Social-emotional learning a focus for schools

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Walking around a school pre-COVID-19, it wasn’t uncommon to see students practicing breathing exercises, classes taking a break with yoga or a staff member talking to a student about how the brain reacts to emotions.

Those activities are part of a focus on social-emotional learning, which involves teaching students of all ages to recognize their emotions, the physical effects those emotions have on their bodies and how to self-regulate when they start to feel overwhelmed. At many local schools, teaching social-emotional learning has been a group effort led by school social workers and school counselors.

School social workers are licensed social workers who work in a school setting, though they do not diagnose or treat mental health issues. School counselors are often educators who focus on academic and career guidance in addition to helping students with mental health concerns. Locally, schools employ a mix of school social workers and school counselors, and the responsibilities of the position vary district to district.

Social-emotional learning is also a piece of the puzzle that leads to academic success.

“If they struggle in those areas, they probably aren’t achieving academically to the best of their ability,” said Heather Goodhue, the school social worker at Fifth Street Elementary and one of two at Ireland Elementary.

Social-emotional learning is a way of teaching that focuses on the student as a whole, taking education beyond academics to include navigating relationships and other outward situations, as well as learning about emotions, their physical effects on the body and how to alleviate negative emotions.

“Some students come in, and they don’t know how to regulate themselves,” said Christine Vinson, the school counselor at Southridge High School. “It’s always important to me to make sure I’m guiding them, not telling them what to do. They need to figure that out on their own, because they’ll deal with those emotions again.”

For school counselors and social workers, guiding students through social-emotional learning means offering a variety of tools — such as journaling, meditation, breathing exercises and yoga — so they can find what works for them. That guidance comes in many forms, including schoolwide activities, classroom lessons and one-on-one meetings. And it’s not just at-risk kids who get the help.

“I think that’s what a lot of people think,” said Melanie Krueger, the school social worker at Tenth Street Elementary and one of two at Ireland Elementary. “But we really focus on the social-emotional learning of all students. They all need support at some point.”

Counselors and COVID-19

Before schools closed due to COVID-19, Krueger and Goodhue worked as part of the transition team helping guide the consolidation of Fifth and Tenth Street schools into Jasper Elementary, which will open this fall. They and the rest of the staff are already looking ahead to anticipate the needs of students when traditional learning resumes and the students move into the new school. Although they don’t know for sure when schools will reopen, Goodhue said they are expecting to have to take the start of the year slower than normal so everyone has a chance to readjust to traditional learning and to adjust to a new space.

“I think we’ll just have to be intentional with them,” Goodhue said. “There will be some familiar faces, but there will be a lot of new faces, too. It’ll be a whole new building where everything looks different.”

Transitioning to a new school is a concern for lots of students as the school year comes to an end. At Forest Park Junior-Senior High School, school counselor Audrey Fleck is working with the incoming seventh graders to alleviate some of the stress they’re feeling about moving from Cedar Crest Intermediate School to Forest Park in the fall.

“As the school year closes, they’re thinking about moving to a big building,” Fleck said.

Usually, Forest Park holds a move-up day in the spring for incoming seventh graders to help them get accustomed to the building before arriving for class in the fall. With the schools closed for COVID-19, that event isn’t happening. Fleck said the school hopes to hold a similar event in July, but it’s still unclear if that will be allowed to happen. In the meantime, Fleck is doing what she can to prepare students virtually. She’s made several videos that show the incoming class around the school, and is meeting with students one-on-one virtually or over the phone to get their class schedule worked out.

Of course, it’s not just students who will transition to a new building in the fall that are reaching out, and school counselors and social workers are doing what they can to offer resources to all their students via email, online classroom platforms and other virtual means.

Jasper High School social worker Holly Hughes has heard from students at all grade levels, and some have even asked her to meet them in person, which she can’t do right now.

“I think a big part of mental health is face to face, so it can make my job really hard when I can’t meet with my students,” Hughes said.

So, she’s gotten creative. She emails back and forth with students, and each week she and her partner, Amanda Grothouse, send emails to the students with self-care activities such as yoga videos, gratitude journal prompts and mental health resources. Grothouse also created websites for the high school and Jasper Middle School where students can find resources. The link to the high school’s site is https://sites.google.com/gjcs.k12.in.us/jhssocialwork/home, and the middle school’s site is https://sites.google.com/gjcs.k12.in.us/jmssocialwork/home.

David Turnham Education Center social worker Amber Wetzel also hears concerns and stress from some of her students.

“It’s hard to measure if it’s more or less, but I know it’s been a struggle for students, families and teachers,” Wetzel said. “This is now how we’d like to have it. We’d like to all be at school together.”

Like many school counselors right now, she’s doing her best to send resources to families and students and to continue meeting with students virtually. Since she helps with the corporation’s Bag of Blessings program, which send bags of groceries home to families in need each week, she sees a few of the students she works with when they and their parents come to pick up food.

“It’s really hard not to go hug them or give them a high-five,” she said.

Across the Southwest Dubois County School Corporation, checking in on students during the school closure has been all hands on deck. The corporation launched Raider Check In, a program that matches each student to a teacher who calls simply to see how the student is doing. After the call, the teachers can connect the students with their school’s counselor, if necessary.

“I think that’s gone very well,” Vinson said.

The counselors and social workers agree that when it comes to working with students during COVID-19, their basic needs come first. If their families are struggling financially, the counselors connect them to resources to help. From there, they work with the students to focus on the parts of their lives they can control and to find activities that bring them joy to help get them through the pandemic.

When in-person classes resume, the counselors expect there to be a transition period as everyone readjusts. With so many unknowns remaining about when schools will reopen and what that will look like, it’s hard to know what that adjustment period will be.




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