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NEA News

SEL Strategies from a Culture and Climate Coach

How to help students, educators and families cope as schools return to in-person learning.
Gina Harris
Culture and Climate Coach Gina Harris
Published: July 13, 2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Allowing students to identify their feelings helps them manage difficult emotions.
  2. Educators need ways to manage their own stress if they are to help students manage theirs.
  3. Funding for community support of mental health and SEL are needed.

Gina Harris is one of four Culture and Climate Coaches in the Oak Park and Ridge Forest School District who were hired in 2019 to create more inclusive, equitable and connected school communities throughout the district. The pandemic moved her job online, but it also shed light on how much students need her to continue the work.

NEA Today spoke with Harris about the need for social and emotional learning (SEL) to support student and educator mental health.

How will we need to support students as they return to in-person instruction next year?

GH: We’ve learned some things having had students in schools last academic year. Most schools had some form of hybrid learning. When doors opened, we saw some students not wanting to come back just yet, they were emotionally raw with the fear of getting COVID. Some needed a little extra time to adjust walking through the hallways with lots of other students. There was stress, certainly, and we will have more stress in the 2021-2022 year. We’ll need to take things a bit slower to move forward, and do so with social and emotional learning (SEL).

What are some SEL strategies educators can use for different age groups?

GH: First, we must build a lot more intentional time into classroom structures so students have the opportunity to get acclimated. Rather than getting started with work right away, what I’m hoping as an SEL practitioner is that we start by supporting students to express where they are and what they’re feeling, that we have conversations about who they are.

Our younger students need to get regulated to learn again with regulating techniques like a mindfulness exercise. After the hustle and bustle of arriving in the morning or getting them settled after lunch, try singing or dancing or reflections and gets them present in their body and coach them to be fully cognizant of what’s going on in the minds and bodies. Ask, how are you feeling? How does it feel in your tummy? How does it feel in your head? Is your heart moving fast or slow?

If a student says their tummy or their heart feels fluttery, encourage them to connect with the feeling by talking about it more. What does fluttery feel like? After they talk about, ask them to close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and breathe into their belly. Now what does your tummy feel like? Getting into the breathing takes their mind off their nerves – the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated with deep breathing.

Older students also need regulating techniques. In middle school, we can ask them to write reflections every morning and in embedded times throughout the day. For example, you can say, “OK, let’s have a seat and write down three thoughts that are occurring for you right now and also describe what’s going on in your body.” Then they can do the breathing exercise and write about how that impacted their thoughts and feelings.

In high school, students are actually asking their educators for more SEL time in the day. During advisory periods they can sit in restorative circles and take turns talking about their experiences, about ways that’s impacting their feelings. For all ages, it’s critical to teach them that they are having an emotion, but that doesn’t mean they are the emotion.

How has the pandemic highlighted the need for SEL?

GH: We’ve known for a long time that students have a need for these regulation tools, but now because everyone has experienced the pandemic and trauma, we all know what it means to be anxious, even traumatized. There was COVID-19 loss of life or of health, there was the fear of that happening to us or our loved ones, there was economic loss, racial harm and the trauma associated with that. Our kids pick up on all of that and have had very difficult emotions. If we build in those SEL practices, we can help them identify their emotions. That’s huge. If you give them the opportunity name their feelings it gives them the ability to identify the emotion and they realize, “OK, I’m having an emotion and I’m not the emotion.”

What about educator mental health?

GH: We must recognize that in order for the students to get regulated, the educators in the room have to be regulated first. We can’t pretend we’re OK when we’re not OK. We have to be able to say I’m overwhelmed. Educators – ESPs and teachers -- need self-care, and I’m not just talking about getting a massage or your nails done, it’s much deeper than that. What are our daily ongoing practices? Who can we reach out to when we’re overwhelmed and get the support we need? Can we identify our emotions, can we recognize when we’ve reached our limits? We have to know when we need to stop, take deep breaths, or take a step away. Sometimes we all forget that our students learning environment is also our educators working environment.

How do we involve families?

GH: A lot of what we’re hearing is that families want to be more connected. They love the idea of knowing who our teachers are and so we’ve invited them to “Come Together” circles where we as a school community – educators, students, families, administrators -- sit and talk about what’s on our minds. We had them in person, them moved them to Zoom and had a huge participation rate, now we’re looking forward to having them in person again. We might start with question, like if you’re going to be superhero, what’s your superpower? Or, what’s something your grateful for in your family? Everyone gets a different perspective of the people they encounter in the school community and that we can cultivate relationships in whole new way. More of that please!

Can we involve the community at large also?

GH: What we know that is people need support. We’ve been isolated, and we don’t like being isolated. We are community-based beings and we can and should do more to pull in our community organizations. We need to stop thinking of schools as these isolated buildings where send our children. A school is an integrated part of our community. So we can start to figure out how to partner with what’s already in our area. What universities are in our neighborhood? How do we pull in college students through internships? How do we pull in organizations who are doing mental wellness work? We have to have these larger ways of being connected. In some some schools, they don’t even have a social worker at all, or there’s one person or one counselor for 500 kids. None of this is that easy to do, which is why the current funding from the Biden administration is so critical. Part of that money will go toward creating more Community Schools, which we know have leveraged community resources and just do something magical for everyone who walks through their doors.

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