From Stories to Strategies: An Integrated Approach to SEL

1024 Event Collage

I want to tell you how inspired I was by this — I really needed this presentation. I teach special education in a contained, behavioral SEL class and for the past few weeks I’ve been so downhearted because it’s so difficult in so many ways. Both presenters reignited my purpose and helped me carve a path forward. And I really want to thank you for that.

- Event Attendee

Last week, we hosted our first in-person event as Throughline Learning! Building a Culture of Compassion through Trauma-Informed Practices featured Dr. Richard Booth and Malika Ali as they wove together research, stories, classroom strategies, and systems to support compassionate community-building.

This debut felt like a homecoming in many ways. Prior to the pandemic, our organization was well known for our convenings built around fun, networking, and meaningful conversations. It was amazing to introduce our new name and brand in front of a warm audience and reinforce that we are the same team with the same mission, vision, and values — writing a new chapter in our work supporting better outcomes for schools, classrooms, and students.

A Call for Action

National trends support what we’ve been hearing from educators, leaders, and families about student well-being over the past two years:

  • In 2021, 42% of students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health (CDC). This led the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association to declare a national emergency in children’s mental health.
  • In 2022, 69% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of their students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the pandemic, and 76% of schools reported an increase in staff voicing concerns about their students exhibiting symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and trauma (NCES).

Educators have had to work harder than ever to support a larger range of behaviors and academic needs and address student well-being before attending to academic lessons and interventions. Understanding how to integrate trauma-informed practices into all aspects of the school day has never been more needed.

Applying a Growth Mindset

Dr. Booth began by sharing that optimism is not an innate trait but a learned response. Evidence says that we have a left brain and a right brain. Though there’s integration, there is some localization. The left side of your brain is the “logical, math side”; while the right side is the “artistic side”. The right side, however, processes negative emotions better, while the left side processes positive emotions better.

In life, we process scenarios all the time that may seem purely negative — such as a car crash. In those moments, if we pause to consider potential positive aspects of the situation — no one was seriously hurt, bystanders offered support, insurance enabled the purchase of a better car — we can actually re-hardwire our brains. If we practice generating alternative, more positive viewpoints, we have the power to change our brains, making us more optimistic and more adept at processing information with a more hopeful lens.

How does this apply to schools? When we’re working with our students and processing their experiences and stories — as well as our own — we must remember that the end of a story is not written in stone. Children are not lost causes and adults are not “unchangeable”. As we work through situations with students, we can proactively offer alternative interpretations of behaviors, new understandings of one another’s perspectives, and manageable next steps they can take toward a more positive trajectory. This also helps us reframe the narratives we as adults hold — consciously or subconsciously — about students, empowering us all to become less emotionally reactive, less prone to right brain impulses.

Leading with Our Values

Malika Ali followed up with key considerations to use with students to prevent them from emotionally shutting down in the classroom:

  1. Inquire, don’t assume
  2. Warmly reassure the student that this is going to be ok
  3. Communicate your desire for the student to feel empowered to make a decision that is good for them
  4. Communicate that the student is safe
  5. Communicate and demonstrate your values
  6. Provide options and express to students what power they have
  7. Affirm the student’s values, how they show up, and how you know they they can show these values in this moment

Combining an empathetic approach with authentic inquiry can lead to conversations and action steps that produce a more optimistic, positive student response. Consider a student who shuts down whenever she’s faced with a math task. After the student feels safe, heard, and empowered, a discussion of common values could lead to these next steps:

  • Build goals around mindset instead of task completion. Frame a goal with language such as “when I get stuck, I am not going to shut down” and include tangible strategies to support perseverance.
  • Lower the stakes around the learning. Integrate a level of fun into the math task that resonates with the student, resulting in a less pressure-filled situation.
  • Create math applications that align with an area of student interest. Making meaningful connections can establish entry points into skill development.

What's Next? A New Community of Practice

Listening to our presenters share stories and strategies was a great first step for our audience of teachers, school counselors, social workers, nonprofit staff, school leaders, district administrators, and community members. Interest in follow-up opportunities to implement and collaborate was clear.

The Throughline Learning team is excited to launch a brand new virtual fellowship experience to connect implementing educators and leaders across districts. The Social Emotional Learning Fellowship (SELF) cohort will offer a collective approach to integrating culturally responsive SEL strategies in schools and classrooms.

The SELF cohort will meet five times this school year, beginning in January. We are now recruiting interested teachers, school and district leaders, and all staff looking to learn, network, and support student socio-emotional and academic needs. Cohort membership is $500 per participant.

Thoughtful Advocates for Positive SEL Programming

We’d be remiss if we didn’t shout out the sponsor organizations who helped make the event possible — two groups led by friends of Throughline Learning who are thoughtful advocates for supporting students and educators through a holistic lens.

GiveThx is a digital program and research-validated curriculum that strengthens student wellbeing and social-emotional skills through gratitude. A school culture grounded in connection and belonging enables student success. Students and staff who feel valued are more likely to positively engage with school. Right now, GiveThx has a free Educator Wellbeing Program — learn more here.

OpenSeat is a non-profit founded by school leaders, to meet students' social-emotional tier 2 needs through 1:1 virtual coaching. Their goal is to expand the reach of school SEL teams, ensuring that all students have access to care when they need it. They are looking for partnerships on the East Coast; if you are interested in learning more or would be willing to share your perspective and feedback, please connect with them.

We’d like to extend a final shout-out to Eric Butash, our former colleague and enduring friend, for his generous support of the event.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the success of our first in-person event as Throughline Learning. Please help us spread the word about upcoming presentations and opportunities! And If you or someone you know is interested in the SELF cohort, fill out the brief Google Form today. Questions? Email Communications Manager Maeve Murray.