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Beyond The Books


At Durham Public Schools, we strive to educate the whole child so that we can ignite the limitless potential of every student – both in and outside of the classroom, for success far beyond graduation. In addition to their academic education, students in DPS elementary schools have also been getting a social-emotional education. Now students in middle and high schools will do the same – only with an age-adjusted curriculum.

“When we teach skills like self-regulation self-awareness, these are not only important skills for our classrooms, but also for our students as lifelong learners,” explained Gloria Sanchez, SEL and mental health coordinator for the district. 

Sanchez said that there are many benefits associated with Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), including improved behaviors in the classroom, improved attendance, and an improved sense of self and perseverance.

“We know that teaching SEL increases academic achievement,” she said. “SEL helps with engagement, with feeling connected, feeling a part of the culture, a part of the school. When kids are better able to identify their feelings … there’s more connection with their peers and their teachers. We see a decrease in discipline referrals and a reduction in bullying.”

Over the last three years, elementary schools have been teaching social-emotional lessons through one of three programs: Zones of Regulation, Second Step, and Move the World.

Last year, middle- and high-school educators were presented with two SEL curriculum options and asked to choose one: Rethink ED and Character Strong. Both programs are available online and provide ready-made lessons and activities. 

Tomeka Ward-Satterfield, the Director of Student Wellness and Advocacy, said that both programs are comprehensive in the types of lessons they offer, and both are grounded in the five SEL competencies: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

“Both are very much click-and-go,” she said, adding that teachers do not have to make copies, prepare lessons, or make other arrangements, which makes it easier for them to incorporate the lessons into their classroom activities. 

Sanchez said that the programs also offer great flexibility to suit the needs of individual classes. 

“Let’s say in the classroom there’s an issue with bullying, you could specifically go and find a lesson on bullying,” she said. Discussions focus on how to help students deal with problems. Sanchez said that lessons can be taught by class, or they can be made a focus for the whole school. 


Curriculum in Action

Some early adopters added the SEL curriculum at the end of the last school year, like Jordan High School, but widespread implementation began at middle and high schools this fall. Schools have chosen different ways to incorporate the lessons. Some schools, like Carrington Middle School, are teaching them during elective classes like art and music. Some schools, like Riverside High School, are teaching them during “free” blocks like homeroom or study hall. 

At Carrington, teachers are using the Rethink ED curriculum, and JB Hallan, the school social worker, said that “every student in our building is receiving some form of SEL instruction” once a week. The basic lessons consist of video content about various topics followed by a group discussion. Lessons are grouped into categories like self-management or social skills, and then divided into subcategories such as focus, self-control, or stress-management.

Hallan said that educators have been focusing on areas of concern revealed in its Panoramic Survey data and then choosing lessons that address those needs.

“One thing that’s sort of across the board with middle schools and high schools is sense of belonging,” he said. “That’s one of the areas that students rank themselves pretty low in.”

At Carrington, Hallan said that emotional regulation and self-efficacy were the other top concerns revealed in the survey data.

Hallan said that the overall goal for SEL lessons would be “to grow as individuals and become more aware of our own emotions to learn healthy ways to talk and support one another. Just to become more aware of self and others.”

He added that, “I feel like kids can’t learn if their social-emotional needs aren’t met. Yes, a school is an academic setting, but we do want to focus on the development of the whole child. We’re raising the next generation of citizens of our country. We’re trying to raise decent human beings.”

At Riverside, the teachers are using Character Strong, which Assistant Principal Greg Goble said that he experienced during his time as an educator in Washington state.

“What Character Strong did for me and the other administrators in the last school I was in was – in a very unthreatening and low-pressure way – it allows you to feel out your students and the things they’re interested in, the things they’re not interested in, the things they have anxiety about, the things they’re passionate about,” he said. “You learn about the kids who are hurting a little bit more when they have an adverse reaction about a certain topic.”

Goble said that students would often share about things during these lessons that nobody knew about it, such as losing a family member to an accident or other things happening at home. 

“It just deepened my understanding of them,” he said. “By the end, we were like a small little family.”

Goble said that the program covers topics that are relevant to teenagers, but it does so in an indirect way, “so that when they get to the topic, they don’t even know that they were leading there.”

He said that, in addition to conversational exercises, the program also teaches coping strategies, such as breathwork or meditation.

“The goal of the program is to help students to identify … some of the challenges that they’re having individually and help them to think about their personal needs, the needs of others, in order to develop some empathy, as well as sympathy, for others who might be struggling, and to really let them know that they’re not alone in that, that they’re not wrong for thinking or feeling that way,” he said.

Goble said that the program has “the potential to be life-altering for teachers and students,” but he cautioned that it is important to reflect on “How do you set the table so that it can be as successful as it possibly can be?”


Benefits beyond the Classroom

Ward-Satterfield said that the goal is for all middle and high schools to offer SEL instruction at least once a week, while for elementary schools, the goal is that students will receive SEL instruction once a day for at least 15 minutes. She also stressed that it’s a best practice for teachers to learn the SEL competencies before presenting them to students “and then continue that learning right along with them.”

She said that SEL is important for students and educators alike “because it really helps to build this idea of community and shared responsibility for each other. It drives the idea that we want to make our workplace, our school, a good place to be. We want to be excited to be here every day.”

Doing that work together builds trust, she said.

“When you have a trusting environment and then bad things happen, it gives people the grace to trust their colleagues, their friends, to help navigate through those bad times,” she said.

In the long term, SEL also helps students learn how to be successful adults.

“They’ll know how to navigate issues that arrive in real life – in the workplace, in college, in relationships – if they really understand the impact that social emotional learning has for not just them but for them, but for the people around them who may have less understanding and exposure to those concepts,” Ward-Satterfield said.

She gave the example: “If they get into a conflict with a colleague while they’re 16 and working at Starbucks, if they have social skills and are aware and know that that person is getting aggravated with them, they know how to make decisions to bridge that gap or make decisions so that conflict will not continue.”

“Without those skills, we’re launching them out into the world with lots of science content and math content but no ability to interact with other people,” she said.