The Process for Changing Classroom & School Cultures
Bill Overton, EdD.
The Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) movement is an extremely positive step to reaching and teaching the whole child. This relatively new way of thinking about students, and people in general, has been extraordinarily helpful to many in recent years. As a result of this shift in focus, a myriad of programs and materials for teachers have been created. Many of them are phenomenal. Unfortunately, what is often lacking is the process for implementing them that is consistent, meaningful, relevant to students, and not another large task for teachers to donate their time to.
When I retired from the public school system after 40 years, I looked back and reflected upon what my own personal social-emotional learning (SEL) program, and that of my schools, was like. I taught at a school that was known since 1985 for being driven by what became known as SEL. What I was able to identify during my reflections were three components that when applied frequently enough, and with an adequate commitment to putting SEL at the top of curriculum priorities, contributed to a very inclusive and positive school and classroom culture.
What is below is not another program for teachers to embrace and implement. In some ways, it’s more than that. It is a way to significantly change classroom and school cultures. But, as is usually the case, it’s not quick and without its own challenges. If we believe the research that organizations like CASEL have performed, time spent on SEL is not mutually exclusive to achieving academic goals and growth (CASEL,2012). My experience has proven to me that to be true. Not only that, but the school I worked at spent an abundance of its time on emotional intelligence (EQ) & SEL in contrast to many schools that spent more time addressing specific academic concepts, especially during the No Child Left Behind time era. Yearly test scores proved repeatedly that the time was well spent. Our scores were always on the high side and our playground and school culture became known internationally.
My reflections clarified for me that we were all committed to three components that when given the time and necessary commitment, helped create a classroom and school culture where every child grew tremendously in all areas and felt safe, heard, and loved. Below are the three components. At the time, they were unidentified and were practiced without forethought. The staff at the time spent time on SEL simply because it was consistent with their caring about the whole child.
The Proactive Component
The first component I call the proactive one. This might sound a lot like a program I described earlier. There are some similarities. This part includes the explicit teaching of concepts, as supported by the CASEL model, and vocabulary to assist students in communicating their needs and feelings. The model for 6Seconds.org calls this knowing yourself (6Seconds.org), more specifically, building SE literacy. It is in many ways a kind of scaffolding, preparing students for the other components. I’ve seen some published programs that do an excellent job in this first component. But it is far from enough. This component can include models for resolving conflicts, dramatizing examples of bullying, introducing key words like resilience, empathy, and more. This component sets the foundation for deeper meaning and learning that comes with the other components.
Different than many published programs, the proactive component doesn’t have to take much time. It can be as simple as, “Let’s talk today about the word, “anger”. Teachers could begin with questions like, “Have you ever felt angry? What happened to cause that? How did you react? What did you feel at the time? How did you solve that?” You could do the same thing with concepts such as perseverance, overcoming challenges, having arguments with others, getting along with siblings, being frustrated, being sad, feeling loss, being afraid, and many more concepts. Any feeling or emotion that you have once felt can be introduced and discussed in this way. Everyone can relate to these topics, so every EQ time is relevant to most, if not everyone. This method runs contrary to the CASEL suggestion that the lessons are sequenced, though, but I traded that for being spontaneous and completely relevant to my students’ needs. One morning I was very tired, and I hadn’t given much time to the content for that day’s EQ session. As a result, I started our EQ time with a related question, “Have you ever felt tired before?” I discussed how I was feeling and then asked for students to add to the discussion. I also asked such questions as, “What caused that? How did it effect you? How did you solve that? How can we get more sleep?” While this lacks sequence, as previously mentioned, it does align with CASEL’s pillars of social awareness, demonstrating empathy, and responsible decision-making. Due to the spontaneous nature of these EQ periods, I could guide concepts addressed to what was occurring in my classroom, and myself, at that moment or in the last week.
