Social and emotional learning: building a foundation for educational success

March 23, 2023

This is the third in a series of stories about curriculum adoptions happening this year for English language arts, social studies and social-emotional learning. Information about the adoption process is available on the district website.

First grade students dancing

First grade students in Tammy Flagor’s class at Yacolt Primary dance to a video about empathy

Much of basic education is made up of reading, writing and mathematics. But before students can focus on those core subjects, they must be in a place where they are ready to learn. That’s the underlying principle of social and emotional learning, otherwise known as SEL.

“If you don’t have successful social and emotional skills, it would be very difficult for students to be able to access academic skills,” said Marinel Wampach, a kindergarten teacher at Pleasant Valley Primary who is serving on a curriculum adoption committee assessing new SEL options. “There is a lot of research that shows the connection between successful social and emotional teaching and academics.”

Numerous studies have shown a positive relationship between social and emotional learning and academic success. A series of meta-analyses done between 2007 and 2016 looked at hundreds of studies involving more than 300,000 students. The data consistently showed a gain of around 11 percentage points for academic test scores in students who also received social and emotional learning. Inclusion of the subject also led to overall grade level improvements, decreased classroom disruptions, more positive social behaviors and a reduction in self-harm and negative self image.

Kindergarten students listening to their teacher while sitting on a carpet

Pleasant Valley Primary kindergarten teacher Marinel Wampach works with her students

“At school, we’re around people, and the number one factor in us being successful with each other is the way we interact with each other,” said Justin Pierce, principal at Daybreak Middle School and a member of the curriculum adoption committee. “We have to be able to know ourselves and then also know how to interact with people who are the same or different from us. That’s it’s critical piece of our world today.”

The current SEL curriculum for grades K-8 has been in place for nearly a decade, so the district’s instructional materials department put together a committee made up of teachers, community members, administrators and counselors to assess curricular options and ensure the topic is being taught in a developmentally appropriate and engaging way for students today.

“It’s been a refreshing opportunity to collaborate and to build shared understanding around what we think is important for social and emotional learning in our district,” Pierce said.

“It’s really nice for people who come from different areas, primary and middle, to get together,” said Carson Wilson, a counselor at Daybreak Middle School. “It’s really been focused on what’s best for the students.”

Building a foundation for success

Child holding a beach ball

Students in Tammy Flagor’s first grade classroom use a beach ball as a tool to express their feelings

At the primary level, social and emotional learning focuses largely on how students relate to others around them and how to understand and regulate emotions.

“It helps them understand how to operate within a classroom community, work together and respect the differences of others,” said Tammy Flagor, a first grade teacher at Yacolt Primary School. “We’re helping them understand that you don’t have to like everybody, but you do have to learn to work with anybody. That’s foundational to learning.”

At the middle school level, social and emotional learning shifts to focus on the increasingly complex relationships students have with each other and the world around them.

“Kids at the middle school age tend to be more egocentric and focused on themselves and how they’re feeling,” said Kayla Strohecker, a fifth grade teacher at Daybreak Middle School. “They maybe aren’t as aware about how their feelings and emotions impact others around them. I feel like the curriculum really does a nice job giving them a lens to understand how they’re feeling in their own body.”

During a recent lesson, Chief Umtuch Middle School fifth grade teacher Ryan Schwartz had students divide into groups and discuss some of the challenges they face with others. Students then took turns describing those challenges and how they might deal with them. Using one of the curricula that are being piloted, students focus on the STEP approach: Say the problem, Think of solutions, Explore the outcomes and Pick a solution.

Two students with their teacher

Tammy Flagor uses humor to help her students understand emotions during her first grade class at Yacolt Primary

“The social development of students changes drastically from primary to middle school grades,” Schwartz said. “The level of responsibility shifts more toward independence in our young adult children. This change brings a wide range of emotions and situations that students have to manage and balance in their everyday lives.”

A strong component of both curricula in the pilot is involvement at home. Students might receive weekly goals and challenges to practice with their family or friends outside of school. 

“My own children come home talking about the character trait of the month, or whatever is going on in their class,” said Pierce. “We want parents to hear the different strategies their children are learning to interact with each other, or the difficult challenge questions they might have had.”

Other behavioral and mental health supports

Beyond classroom training on social and emotional learning, students in Battle Ground Public Schools receive Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. At its initial level, PBIS reinforces behavioral expectations on a daily basis. Tier two might involve reteaching of specific expectations on a short-term basis for students requiring additional help. If a student continues to struggle with meeting behavioral expectations, a tier three intervention would be set up to provide individualized support plans.

Next steps

When these pilots are completed this spring, further community feedback will be accepted before Battle Ground Public Schools’ board of directors votes to adopt the curriculum in spring 2023.


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