School Climate & Safety

Urban Districts Embrace Social-Emotional Learning

By Evie Blad — June 09, 2015 8 min read
Madison Reid, a student in a combined 2nd and 3rd grade classroom, leads a discussion on good listening with her classmates during a morning session at Cleveland’s Wade Park Elementary School. Such classroom exercises are part of Cleveland’s districtwide social-emotional learning plan.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a kindergarten classroom at Wade Park Elementary School this spring, students huddled around their teacher in a tight circle while she held up cards that said “proud” and “ashamed” and explained to them what it’s like to feel those emotions.

“I felt proud when I graduated from college,” she said.

The children had started the day by writing one-word descriptions of their emotions on the classroom’s whiteboard, completing the prompt, “Today I feel,” with words like “happy,” “love,” and “tired” in shaky penmanship.

The simple morning classroom exercises are a small part of a data-driven, districtwide social-emotional learning plan in Cleveland that aims to boost students’ ability to make responsible decisions, regulate their own emotions and behavior, and build healthy relationships with their peers.

As a growing body of research links such competencies to higher academic achievement, school systems such as the 40,000-student Cleveland district have started to take notice.

It is one of eight large, predominantly urban districts that have committed to a multiyear initiative that is allowing researchers to study their systemwide social-emotional learning programs. Such programs blend evidence-based classroom curriculum with school climate improvements and efforts to infuse social and emotional concepts into the teaching of traditional subjects like history.

In Cleveland, for example, posters illustrated with colorful stoplights hang on the walls of elementary classrooms, advising students how to talk through problems.

Social-emotional lessons are taught in a district-prescribed sequence, similar to traditional learning objectives. Elementary teachers use a curriculum called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. High schools have adopted varied approaches, including using history and writing assignments to help students share what they value and care about.

Each school has designated teams of staff members to lead social-emotional-learning efforts, work with families, and coordinate student supports.

Throughout the district, rooms previously used for in-school suspensions have been converted into “planning centers,” where teachers refer misbehaving students to talk through problematic or disruptive actions as an alternative to traditional discipline.

Data Driven

Every district brings a unique approach to the multidistrict initiative, which is led by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. What sets Cleveland apart is its use of data.

Teachers and principals at the district’s 96 schools rely on students’ responses on “conditions for learning” surveys, administered online three times a year to grades 3-12, to guide their work. The surveys are akin to formative assessments, but instead of gauging student progress in math and reading, responses help educators size up whether students feel safe, supported, and challenged, and how students think their peers stack up socially and emotionally.

“We are constantly looking at the data,” Wade Park Principal Janet McDowell told leaders from other CASEL districts who came to observe her classrooms in the spring. “I meet with the teachers weekly.”

Cleveland school leaders developed their social-emotional-learning strategy after a 2007 school shooting. In that incident, a 14-year-old gunman shot two students and two teachers at one of the district’s alternative high schools before killing himself.

Afterward, the district built up its safety hardware, installing more equipment like metal detectors to make buildings safer, said Eric Gordon, the district’s chief executive officer. But leaders also recognized a need to build emotional safety and supports for students, a strategy they refer to as “humanware.”

The district began using the conditions for learning survey in 2008 after it worked with the Washington based research and evaluation organization American Institutes for Research to identify its strengths and weaknesses in supporting students.

The AIR initially proposed using the survey—which was first developed for the Chicago school district—just once to gauge students’ perceptions, said David Osher, an AIR vice president and the co-director of its health and social-development program. But leaders instead opted to administer the survey repeatedly to track the district’s work. Some other districts take annual surveys on issues such as school climate, but few are as extensive or administered as regularly as they are in Cleveland.

The plan has buy-in from the district’s teachers’ union, which agreed to include the survey results in its differentiated-pay plan. If a school shows agreed-upon amounts of growth in several areas of the survey’s results, every union member in the building gets a small stipend.

“I imagine over time, people will be doing this more,” the AIR’s Mr. Osher said of Cleveland’s data-driven approach. The U.S. Department of Education will soon release a free survey that districts can use to measure factors like student safety, support, and comfort at school, he said.

‘A Safe Haven’

Teachers and principals said that building supportive school environments and nurturing so-called “soft skills” can be challenging in high-poverty districts like Cleveland, where all students receive free and reduced-price lunches.

Situations outside of school—often related to poverty, crime, or community conflicts—can make it difficult for students to focus in the classroom, teachers said.

The city’s police department has been singled out by the U.S. Department of Justice for using overly aggressive tactics, leading to a sense of distrust in low-income and predominantly African-American communities. Last November, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been a student in the district. That shooting, along with events in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have sparked national conversations about race and the limits of police power.

