Students will struggle to fully develop their social-emotional skills if the adults around them are not modeling strong skills themselves. This is why expert after expert will say that school or district leaders must start with adult social-emotional learning before launching an SEL curriculum for students.
But how do you address adults’ social-emotional learning without the message coming across as condescending? Education Week recently put this question to two experts: Trish Schaffer, the MTSS/SEL coordinator for Washoe County School District in Nevada, and Jill Merolla, the SEL coordinator for Warren City schools in Ohio.
They responded during an online panel discussion during Education Week’s recent K-12 Essentials Forum on SEL. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How do you go to your teachers, your principals, and others in the school building and say, “I want to fine tune your emotional-management skills or your empathy skills,” without sounding patronizing?
Schaffer: That has become a little more tricky over the past couple of years. Self-care has quickly become a dirty word here in the Washoe County school district, and when you talk about adult SEL, I have had people ask me, “Are you going to make us hold hands and sing Kumbaya?” It really is about how you’re messaging it.
Starting with the adults is all about experiencing social-emotional learning. In Washoe County school district, we started using the 3 Signature Practices in our meetings and in our professional learning early on [starting meetings or training with a welcoming or inclusive opening, including engaging activities such as brain breaks throughout the meeting, and ending the meeting with an optimistic closing].
The 3 Signature Practices are not an icebreaker, it’s not just a quick high-five. There is intentionality to connect to the learning and to have the adults connect to each other. When you go about it that way, it isn’t patronizing. You’re respecting them for what they bring to the table and, importantly, you’re telling them why you’re engaging in this work and, once they begin to experience that, you do see it start to show up in their classrooms and skills.
Given the time that we are in, still pandemic, post-pandemic, however you want to call it, you need to give adults a variety of options. They need to have opportunities to access social-emotional learning at their own pace, as well as to experience it in their professional learning: offering asynchronous learning, offering book clubs, offering different pieces of information where they can move along in their journey is something I highly recommend.
Merolla: You have to be the model of what you expect. I think the modeling you show and appreciation I think that’s an important piece. ... [Based on] some surveying we’ve done of staff, listening to staff also about the pacing of their work, how they are being recognized [is important]. I try to listen to our teachers around the district on some of their concerns and being responsive to what they’re feeling. Because if you don’t do that, they cut you off.
I want to build off of what you just said about being responsive to teachers. How do you get buy-in from people in your schools?
Merolla: I feel like I’m listening more and then trying to provide more support in the areas that they’re talking about. One of the things we’re seeing with students is there is a lot of dysregulation, probably from trauma. We’re trying to connect what [teachers have] always done, to say what you’re doing is really SEL practices. I think we need to give them credit for doing a lot of the SEL along the way that they may not have noticed. One thing we have done is having our teachers share their best practices that they have been doing that maybe they didn’t realize were best SEL practices, trauma-informed practices. We did that in our PD this year. And teachers loved it because I think we allowed them to share some of their strengths.