During Mental Health Month earlier this year, GoGuardian Beacon’s general manager, Elle Yan, hosted conversations with mental health experts on our Distance Learning Weekly webinar series. Dr. Lori Vollandt and Jill Cook have joined us in this episode on how to lead your district with social-emotional learning.

About the guests:

Dr. Lori Vollandt

Education leadership expert with over 30 years experience in education and 15 years at the district level. Dr. Vollandt also authored an e-book with GoGuardian on SEL and Suicide Prevention in Schools.

Jill Cook, CAE

Executive Director at ASCA (American School Counselor Association), formerly a school counselor and assistant principal. Jill serves as liaison to K-12 organizations that work on issues related to the well-being of students. 

Learn more about them and their expertise in the video below:

Highlights from the conversation:

Social-Emotional Needs

Jill: What we're hearing from school counselors across the country is that this mental wellness and these social-emotional needs, while always has been part of schools’ social-emotional learning, that certainly now in this shared experience we're all having, has definitely heightened the need for all school personnel to be able to support students. And so certainly there are teachers, classroom teachers, administrators who, I am sure, are jumping in there to help support students, whatever that might look like in their virtual world… It's not just the students’ social-emotional needs we're talking about. It's also the school staff...this is a shared experience. So it's the educators in the school, the families, the community. It really is a unique situation that we all must rally together to determine what we need as a community to support each other.

Lori: Understanding the social-emotional responses of folks under stress is really, really important. You do not have to be an expert...in social-emotional learning, but you need to know who to go to in your school or your community, and you need to know where the resources are… What you need to do is be aware that this is happening to all of us, that there will be an emotional response, that there are supports and there are resources for everyone. I have seen that principals and school leaders are really looking for direction on how to lead their staff in this work, and not everybody is comfortable with this work... So if that's the principal or somebody in charge, they need to make sure that somebody else that's more comfortable leading that is allowed to lead that charge instead of trying to get through it themselves if it's not something that they're able to do… We all know in a school community where those folks are, right. Who did the kids go to?... Even kids can be leaders in their own school communities...sometimes students are some of the best people to reach out to other students.

Importance of SEL

Lori: I think it's always been really important, but now it's even more important that we understand what social-emotional learning is, that it's not a touchy-feely...add-on. It's a part of our everyday lives. It's a part of who we are as human beings. Social-emotional learning is something that allows us to understand ourselves. And it helps us to understand others, have empathy, and have a collective understanding of where we fit into this world and the impact we can have on making things better. And that self-efficacy...for teachers, for kids, for everybody is so important. And what people would say is, “Well, what about academics?” Oh yeah, academics are important, but this is the deal: The academics may get you the job, the social-emotional learning...will keep the job… They have to go hand in hand… It determines the quality of relationship with self and others. There's nothing more important than that. 

Jill: School counselors today work with all students in the school… This should be part of what all students get in the school: social-emotional learning, learning how to develop resiliency and the growth mindset. And so when we have these situations—maybe not a pandemic, but there will always be something that impacts and interrupts learning and interrupts a community—we're better prepared to deal with it... This has to be done in collaboration with everyone: students, families, the school community, community businesses and industries, the local health departments. There have to be multidisciplinary conversations taking place… The social-emotional needs of everyone...must be addressed. And there must be a specific plan in place before we really can even think about the academics. Learning cannot occur without these needs being addressed. And that might look different for every school... The fact is we need to start now… It needs to be a living, breathing document. And the SEL must guide the way. 

Resources for SEL 

Lori: The first thing I would say is go to a very reputable place to find out about social-emotional learning, get some good understanding of what the terms mean, what the competencies are. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been around for many, many years. They're very good. There's another group called Transforming Education. These are people that have evidenced-based, research-based programs and strategies... And they have free resources… I went on these websites, and what I noticed is that there are things in there now that specifically talk about COVID, the response to COVID. So they're trying to be responsive to us and make sure that we have the best tools that we can have. 

Jill: Go to your school counselor and your school psychologist and your school social worker—if you are teachers who are uncomfortable or don't know some things to do or concepts to try—because those are your experts in this school and this topic... As we look to next year and knowing that school budgets may be tight and some districts are going to have to make some very hard decisions. And we absolutely understand that. However, I would say that these folks—school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers—while always important, are more important now than ever.

How to help students with coping skills

Jill: There are lots of things you can do. It can be everything, from just even a daily check-in with students. We can do this virtually. It can be reading stories...that showcase these skills we need. What we're missing in this virtual world is really that interpeer interaction that's so important to kiddos. So what are some ways maybe you could virtually foster that? Is it something not related to academics? I know some schools are doing after-school clubs virtually just to give kiddos the opportunity for some peer-to-peer action. But also talking to kids about the things we as adults know that are important to us… Understanding the need for physical activity and for exercise. Journaling is a way to help students cope, writing it down... This would be an interesting piece to look back on when you're older to see what we were going through during this time and what your own personal thoughts were about the experiences. And I think for students, that could be very powerful, but helping students know that there are things they have control over.

Lori: Teaching kids about language and the language of emotion. I think that's so important… I am a huge believer...in mindfulness, some kind of a practice where they regulate their breathing. Now that may sound so simple, but I'm telling you, regulating your breathing changes the way you respond to emotion. It gives you better coping skills, and it literally changes the way your brain functions. The other thing about this that we talked a little bit earlier is when kids are under stress and trauma, their brain chemistry changes, their amygdala gets stimulated. So we need a way to calm them down. And for me, mindfulness is really important, and talking about it and sharing about that in a very safe environment.

Closing Thoughts

Jill: Even though these are unprecedented times that are scary and confusing and confining...we are all in this together. And I think that it's honestly somewhat exciting to see some of the energy and work around social-emotional learning, about how we can all support each other about the fact that maybe education could look different. I think in this great darkness comes great opportunity. And my hope is when we look a year from now, that we are definitely in a different place, but a better place, and that as we realize the importance of social-emotional learning in supporting students' learning, that this won't be seen as something ancillary...that it’s part and parcel to the work we do every day. 

Lori: We can all take care of each other, and we all...sometimes we have a tough time, but we can come together, support each other. And then we can ask for help. I think that help-seeking behavior is extremely important for all of us. And I agree we are all in it together, and we have to take responsibility for ourselves and our collective to each other. We really need to be ethically connected and not just “me, me, I, I, and getting what I can”… We need to take responsibility ourselves for the change that we want in the world.