During these weekly EQ sessions, we discussed an array of topics. A few such as publicly recognizing the strengths of others, role playing situations that have occurred or might occur on the playground, looking for creative solutions and at the perspectives of others, and managing one’s emotions during stressful situations are commonplace. This component served as the training ground for the other components providing a foundation upon which new behaviors and thoughts can be practiced. I spent most of scheduled EQ time introducing concepts that fall in CASEL’s social and self-awareness competency areas. Personally, I always felt that this component served as an introduction to sources of discomfort and emotional pain that life might bring us. In this way, I felt like I was touching the future. Stressed throughout every discussion were the concepts of respect, good listening behaviors, good communication skills, and emotional safety. These were the guidelines that the class had identified at the beginning of the school year as important to providing a safe culture.
As you can see, this step doesn’t take any materials or preparation. It only requires a classroom culture of respectfully listening to others and being able to speak one’s mind openly, honestly, and safely, another CASEL competency that relates to integrity and knowing oneself. I found that the amount of engagement depended on how much prior experience my students had sharing their feelings. After a while, even with a group initially reluctant to share, though, discussions became active, meaningful, and helpful.
In my classes, we had this first thing on Wednesday mornings, and it lasted anywhere from 30-60 minutes depending upon student interest. The topics ranged dramatically but I often chose concepts related to things that had happened in the classroom, situations that had occurred on the playground, or something I’d like to see more of in the classroom. I would always end the session with having the students help me to formulate the key message or a commitment to practicing specific skills that were introduced and discussed which I’d write and post on the bulletin board. I’d try to keep things as active as possible using hands-on activities, role-playing (always a favorite), and personal reflections in a journal.
Over the years, these periods were the source of students sharing such important emotion-packed news as a newly announced divorce, deaths in families, moving to a new school or location, the addition of new babies in the family, and so much more. Some of these were shared by the students themselves, and others that I was aware of, I could address from a safe distance as a topic of conversation staying in third person.
The Reactive Component
The second component of a comprehensive SEL program I called the reactive. This was the budgeting of classroom time to be used in helping individuals or groups of students to share issues that had occurred, often at recess, and still needed addressing. Neuroscientists have found that when students’ emotional brain (the limbic system) has been overwhelmed, it makes it more difficult for students to access their prefrontal cortex and gets in the way of students being able to focus on their work (Moyer, 2019). This component was by far the most important aspect of my SEL program. Recent research also supports using such practices as being key to undoing student trauma and raising the level of student-teacher attachment (Kolk, 2010).
I believe that students need to have a predictable opportunity to share what’s on their mind in a safe and guided environment and be truly seen and heard. CASEL’s competencies support this. These debriefing sessions allowed students to examine the perspectives of others and resolve conflicts constructively. Often the rest of the class participated offering their perspective and opinions. That was extraordinarily helpful in building a collaborating classroom culture. I found once these meetings were institutionalized in my classroom routines, students were more willing to let negative emotions temporarily go away during recess, and as a result there was less tension and friction on the playground and what was brought into the classroom. They knew that they’d have a chance to debrief their experience with a guide or guides and to be heard. These, too, help reduce student trauma.
I once had this very volatile student named John. Any perceived injustice or example of unfairness would set him off and often result in him stealing the game ball or stomping off kicking and yelling at anyone or anything is his way. As you might imagine, he didn’t have many friends. After several months of practicing debriefing sessions after each recess, he realized that he was going to have “his day in court “so to speak. This allowed him to experience his definition of injustice silently, trusting that he’d have my, and the other students’, undivided attention when he got inside. The transition he made was remarkable. In a peaceful and safe setting, he was able to hear the effects his behavior had on the other kids, as well as clarify rule infractions that were hard to understand, and to make peace with his peers. Needless to say, his social status in the classroom grew over the year, as did the number of friends and the number of kids that wanted to work with him. It was a great thing to witness. CASEL’s five competencies support these practices. During each session we were collectively discussing, reviewing, and practicing self-awareness by identifying our own emotions, recognizing the emotions of others, and demonstrating honesty and integrity. Simultaneously, we were practicing the competencies of social awareness and self-management. Students openly and honestly shared the strategies they used to solve problems and to hear and understand the feelings of others. These discussions also linked behavior with thoughts and with how we wanted to act. Our own personal goals. All the while the other classmates that weren’t necessarily directly involved with the situation that was brought indoors were able to benefit from strategies and perspectives offered. Without knowing it, we were building a collaborative and cooperative classroom culture of learning from each other in many ways.
