Sarah McMaster’s 4th grade classroom doesn’t look like most others.
Instead of desks in rows facing the same direction, she has different kinds of furniture for students to sit in. There are wobble stools, benches, a sofa, and even a porch swing. She has a sensory wall, stuffed animals, whiteboard tables, and spaces where students can blow bubbles, color, and journal.
“Anytime someone comes in here, I’m like, ‘I know it’s a little crazy,’” said McMaster, who has been teaching at Horizon Academy West in Albuquerque, N.M., for 19 years. “But it’s fun, and the kids are enjoying it.”
McMaster didn’t buy all the furniture and supplies using her own money. Instead, she got them from people funding the projects she submitted to crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.
McMaster’s classroom funding approach is not unique. Teacher donation requests for supplies to help students develop their social-emotional learning skills and improve their mental health have almost doubled since 2020, according to data from DonorsChoose.
Schools have been putting a much greater emphasis on social-emotional learning and student wellness in the past few years to help curb the growing concerns about mental health problems, behavioral issues, and the life skills students need to succeed in school and future careers.
There’s been a steady increase in the number of project submissions for social-emotional learning resources, according to data provided to Education Week by DonorsChoose.
For the school years ending in 2020 and 2021, there were about 45,000 and 47,000 requests submitted, respectively, for social-emotional learning resources. The 2021-22 school year saw the largest number of requests so far for that category, with 71,960 projects.
And so far this school year, there have been nearly 25,000 project submissions for social-emotional learning resources.
Project submissions for resources in the “health, sports, and wellness” category—which includes mental health, health and wellness, and fitness—have also steadily increased since the 2019-20 school year:
- 27,283 projects in 2019-20,
- 33,089 projects in 2020-21,
- 57,530 projects in 2021-22,
- and 16,863 projects so far in 2022-23.
McMaster’s goal with the projects she’s submitted to DonorsChoose was to help create an engaging classroom environment and to make sure her students had “resources to help them feel calm and soothed.”
“At the end of the day, you can’t teach anybody anything if they’re not in the mindset to learn,” McMaster said. “So I started looking at how I could create different spaces in the room that would be a draw whether ... you’re having a good or bad day.”
Research has shown that students need to feel secure and emotionally stable in order to learn and perform at their best. The types of skills that students learn in SEL lessons include managing emotions and making good decisions—skills that contribute to a healthier learning environment.
Tonya Coats, a 2nd grade teacher at Rustic Lane Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., has also been using DonorsChoose to request SEL-related supplies.
“I feel like art supplies have been a major way to foster that positive mental health relationship with kids,” Coats said.
“It’s been a great way to help them explore their creativity. It gives them a moment to breathe,” especially with the push to fill the academic gaps, she added.