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Compassion Before Curriculum

Before delving into reading, writing, and arithmetic, focus on the overall well-being of all students.

Topics: Pandemic Leadership

As school systems finalize their roadmaps for the return to school, the concern over learning loss seems to be at the forefront of all educators’ minds. But before we delve into reading, writing, and arithmetic, we need to focus on the overall well-being of all students.

Many students have not left their parents’ sides since mid-March, so some of our students will be experiencing extreme separation anxiety. Some students have lost family members as a result of COVID-19, and these students likely still will be processing the grief of this loss. Other students might be overwhelmed by the social unrest that is found in daily news and, as a result, experience a lack of trust for others. Educators can be instrumental in providing a supportive, nurturing environment where these needs can and should be met at school.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. When SEL interventions are in place to address the five core SEL competencies, students’ academic performance increased by 11 percentile points compared to students who did not participate in such SEL programs.

Success Starts With the Teacher

At Madison County Elementary School, a Pre-K-8 Title I school in rural Alabama, I have found that the best place to start a schoolwide SEL emphasis is through staff training. Documentaries, yoga and mindfulness training, and professional articles are a great starting point.

SEL programs do not have to be delivered through a packaged program. Many teachers are already inherent relationship builders; however, some teachers need support with strategies for how to provide more opportunities for building strong relationships with their students.

Teachers also need to be aware of personal triggers so they can recognize when they might need to step away from a situation and look for support from other members of the team. We cannot expect teachers to transform their interactions with students if they are not given the opportunity to explore their own strengths and opportunities for growth.

Building a System of Trust and Support

One way to accomplish this each day is through holding a restorative circle or morning meeting. Teachers typically start the meeting with an open-ended, surface level question where students have the opportunity to share their experiences or opinions. Once trust is built over time through the classroom community that is established, these restorative conversations can expand to more sensitive topics and issues.

The restorative circle can also be used to resolve challenges that might occur within the classroom. I have developed a master schedule that carves out 15 minutes at the beginning of the instructional day for all teachers to provide these restorative circles with their students.

SEL can and should continue in a virtual environment. Students can be taught breathing techniques for how to calm themselves when they are feeling frustrated. Students can use meditations as a way to refocus their attention and let go of negative thoughts. Individualized fidgets can help students release tension and refocus on academic tasks.

Community partnerships can also be extremely beneficial to support your schoolwide efforts. Local mental health agencies might be able to continue teletherapy with students working from home. Many nonprofit organizations have pulled together to provide take-home SEL kits, art supplies, or other resources that students can access when they are away from school.

Plan and Collaborate

As school leaders, it is important to develop a schoolwide plan for equipping and empowering teachers to use SEL in their classrooms. Teachers want to have permission from administrators that these strategies are important and encouraged by their leadership. It might also be helpful to elicit coaching from other school administrators and educators that have already had success with using SEL approaches in their schools. Think unconventionally, too: Twitter and Facebook are great tools for connecting with other leaders focused on SEL and trauma responsive approaches.

The measurement of students’ strengths and weaknesses with their social-emotional competencies can help you to target your interventions for what each child specifically needs. Over the past three years, our school has seen over 70 percent of students increase their SEL skills. Feedback from these assessments has also been a great tool when talking with parents and describing areas of improvement or possibly recommending further support from our school-based mental health therapist.

Students have not had a daily platform for verbal communication with the outside world. Educators will need to set the stage for talking and listening with their students so that we can begin to learn more about how they are feeling and where they are coming from emotionally. Only after we have shown compassion to our students and started to build trust, will we be able to delve into the curriculum.

Amy Mason is principal of Madison County Elementary in Gurley, Alabama.