It all came, I believe, from my willingness to give whatever time necessary to hear children’s stories and sources of pain, and to put them in their proper place. As CASEL’s study proves (CASEL, 2012), I believe this time had a large impact on my student’s ability to learn. If our goal is to create a comprehensive SEL program that touches children deeply, we have to first commit to the time it might take. Human emotions and motivations are often complicated and messy. They often take time to get through and unravel them. But, when you do, and with repeated practice, the entire class becomes well-versed in creatively and constructively solving problems, offering help and supporting others, and often standing up for the rights of others. All CASEL supported competencies. The 6Seconds model of emotional intelligence calls these skills part of the knowing yourself and navigating emotions. The time spent contributed greatly to building a very connected, accepting, and safe culture for everyone. Again, as the CASEL points out, cognitive growth and emotional well-being are not mutually exclusive.
Oftentimes the proactive and reactive components worked hand in hand. For example, one time during my proactive time (EQ time), I discussed the concept of perseverance. I led it with a popular activity called, “Rope Handcuffs” (you can find this on You Tube & at the 6Seconds.org website). After the activity and debriefing discussion, and after vocabulary was introduced, I wrote down the key points and placed it on a bulletin board. I did this most of the time after EQ time in order to be able to refer to the lessons introduced throughout the school day and year.
One day, several days after the introduction of this concept, a student of mine was having a hard time with a writing activity. He didn’t like to write normally but this activity really brought out his resistance. At one point, he threw down his pencil, folded his arms, and stopped working. His facial expressions showing his anger and frustration. When I noticed this, I went up to him and asked if this was an example of something he had to ‘persevere” with. I reminded him that his feelings and frustration were T.I.E.: Temporary, Isolated, and he was Empowered to make changes himself, all part of the proactive lesson. I asked him to articulate the elements that were hard for him and what he was feeling. This simple act of normalizing and accepting his frustration, accompanied by reminding him of the different strategies we had previously discussed, helped him to refocus without any resistance this time. He went on to complete the assignment in a timely manner and with excellent quality. This is just one of many examples of how the proactive and reactive components can be used together. After a while, many of a typical classroom’s social challenges that occur during the school year could be referred to by pointing to the EQ lesson we had earlier in the year.
The Embedded Component
The third component of a comprehensive SEL program is what I call the embedded part. This component puts a lot of the ownness and responsibility on the adults in the room. It requires them to think ahead and anticipate things that might give students some level of anxiety.
An everyday example of this is related to teachers introducing small group instruction. How many times have each of us started dividing up students into small groups without first addressing student questions and concerns that might be hidden? For the most part, students are fairly pliable and do what we ask them without resistance. This compliance, though, can hide hidden fears and discomforts that could get in the way of their focus, engagement, learning, and behavior. If we take a step back and consider what thoughts might be going on inside the heads of students, especially young ones, we might realize that this simple teaching strategy might be laden with hidden fears. Have we ever talked to our students before starting them about how the groups are formed, about the possibility of being the only boy or girl in the group, being perceived by their peers as being too smart or not smart enough, how long the groups might last, and whether or not there is any possible mobility from one group to another? Without addressing these lingering questions being put into a group could potentially feel like a life sentence with additional discomfort for the unknowing student.
This example demonstrates the importance of the embedded component. As the responsible adults, we need to anticipate similar sources of possible anxiety that our students might be experiencing. It is also our responsibility to address these publicly with our classes, normalizing all of their fears or at least explaining them. I found that after leading discussions like these for a time, the students became much more forthcoming in verbalizing what’s going on in their hearts and minds. That, in turn, led to a much safer classroom that was non-threatening and freed them to be better able to focus, engage, participate, and ultimately to learn. This step was an important contributor to being able to create and maintain a positive and safe classroom culture.
