by Amanda Clark
According to the Washoe County School District 2018 student climate survey, 83 percent of Washoe County students said they get along with their classmates and 85 percent said they get along with their teachers as opposed to 84 percent and 87 percent in 2016.
The WCSD began implementing “Social and Emotional Learning” in 2012 and is currently one of 21 participating districts nationwide.
Student climate survey data also indicates that students rated themselves lower in managing their emotions. Of the 23,388 students who participated in the 2016 survey, 49 percent said it’s easy to stay calm when they feel stressed, compared to 46 percent of the 27,151 participants in 2018.
SEL District Specialist Maggie Folkers said not every school in the district implements SEL to the same extent, but the district expects educators to utilize it.
“Each class has different needs and different structures that they require,” Folkers said. “It isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and I think that’s important for SEL to get.”
SEL teaches students from kindergarten through senior year in high school five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The district specifically emphasizes connectedness, collaboration and teaches students how to cope with challenges.
“We need to have those elements in our life where we have been challenged, where we have been stretched, where we have had to stand firm and really root ourselves when those winds come so that we’re not just blown all over the place,” Folkers said.
In 2012, when the district first implemented the program, administrators, counselors and some teachers from each school attended a three-day training on SEL where they learned the standards. Administrators then trained the remaining staff.
While the program has been in place for seven years, the district must conduct more research to determine the program’s long-term efficacy. Currently, the WCSD continues to administer the annual student climate surveys as a way to measure progress.
Mendive Middle School orchestra teacher Noelle Rader focuses on teaching students to manage their emotions through music. In her classroom, she sometimes selects challenging songs for her students to intentionally teach them to manage frustration.
“I don’t say ‘wow that’s bad.’ I say ‘should you feel mad or sad about yourself? No. Why? Because it’s your first time,”’ Rader said.
SEL District Specialist Micaela Gerardin-Frey said effective SEL implementation requires student collaboration and communication.
“In math, if I can explain my thinking to my group, I’m collaborating,” Gerardin-Frey said. “I’m explaining exactly what process I’m going through and I’m learning at the same time. It’s much easier to blend in English, ELA, social studies, art and theater into their instruction. If we’re using good methods, our kids should be talking to each other. They should be producing together and individually. That’s the optimal learning environment.”
Gerardin-Frey and Folkers emphasized the importance of teachers building relationships with their students. According to Folkers, many teachers, including herself, practiced relationship building for years before SEL was formally established.
Folkers began teaching in Sioux Falls, S.D. before teaching English in Washoe County in 1991, where she spent a majority of her career.
“I got a random phone call from a kid who said ‘you probably don’t remember me, but you made a difference.’ It wasn’t studying the ancient Sumerians and Gilgamesh that made the difference. It was the connections that made the difference for these kids. It was the relationships. Those are the things that these kids remember,” Folkers said.
Although the district and teachers stress SEL’s importance, not all students understand its purpose. Reed High School student Kaylor Carpenter said posters in her school’s hallways encourage students to see the school counselors if they have any problems, but she said most students don’t take it very seriously and only visit the counselors when they bring them in once every year.
The most recent district survey results for 2019 will be available this summer.