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Social Emotional Learning: All Hands on Deck

Authors: Kevin Covington, Colavito McKie, Brandon Ross



In the first quarter of 2020, countries across the globe began to shut down due to the growing spread of COVID-19. This pandemic had no affinity for a country's economic status, as it had an effect on all countries around the world. With nearly 7 million cases and over 200,000 deaths, the United States, like other countries, was severely impacted by the growing outbreak. The impact was significant on institutions ranging from local hometown restaurants to schools.

The impact of COVID-19 on schools was both unforeseen and unimaginable. Dr. Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland School District Two, referred to school closures as an “emergency deployment of education” when schools across South Carolina closed in March due to mass nationwide outbreaks. Dr. Richard O’Malley, superintendent of Florence One Schools, referred to the closures as “an opportunity to shine.” He believed that districts could use virtual learning as an opportunity to learn and grow, while providing the same services and resources to all students. Dr. Craig Witherspoon, superintendent of Richland School District One, shared that schools must begin to rethink “normal” in the way they had traditionally approached education and that the effects of COVID-19 would be long lasting

Students were lifted from a traditional face-to-face setting in March, 2020, and placed in virtual learning platforms with just a moment's notice. The belief across the state was that things would return to normal and students would return to face-to-face instruction within a matter of weeks. As the pandemic worsened, with projections and data as reported from state and federal government health agencies trending downward, students across South Carolina did not return for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Many students in the class of 2020 did not have prom, traditional graduation ceremonies and festivities, or spring athletics. Students in elementary and middle school transition grades and their families also missed promotion celebrations. The impact of COVID-19 not only put a strain on the economy but also placed a strain on students' social and emotional health.

While K-12 education is primarily designed to foster enriching academic experiences that prepare students to make important choices about life after high school (choosing a college, career, or leaping straight into the workforce), it also serves as a network of support for students’ social and emotional needs. Many would argue that the chief goal of our education system is academic success. However, now more than ever, we realize that our students also need social and emotional support along with authentic and engaging academic learning experiences.

SEL and The Core Competencies

Social emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of schools. The South Carolina Department of Education requires school districts to assess students’ social and emotional health. Social emotional learning has five core competencies that focus on intrinsic and extrinsic growth, as well as cognitive proficiency. According to CASEL, the SEL Core Competencies are as follows:

  • Relationships

  • Responsible decision making

  • Self management

  • Self awareness

  • Social awareness

These competencies are essential as students begin reentering schools (virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face) for the first time in six months. Educators have to reteach students to channel their feelings and emotions in a positive manner. For some students, schools are a “safe-haven” that provide stability and structures and allow “children to be children.” Schools not only provide academic support but also provide behavioral, social, and emotional support that students need in order to be well-rounded. According to a July, 2020 NPR article relating to re-opening of schools, many pediatricians believe that failure to reopen schools could result in detrimental harm to students' cognitive, social, and emotional well-being.

Program components of SEL highlight the growing disparities across American communities and cities. There must be a balance between keeping students safe and providing financial stability for families. Many parents have had to make tough decisions to provide child care for their children.

Technology access is another area with blatant disparities. Many school districts were able to provide technology devices to students within two weeks, while others were not. In some districts a lack of technology tools and resources, including internet access, resulted in students receiving learning packets instead of regularly scheduled live instruction. In economically disadvantaged communities, many school aged children did not have access to WIFI networks. Similarly, in rural areas of the state many families were unable to access sustainable networks.

It Takes Everyone

Schools and districts have done remarkably well incorporating SEL as a part of the curriculum. For example, Richland School District Two’s Reopening Schools Taskforce included four committees established and led by district level administrators. Sub-committees were formed at each school across all levels within the district to incorporate the specific needs of each school. Public Health and Safety was one of the four committees and was created to ensure the physical and emotional health and safety of all school partners.

One school in Richland School District Two, Ridge View High School, separated the physical and social emotional components to have a more intentional focus on the social emotional well being of students, faculty, and staff. The school’s SEL committee included teachers, support staff, administrators, and members of the Learning Support Services division (LSS), including school counselors, the school psychologist, social worker, and career development facilitators. Working together, this committee developed a comprehensive SEL plan with a tiered approach to ensure that the needs of all students were met.

Tier 1 activities include classroom lessons, schoolwide events, data collection, and social media. Students receive a monthly SEL check-in form that is monitored by the LSS team to offer appropriate intervention strategies. Teachers can also refer students for intervention when they notice incongruences in students behavior or academic progress. The second tier, commonly referred to as Tier 2, is more intensive and includes individual counseling sessions, classroom observations of students, suspension and behavior conferences, small groups, and parent teacher conferences. Tier 2 also affords collaboration meetings between LSS and school administrators to discuss student data, student progress, and interventions. The collaboration meetings help ensure that administrators and LSS team members know what is going on with individual students. It also helps administrators who handle student discipline to know what barriers students are facing. Knowing individual student obstacles, administrators serve as liaisons between the school, students, and their families, with a focus on providing involved students with successful outcomes. Tier 3 is the most acute stage as it encompasses special services with referrals to the intervention assistance team, which includes members of the LSS team, teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Referrals to the intervention assistance team can lead to establishing a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Program for students. Tier 3 may also include referrals to the following services:

  • Tutoring

  • Richland Two Student Services

  • School Social Worker

  • Department of Social Services

  • School Psychologist

  • Military Family Life Counselor

  • Family Intervention Services

  • Columbia Area Mental Health

  • Lexington/Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council

  • Other services as needed by students and families

An Increased Focus on the “Little People”

With the turn of events shaping our “new normal” in education, it is evident that the roles of parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, school support staff, and communities in some ways, have “flip-flopped.” Schools at all levels are taking on the challenge of educating students in a different way while still caring for students’ social and emotional needs.

