance Park. Students there freely pass between classes in an open floor plan building, in outdoor learning spaces set up among towering trees, and in a pavilion situated between animal exhibits.

Students there do live drawings of zoo animals and work alongside zoo staff to design projects like elephant feeders in the school’s maker space.

They also meet with a peer mentoring group that includes students ranging from freshmen to seniors to set personal goals and to build a sense of community and empathy.

The school prides itself on student voice and community engagement. School leaders boast of a student who tracked biodiversity in the nearby Puget Sound. After he found fewer animals living around concrete pillars, he took his findings to the Tacoma City Council.

Commissioners who visited both schools said they saw common threads in their approaches.

“You have this alignment but different visions about how you can get there,” Darling-Hammond said.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as Spreading Social-Emotional Learning Across All Schools

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