Too often, I visit schools that have adopted a socio-emotional program to address the needs of students, but the programs have no more than a couple of posters and a chart that can be found in a couple of classrooms because all of the school’s energies are being funneled into academics. Or, the schools have remnants of one or two programs, but no one in the schools can really articulate the core theme or to what extent the programs are intended to align to the academic achievement. This is not an indictment of schools that are solely focused on academic achievement. With the growing accountability, it is evident that academic success is paramount for educators to keeping their jobs. Here’s the Shakespearean rub, when the students are not socio-emotionally healthy, all efforts not aligned to curing what ills them will be futile. It certainly is not that school communities aren’t acutely aware of this connection; it appears to be a matter of the availability of programs that can truly address the school’s needs. Similar to any academic program, school staff members need these programs to be comprehensive and coupled with intense professional development until the principles of the socio-emotional approach become ingrained in the school’s culture. This revelation presents two major issues: (1) can a school community with lots of competing priorities truly focus on the socio-emotional development of students with the necessary fidelity without the explicit support and prioritization of the district office? and (2) where can schools find a comprehensive socio-emotional developmental need (SEDN) program that comes with intensive professional development and teaches teachers how to align these efforts to academic goals, thus creating a system of support?
My Professional Experience Influences the Birth of A System
Here’s my story for this blog. After my first year leading my school of 1800 students and 81 classes, 18 cluster teachers with 42 paraprofessionals and 27 school aides and countless other adults, I hurriedly recruited a group of teachers to research and recommend a SEDN program that could assist our efforts of supporting student needs. The teachers diligently looked into several programs and finally presented their recommendation to a group of 40 staff members during a two-day retreat. We settled on a program and for many years I’ve publicly announced how pleased I was with the program. I still have very fond memories of the program, but not so long ago, I found myself explaining how much work went into turning the program into a thriving system. I soon realized that I loved the system that was created from the skeletal program. I also realized while visiting schools that had I not created a comprehensive system to wrap around the program, my futile attempts to support our students would have been similar to what I was witnessing.
Like any responsible educator on a quest to assist schools improve, I set out to address the gap, as I know it. There was a need for a systemic and comprehensive approach to address students’ SEDN and sense I successfully created that system in my school, why not do the same for others. The criteria for creating a systems approach? We had to address ten elements: (1) provide the school with enough branding of the program that there leaves little doubt of what program grounds the principles socio-emotional support, (2) connect the program to a daily pledge or affirmation, (3) create books of the month with inner-city characters experiencing real issues that today’s students can relate to, (4) provide teachers with a teacher’s guide of lessons to align to the book of the month, (5) provide students with a handbook that can be used to do quick follow-up assignments aligned to the books of the month, (6) provide a home-school connection of newsletters and letters informing families of activities within the program kit, (7) create a separate guide for guidance counselors and social workers so that small group intensives can be conducted, (8) provide at least 10 professional development sessions during the first year to ensure the program is being implemented with fidelity and supports school communities needing to build capacity in this area, (9) provide staff members the opportunity to recognize students who excel in the program, and (10) ensure that the goals of achieving the principles align to academic goals established for students.
These ten add-ons represented what I created for the program my school adopted. It’s the combination of this type of service that creates a system of support. A picture of this demonstrates how the services wrap-around the program in diagram 1.
The Power in District Approach to SEDN
Now that we understand that type of resources and focus it takes to establish a socio-emotional developmental needs system, let’s talk about how to get it done. The district approach to establishing an effective SEDN system is best for several reasons. Not only does this approach establish a firm stronghold that SEDN is important, it also ensures that accountability to provide proper supports and implementation is shared by the district. Other benefits to a district approach to implementing a SEDN system is
Staff members across the district will establish a common language for articulating and understanding student needs, which helps to ensure that everyone understands the goals of the district;
All schools will strive towards accomplishing common student values, which may lead to an easier transition from one level to another;
Families and the community will enjoy a stable approach, which prevents having to acclimate to different approaches throughout their child’s K-12 education experience;
The district and schools can benefit from district-level data aligned to impact, which will allow the district to identify hot spots and aspects for intense district-wide professional development;
The district and school should enjoy a discount on the consumable materials necessary for implementing the program; and
The goal of building capacity aligned to the approach for addressing students’ SEDNs should be expedited due to the laser-like focus on the implementation.
The launch of these programs can also be instrumental in fostering cross-school relationships, if the launch of professional development is organized as a district-wide event or a platform for dynamic conversations, comments, and problem solving. A benefit to families with multiple children attending school in the district is the potential of district-wide events, which encourages a type of one-stop celebrations across the district. I strongly encourage districts to consider this approach or to have individual schools work together to select a program that is common across the district. Naturally, REACH© has a program for K-8 schools and will release the high school component of the program during the 2016-2017 school year. The REACH Character Building Program™ addresses all of the components discussed in this blog, but the above tips can assist any school with creating their own system for student support.