Beyond Morning Meeting and Advisory: Taking a Whole Community Approach to EQ and Social and Emotional Learning

Spring 2021

By Nick Haisman-Smith, Dan Sweeney

If emotional intelligence is the goal, then Social and Emotional Learning is the process to get there. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process of lifelong learning to understand and flourish in our intrapersonal and interpersonal worlds. It is through SEL that we learn critical skills to ensure an equitable, just, and inclusive society in which empathy abounds and all people thrive.

To ensure that aspirations for healthy EQ across a community are realized and sustained over time, a whole community lens, looking beyond just the curriculum, is essential. This broader focus brings integrity and a sense of community-wide consistency to our SEL work. It also avoids SEL becoming an add-on or something that happens only in Advisory or Morning Meeting or something that lives with the counselor.

Ten years ago, Seattle Country Day School (SCDS) had a goal to strengthen and deepen SEL across the community. To build a reliable foundation on which all students would mature and connect deeply and meaningfully with all of the curriculum, themselves, others, and the ever-changing and unfamiliar world around them, we focused on these components of a Whole Community Approach to SEL.
 Whole Community Approach to SEL

  1. Teaching SEL skills through spiralling curriculum 
  2. Pedagogical practices to integrate SEL into all teaching/learning areas,
             including essential anti-racist, anti-bias, and trauma-informed practices 
  3. Adult SEL and well-being 
  4. SEL lens on schoolwide structures and systems
  5. Connections to home

  Source: Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (2021)

Today, SEL is part of SCDS school culture in ways that we might not even have been able to imagine 10 years ago. It attracts families to our school and permeates the way all members of the community interact. There is a shared language and understanding.

Moving Beyond SEL in Advisory or Morning Meetings

The explicit teaching and learning of SEL skills are the foundation of an effective, impactful approach to SEL in schools. It is through the transformative experiences of SEL lessons that students learn, reflect, and integrate SEL into their lives, behaviors, and decisions. In the design of this curriculum, a spiralling approach enables students to revisit the SEL competencies over time, deepening their understanding and seeing them through the lens of each new developmental stage.

The SEL tool of communication is one example. In the youngest grades, we teach about the companion skills of listening and speaking, perhaps focusing on the widely known “I-Message.” Yet as students grow and mature, we can spiral and deepen the concept to focus on the more sophisticated skills of Assertive Communication, Listening to Understand, Speaking from I, and Self-Advocacy. These kinds of spirals, across all SEL tools and competencies, engage students in their authentic real-world experience and build a consistent and clear language that is the backbone of best practices for SEL.

An intentional and spiralling SEL curriculum can have positive outcomes for students while moving a school toward a rooted and sustainable Whole Community Approach to SEL. However, experience and compelling research tell us that the broader context in which those lessons take place is critical to the success of this work.

The 'How' Is as Important as the 'What'—SEL Pedagogy

Teaching SEL is a facilitative experience. In creating a space for students to explore the social and emotional domains of their lives through the spiralling curriculum illustrated above, we educators must adjust our frame toward being a facilitator rather than “the teacher.” To do this, we can draw upon these pedagogical tools:
  • Open and reflective questioning
  • Deep listening
  • Offering students choice
  • Providing a variety of types of experiences and activities
  • Designing curriculum to affirm diverse perspectives
When invited into creative and facilitated SEL lessons and experiences, students become more engaged and trusting; they open up to share their perspectives. This engagement ripples into other classes and spaces as students practice and explore their SEL tools in real-life action, and it results in deeper learning and greater inclusion and belonging.

When we think of “how” to teach SEL and build EQ, our answer can be found in these pedagogical approaches—tools that empower SEL activities as explained above. These same pedagogical practices can be activated in all classes, in sports, trips, service learning. When this happens, a child’s educational experience is infused with SEL-informed practices all day long, and learning is catalyzed as a result.

SCDS takes an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning, which fits perfectly with this approach to SEL. Students and teachers have multiple and varied opportunities to ask questions, to check in with themselves and others, and to transfer those skills to analyzing a text or participating in group work during a science lab. Across the curriculum, we leave lots of time for reflection. This is true in our classrooms and also in PE and sports programs where the focus is on team building, student growth, and honoring the importance of processing and reflection. Inquiry-based learning and a Whole Community Approach to SEL go hand in hand.