Another way that teachers can practice being aware of student discomforts and anxieties is by putting themselves in the role of student. Asking ourselves such questions as, is my classroom curriculum fun and engaging? Would I like to be in my own classroom? Which student would I most be like if I was in it? Which activities or part of the day would be the most stressful for me, and more? That doesn’t mean I would change things dramatically, but it raised my awareness so that I could at least touch on some of these sources of anxiety. Putting myself in their shoes might have been the most important skill as a teacher I ever learned. At times I used informal questionnaires for my students to solicit what they were feeling. Sometimes I had to read body language and behavior. And sometimes I had to use my best judgment and intuition to guess. During these times, I was sometimes wrong, but my attention to these topics didn’t hurt anyone at all.
One time as a very young and inexperienced teacher I asked myself if I thought my classroom was fun. Upon deep and difficult reflection, I realized that the answer was a clear “no”. It was reflections like that that led me to select large topics that interested students for sources of projects, integrate subject-matter, (now called Project-based Learning) include elements of SEL, and end with a role-playing improvised simulation. These became five-month projects that touched on hundreds of standards and were the focus of my classroom. I eventually called them Beyond Project-based Learning (BPBL), since they included within each one several smaller PBLs yet under a larger umbrella of theme and challenge. Project-based learning happens to be a strategy for teaching and learning that is also supported by CASEL competencies.
The Possible Benefits of Using All Three Components
In my time as an elementary school teacher and principal, I found that using these three components continuously made for a very warm and positive experience for everyone. Since my thoughts and feelings were also a part of the mix, I had a venue to express my concerns of what I thought was occurring with my students. As a principal, I could at any time enter a classroom and discuss with the students any concerns they had as well as share any concerns that I had. It also became very easy to take the current social and emotional temperature so to speak of the school. We would even use these strategies to invite students from other classrooms to help us solve a problem. As a teacher, I found that my students were much more engaged and willing to take academic risks. This contributed greatly to major academic growth. My school was high in API scores for years. The three components gave us all repeated opportunities to hear others and be heard, increasing our feeling of community and our empathy skills. Students need “predictable opportunities” to share what’s on their minds. If you listen to them long enough, they have remarkable, often surprising and insightful things, things that you never thought they were capable of. You might want to try these in your own school and classroom. They will change your teaching career, and possibly your life as a whole.
A Final Word
When I’ve talked to teachers and administrators about these important components of a comprehensive SEL program, the most common hesitation is that it takes too much time. As a former administrator I can understand this concern. Education is once again being challenged by standards, the amount of seat time, and more. What first started me down this path was the fact that my students’ well-being was first and foremost in importance to me. Everything else was secondary. If I was ever challenged by parents or administrators about my use of time and priorities (I rarely was), I always felt in the right and could articulate to the group the evidence of the emotional well-being of the student at hand, the research related to positive classroom cultures and the evidence of EQ and SEL contributing to higher test scores. Ultimately, I don’t remember ever being challenged in this way, even though I was in a very high intensity community. It seems that everyone wants kids to be happy and unstressed.
As for use of time, the school I was at for most of my career were full of true SEL believers at varying degrees. As a whole we used significantly less academic seat time for traditional subjects. Nevertheless, we were also in the top third of the district in standardized test scores, a very important statistic throughout the district. This freed me from any anxiety that I might receive from my peers or administrators.
But the most important thing to me, though, was that I knew that every minute I was using for EQ and SEL was important to my students’ lives and future; that every concept addressed or discussed, every tear saved, or anxiety reduced, every smile that returned to a student was something that might have far-reaching effects, well beyond the length of time in my classroom. I believe in every single moment I devoted to my students’ emotional and social well-being, and still do. Sometimes as educators we have to be courageous. We have to figure out what exactly our priorities are for our students and remain steadfast in our commitment to those lifelong lessons, which we all know will outlive the other countless standards that we addressed. As the people at 6Seconds might ask, what is our noble goal, our legacy, and how will others know it?
2013 CASEL GUIDE: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs preschool and Elementary School Edition; Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); Copyright © 2012; All rights reserved; Editorial assistance and design: KSA-Plus Communications, Inc.
Van Der Kolk, M.D.; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma; 2015
Helena, Daniel; We need more relevant curriculum in our schools; Edsource, 2019. 6Seconds.org
Customized Curriculum: How Personalized Learning Can Benefit Your Child; 2015; The Tenney School, Texas.