One example is Pine Grove Elementary School, located in the northwestern part of Richland School District One. Pine Grove has reshaped its focus to provide SEL opportunities for all students, pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. Following recommendations as outlined and provided by taskforce members of Richland One’s #RestartStrong Committee, the school is on a quest to revitalize equitable educational opportunities for students. A unique school situated in a diverse community, Pine Grove teachers not only provide engaging lessons that feed off content material but also provide several opportunities for students and teachers to engage in learning activities directly aligned with educating and supporting the needs of the whole child.

As we dive into “how” Pine Grove Elementary School teachers, staff, and administrators tackle the need to reach each child, it is important to note that children of all ages and at all levels (elementary, middle, and high school) require some form of normalcy with regards to linking learning to their emotional needs. What can we do to increase our focus on the “little people?”

Richland School District One has made a concerted effort to address the needs of all families, students, and teachers by planning for teaching and learning at all levels, student and family support, health and safety, nutrition and meal delivery, and access to WIFI networks. Along with the many resources available to students, the district has also provided additional assistance from school counselors and social workers within the district. Taking the lead in providing opportunities for disadvantaged families, the district has put in place additional systems that support communities within the district with increased low income populations.

As ONE school staff, all members of the faculty and staff at Pine Grove, as well as the community, have taken on the role of supporting students and their families to develop stronger bonds and relationships. To achieve this, teachers and staff have placed a significant focus on SEL activities. With no “one fits all” approach, Pine Grove teachers have a multitude of resources to employ into their virtual (and phase two and three) classrooms. Some resources used to accommodate students social emotional needs include:

  • Scholastic’s Our Best Selves lessons on Social Emotional Learning with an emphasis on integrating English/Language Arts:

    • Three lessons provided to teachers of kindergarten through second graders, focusing on: Labeling Emotions, Managing Emotions, and My Community.

    • Eight lesson provided to teachers of third through fifth graders, focusing on: Reflecting on Emotions; Building Emotional Vocabulary with Feeling Words; Building Empathy through Perspective-taking; Identifying and Managing Emotions; Creating a Community of Support; Strategizing and Acting with Empathy; Tracking Emotions; and Positive Self-Talk and Positive Affirmations.

    • Pathway 2 Success’s SEL Curriculum for Elementary Learners.

    • Situated in five units of study, this curriculum entails a focus on the 5 core competencies of SEL:

      • Self-Awareness

      • Self-Management

      • Social Awareness

      • Relationship Skills

      • Decision Making

      • Flocabulary by Nearpod

    • Through the use of forty-one interactive lessons, Flocabulary aims to support Social Emotional Learning, with a twist, by including rap. Some rap lessons include:

  • Managing Frustration

  • Managing Worry

  • Building Empathy

  • Joining in and Including Others

  • Self-Compassion

  • Mindfulness and Motivation.

  • Bright Futures Counseling Coronavirus Lessons include:

    • How are you feeling?

    • Opportunities for students to discuss stressors

    • Opportunities for students to discuss coping skills

    • The “Circle of Control”

    • Avoidable vs Unavoidable Stress

    • Strategies to use when coping with social and emotional needs (practicing mindfulness, writing in a journal, talking to a friend or ad adult, listening to music, walking, running, drawing, writing, taking deep breaths, etc.)

    • Developing a Stress Plan

    • Methods used to help debrief

These resources are meant to provide adaptable activities for grades pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, and in some cases, can also be readily adaptable for middle school students.

Since Pine Grove is an AVID Elementary School, a major emphasis of instruction is providing challenging opportunities to develop organized students who can employ AVID strategies (along with SEL strategies) in reading, writing, and math. Such concepts provide cultural relevance and responsiveness through culturally relevant teaching practices, following Gloria Ladson Billings’ pedagogy, referencing referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Instructional lessons at Pine Grove are created with an increased emphasis on cultural relevance tied to social emotional needs of all students.

Pine Grove Elementary School’s Student Support team consists of counselors, a psychologist, a parent engagement specialist, and a social worker. The team’s aim is to provide support with MTSS/IEP consultation, teacher and staff workshops, crisis intervention, individual and group counseling, risk assessment, home visits, attendance monitoring and support, social emotional learning and instruction, and creating and sustaining community partnerships.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of a school’s SEL program, the plan must be inclusive of all school partners. While all schools are unique, the obligation to address the social emotional needs of students is not. School districts across the state of South Carolina are doing great work in this area. The ideas from schools and districts highlighted in this article can help serve as resources for schools who are in the development stages of building their SEL program.

About The Authors

Kevin Covington serves as Assistant Principal at Goose Creek Elementary School in Berkeley County. Connect with Mr. Kevin Covington, @KCovington08 on Twitter.

Colavito McKie serves as a 5th grade classroom teacher and AVID co-lead teacher at Pine Grove Elementary School in Richland One. Connect with Mr. Coalvito McKie, @iamMisterMcKie on Twitter.

Brandon Ross serves as Assistant Principal at Ridge View High School in Richland Two. Connect with Mr. Brandon Ross, @MrRoss_RVHS on Twitter.



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