We know that all learning takes place in and among our social relations, identities, and histories. SEL must therefore be rooted in and grow from our diverse communities, and it must focus on understanding varied perspectives, privilege, and traumas. For the Whole Community Approach to SEL to be authentic and equity-focused, administrators and teachers need to focus on ensuring that SEL works to actively dismantle systemic racism and oppression. This focus requires us to listen deeply and understand diverse perspectives and experiences of current and former students, teachers, and families. When we listen, we can start with a mindset that we will hear hard feedback. This type of listening must include humility and curiosity, and, if defensiveness arises, it’s even more reason to keep listening. In particular, it is critical to ask whether the SEL curriculum promotes and affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds and resists conformity to any dominant culture. This work to interrogate our SEL practices and curriculum resources also requires us to assess how universal SEL teaching and learning fit into a tiered approach to supporting students who have experienced trauma.

At SCDS, SEL and DEI skills and competencies are intentionally taught through our Synapse program. We believe that the 21st century education of students must focus on the self, social relationships, and societal dynamics. In Synapse, we are teaching children how to effectively evaluate and regulate their emotions and social interactions while, at the same time, acknowledging the inequity and injustice that marginalized populations have experienced and continue to experience today. A key theme throughout the Synapse program is understanding concepts of equality, equity, and justice and how SEL skills are critical to help us all actively dismantle systemic oppression.

Teacher EQ and SEL as Mediators of Success

Abundant research illustrates that teachers are the most important in-school factor contributing to student success, satisfaction, and achievement. Alongside the many other variables that influence our teachers’ well-being (pay, working conditions, etc.), teacher SEL is critical: If we want good SEL outcomes for our students, we have to start with the adults.

SEL practices are an integral part of faculty meetings at SCDS. Faculty value this regular time to check in, experience Open Sessions together, and try new SEL experiences as a team. It is critical to provide structured time and space for teachers to reflect and connect. Teacher professional development has also been key for both current and new faculty. For new faculty, we dedicate two days each year to sharing the what, why, and how of our SEL approach, ensuring that they feel connected to the community and each other and have a grounding in our shared SEL language.

During the pandemic, teacher well-being has been at the forefront. Often, teachers made time to care for their students but not themselves. We have offered teachers time and space to check in with themselves and others during faculty meetings. We have played SEL-oriented games in Zoom breakout rooms to just connect and laugh with each other. We often comment that “humor” should be the sixth SEL competency!

Aligning Schoolwide Systems and Structures

Many schools who look to introduce SEL throughout the community notice a disconnect with systems or structures that may seem out of alignment with their focus on student and educator EQ/well-being/SEL. As an example, this misalignment often shows up in the form of discipline practices that do not prioritize restorative justice and relationship repair. If students are to learn SEL skills such as managing difficult feelings, active listening, and assertive communication, it makes sense that they be given the chance to practice and hone these skills in the real-world moment of relational conflict or in making amends for decisions that caused harm to other people or things.

It is not just misalignment between the SEL approach and school systems that matter, however; it is also trying to avoid missed opportunities. One easily missed opportunity is to bring the SEL lens to school trips and to service learning.

SEL is interwoven into all trips at SCDS—before, during, and after each experience. This means we ensure that students are equipped with the necessary skills, support, and knowledge to take care of themselves and their classmates and to adapt to unfamiliar places such as Rwanda and Vietnam, while at the same time building resilience during stressful travel situations. Activating the SEL and DEI lenses of these experiences has helped students to better understand privilege, anti-racism, and global competence in a profound and purposeful way. We also dedicate time for deep reflection after the trips, both individually and collaboratively, knowing that this is often where some of the richest conversations and clearest insights emerge.

Engaging Parents and Caregivers

Parents and caregivers are critical partners for all dimensions of learning. Supporting parents and caregivers to bring SEL tools and practices into their families reinforces what children learn at school and builds that sense of consistency and clarity that allows children to thrive. Deep SEL work with parents is practical (sharing tools and tips), motivational (sharing theories and research), and nurturing (providing space for parents to share a common humanity and care for their own emotional health). At Seattle Country Day, we have also noticed that proactive SEL education for parents helps ease anxiety and empower adults with tools to support students in developing agency and problem-solving skills.

Heart-Heavy Work Pays Off

Our intention in this article is to share the broader contextual factors that need to be addressed, alongside the SEL curriculum, to enable whole communities to thrive and for SEL endeavors to be sustained. Doing this heart-heavy work of building an SEL-rooted school is not easy, and it takes time, committed leadership, and a willingness to trial, refine, and persist in bringing creative, experiential, anti-racist SEL practices to all corners of our school communities. And the results are worth the effort.
Nick Haisman-Smith

Nick Haisman-Smith ([email protected]) is the Executive Director at the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning and a doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, focusing on social and emotional learning, educator well-being, and education policy. 

Dan Sweeney

Dan Sweeney ([email protected]) has been the Middle School Head and Director of Innovation at Seattle Country Day School (WA) since 2010 and has facilitated the adoption of SEL through tight cross-curricular and pan-departmental integration.