In advisory sessions with teachers held as part of the district’s social-emotional-learning program, high school students, many of whom know the Rice family, talked about their own experiences with police and the family problems they carry with them into the classroom, principals said.

As the district prepared for a potentially controversial verdict in another police-shooting case in May, administrators worked with teachers to hold classroom conversations to discuss students’ feelings about the case, as well as larger race and justice issues.

“In an urban district, we cannot control what happens outside of school,” Christopher Broughton, the district’s director of research and evaluation, told school district leaders from across the country who observed Cleveland’s programs in May. “But, if inside school, students feel this is a safe haven, this is a place where they can grow and be challenged, we’ve done our job.”

Cleveland’s leaders describe the development of the district’s social-emotional learning strategies as an ongoing process. They’ve learned a few things along the way.

For example, high school students score their schools much lower on conditions for learning surveys than their younger peers. That may be because they have higher expectations or because such strategies are harder to implement in secondary schools, high school principals said.

But Mr. Osher believes data collected between 2008 and 2013 indicate the strategy is proving its merit. Those data show a strong correlation between growth in students’ responses on the conditions for learning survey and performance on state-administered tests, he said.

Measuring Results

AIR researchers are also working to analyze the work of the other districts participating in CASEL’s initiative: Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Oakland, Calif.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Washoe County, Nev.

As part of the initiative, those districts will each receive a total of $1.6 million from the NoVo Foundation over six years to plan and help implement their social-emotional-learning strategies, said Melissa Schlinger, CASEL’s vice president of programs and practice. (Funding from the NoVo Foundation helps support Education Week‘s coverage of social-emotional learning.)

The initiative’s immediate goal was to determine if it’s possible to implement social-emotional learning districtwide in a large school system, Ms. Schlinger said. Preliminary research shows that it is. Using staff and student surveys, interviews, and observations, researchers found high levels of fidelity in program implementation in participating districts, despite such challenges as changes in superintendents since the initiative began.

They also found drops in discipline rates, improved attendance, and, in many cases, improved academic performance in schools with higher levels of implementation.

The broader discussion about social-emotional and noncognitive skills has accelerated among both policymakers and educators since the initiative launched in 2011, Ms. Schlinger noted.

That new focus has led to state laws focusing on “whole child” issues, improved school climate, and social-emotional-learning programs. On the federal level, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would allow federal professional-development funds for teachers to be spent on training for social-emotional-learning programs.

In Cleveland, Mr. Gordon, the CEO, said he’s made it a habit to call newly appointed superintendents in districts with social-emotional learning programs to say “you have important work that you need to know about on day one of your new job.”

And leaders of the CASEL districts hope others can learn from their successes and struggles if they decide to adopt similar approaches.

“I don’t know that there’s any one right starting point from our experience,” Mr. Gordon said. “It is about an intentionality, and it’s about just starting.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as Cleveland Embraces Social-Emotional Learning

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Preventing Student Violence: 3 Key Takeaways
Advice from two experts on threat assessment and crisis response in schools.
3 min read
Crosses and flowers hang on a fence outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, near Parkland, Fla., in memory of the 17 people killed in a school shooting there in 2018.
Crosses and flowers were part of a memorial for the 17 people killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. Following that shooting, schools around the country considered additional safety measures, including threat-assessment policies.
Brynn Anderson/AP
School Climate & Safety Responding to Student Threats: Schools Wrestle With How to Prevent Violence
The Buffalo shooting suspect made a threat at school last year, but wasn't flagged under the state's red flag law.
10 min read
A rifle hangs on display in the window of the West Endicott & Susquehanna Arms Co., Monday, May 16, 2022, where the Buffalo shooting suspect purchased fire arms in Endicott, N.Y.
A rifle hangs on display in the window of an Endicott, N.Y., gun shop where the Buffalo shooting suspect purchased firearms.
Michael Hill/AP
School Climate & Safety Grief, Anger, Fear: How Teachers Can Help Students Cope With the Buffalo Shooting
After a gunman killed 10 people in a racist attack, teachers again wrestled with how to explain hate and mass violence to students.
A person pays his respects outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022.
A mourner pays his respects outside the scene of a racially-motivated mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
Matt Rourke/AP
School Climate & Safety Accused Gunman in Buffalo Shooting Was Investigated for Threat to His School
The gunman was never charged with a crime and had no further contact with law enforcement after his release from a hospital, officials said.
3 min read
Police walk outside the Tops grocery store on Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. A white 18-year-old wearing military gear and livestreaming with a helmet camera opened fire with a rifle at the supermarket, killing and wounding people in what authorities described as “racially motivated violent extremism.” (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)