Supporting Student Social and Emotional Learning and Well-being in Dublin City Schools: Reflections on Two Years of Progress

By Tyler Wolfe, Director of Student Well-Being, Dublin City Schools

Social and emotional learning in the classroom is a topic that is currently receiving a lot of attention. As educators, we know that not all students enter the classroom prepared to learn. Our young humans naturally host a wide range of emotions, feelings, levels of background knowledge, degrees of traumatic experiences and so on.

Middle school administrators and teachers in Dublin City Schools have acknowledged and responded to the need for daily, focused, individualized student attention and student well-being. This need of course, has always existed, but we are seeing the need continue to grow as our student population becomes increasingly diverse and complex. Finding time in the day to address student well-being, mental health, and sense of belonging is always a challenge. In addition, integrating and embedding these topics into content standards has proven to be difficult and complicated for teachers.

Middle School Tactics

Staff at the middle level in Dublin have worked together over the past two years to incorporate into each day 25 minutes to focus on either enrichment, intervention, career exploration, or wellness. The first and most important part of making this 25-minute period successful is the unwavering support and commitment of our principals. Schools have named this period “Rocks Period,” “SOAR Period,” “Squad,” or “Irish Period” to help unify the school community and encourage a sense of belonging.

The typical class period at the middle school is 45 minutes. Each day, either before or after lunch, students transition to the 25-minute period with teachers they may or may not normally have. Students remain with their grade levels, but are mixed for this particular period of the day.

A Challenging Launch with Signs of Success

The first year of implementation was challenging. For the wellness day, even though teachers used an evidence-based curriculum, they found the lessons developmentally inconsistent and struggled to find other age appropriate resources. With the time constraints, they simply didn’t have the opportunities they needed to create the experience they wanted to offer. As a result, it was a mishmash of activities that lacked focus.

In spring of the first year of implementation, middle school teams reflected on successes and challenges during the first year of implementation. Successes included completing full implementation, mostly positive responses from students and families, and a slight increase in Panorama results, a survey tool that measures student social and emotional skills and school climate and culture. Challenges included getting all staff on board with the idea, identifying point people for organizing materials and lesson plans.

Summertime Reflection and Planning

Teachers, instructional coaches, and specialists from different content and subject areas representing all five Dublin middle schools came together in June for three summer work sessions to address some of the challenges and plan “big picture” ideas for the wellness day of the week. These practitioners were paid a stipend for their after-hours work.

The three summer work days were productive and fun for the team of twenty. The initial task was to determine the purpose and intention of the work. The team agreed that their role as representatives was to create bigger, general themes and ideas around wellness and leave the more detailed activities to the individual schools, giving them the autonomy to customize things according to needs and individual personalities. We also wanted to include research-based practices that could be easily used to help students with things like emotional regulation and anxiety. One of our biggest goals was to strengthen the sense of belonging, as we know how important this is to a student’s mental health. We also wanted to incorporate components of The R-Factor, a district initiative focused on making positive and intentional reactions based on the events that we experience.

Student Engagement and Co-creation

In addition, the team felt that getting students involved was key, so each school developed their own way of engaging students, whether it was for ideas, logistics, planning or organizing. A Google Site was created that focused solely on well-being activities. Included in this site are links to breathing techniques, wellness videos, games, activities, and general wellness lesson plans. Our team also participated in R-Factor training to be educated on the language and goals prior to involving students. Throughout our work, members of the team became more familiar with the SEL Competencies and spent time researching some best practices for well-being activities. We used resources such as the CASEL website, Character Strong, and Panorama resources for ideas.

Kicking off the School Year with Intention

The team met again in August to finalize plans for starting the first weeks of school. As we entered the school year, a day was set aside each month for the team to meet and plan. We decided to break into subgroups, with each one tackling a time period during the school year. Through the work, we found that there were many common activities among the five middle schools, which made planning easier. For example, in the fall, each school conducts a school spirit activity called the Pumpkin Roll which is a competition on the football field that brings the school together. Near the holidays, schools participate in “Give Back” activities, and lessons on empathy and social awareness are easily implemented. Schools did a “Crazy 8” tournament to increase a sense of belonging and a school-wide “Cardboard Bridge” activity to give students an opportunity to work together towards a common goal.

Celebrating the Wins with a focus on Continuous Improvement

As this school year progresses, we are meeting each month to celebrate our successes, brainstorm ways to overcome our challenges, plan big picture themes, and offer suggestions for making the wellness day of advisory periods even better. Team members add to the Google site dedicated to Middle School Wellness Days and share resources with their school teams.

Fortunately, as this initiative has progressed, staff have begun to see positive changes in school climate and culture, as well as a decrease in disruptive behaviors and discipline referrals. We are anxious to administer the Panorama Survey this spring, as the wellness component of the advisory period has had a great emphasis on sense of belonging and emotional regulation, which are both measured via the survey.

Overall, the past two years have proven to be a great learning experience for us. The initiative was new, and many times we felt like we were building the plane as we flew it. Over time, we are confident that with continued commitment and hard work, we can make improvements to the advisory period and add components that enrich the experience for our students.