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Social Emotional Learning: ‘The next step in educating’
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Over the last two years, you may have heard the words Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, used by Forsyth County Schools when talking about how the system has changed its approach to teaching over the years.

And while it might sound like a simple, singular program implemented by the district, in reality, it is a vast new approach to teaching that touches nearly every department within the school system.

According to Debbie Smith, the director of student support services at Forsyth County Schools, Social Emotional Learning is a way of taking necessary and fundamental life skills and layering them into academic lessons.

"It’s really about addressing the whole child," Smith said. "We are about building the whole child, in every way, to make them successful not just in school but throughout life." 

She said the program is based on five main skills, called competencies, that each deal with a different area of social emotional learning. These competencies include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. How each competency is communicated to students is tiered for different ages, with a variety of different objectives for each grade level. 

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“What we have done is developed questions at each grade level for teachers in what sort of conversations and questions you can have with kids,” Smith said. “For example, if you are studying the Civil War, how can you help kids understand Abraham Lincoln’s perspective – ‘And what would you have done and decisions would you have made?’

“It’s not so much in the responses we are getting, but it’s in the fact that they are truly reflecting on those things now.”

Smith said the school hopes this type of thinking will get students involved in their own education from an early age and help them avoid social and emotional problems as they get older. In doing this, they hope to build stronger, more successful students.

"It is foundational to academic learning,” Smith said. "They've got to be able to function and be self-aware of their emotions. They've got to be able to make wise choices. They've got to be able to build positive relationships.”

For some other school districts, Smith said the implementation of SEL practices have reported 11-17 percent increases in student’s overall academic achievement.

At this point, Smith said they haven’t begun to assess what effect SEL has had on Forsyth County students, but they a number of different are in the works for several schools in the county. 

Beyond the individual students, SEL has also been implemented at the classroom and school level by giving SEL techniques to teachers and making sure they have the resources they need to be effective.

According Cindy Salloum, associate superintendent for human resources, the first step was insuring that teachers are teaching in a friendly, stress-free environment.

"Our teachers often talk about the stress that they have on them,” Salloum said. “Everything from assessments to interactions with students; it's all stressful these days.”

Salloum said they hope by relieving teachers’ stress they hope to encourage "healthy, hearty teachers" in the classroom, putting teachers at their optimal performance. 

"The other thing we are doing is professional development," she said, explaining their recently created new teacher academy. "They might know the words, social emotional learning, but if they don't know how to embed that and teach it, that's another layer of stress." 

Salloum said that the academy will allow new teachers to become certified by Forsyth County, with instruction that is layered with SEL strategies.

Smith said that when they try to explain SEL to people in the community, they always have to stress that it truly is a multifaceted approach to educating. With the student and classroom facets, Smith said the approach is about solving problems before they become problems.

On the other side of the coin, she said SEL also has a safety approach for kids already in crisis, providing help through counseling, interventions and threat assessments.

To better handle and help those students that are already in crisis, Forsyth County Schools added additional Social Emotional Learning and Student Advocate Specialist positions to each of the county high schools. 

Todd Shirley, Forsyth County Schools chief operations officer, said the new Student Advocate Specialists will work within the high schools and each of their feeder schools to monitor and help students before they even enter high school.

Shirley said that the safety side of SEL is like a shell that provides a structure in which the SEL program can exist. This shell, called positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, provides students with guidelines for what is expected of them.

Those expectations can be as simple as, “be responsible, be safe, be a problem solver” and by each teacher and student in the school knowing what is expected, it is easier to reward the good behavior and correct the bad.

"It’s just sort of neat positive feedback for the kids,” Shirley said. “Rewarding the ones that are doing the right thing every day, that may have been overlooked in the past … making them the center of attention, rather than always the kid that's misbehaving.”

In the future, Smith said that they will also be focusing on how the community is involved in student’s Social Emotional Learning with an effort called the Total Wellness Collaborative. 

With this program, they will work with every group in the community, from community leaders to industry professionals, sharing ideas and working together to improve students’ wellness in every possible sense.

"We can't do this all by ourselves, we've got to have community members involved," Smith said. "So the Total wellness Collaborative is all about bringing people to the table, to share their strengths and make it better."