Last May I visited Walnut Park Elementary, which is located on the unceded traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en in Smithers, B.C. While navigating the halls to get to Mary Neto’s Grade 4 classroom, I passed students and staff decked out in denim, fluorescent headbands, tie-dye masks, scrunchies, and leather jackets. It was ’80s day.
Mrs. Neto welcomed me into her classroom and invited me to make myself at home. Students were quietly reading at their desks, some eating snacks, while others continued to trickle in. One student asked Mrs. Neto if he could tell her something, and when she replied of course, he told her about his dog running away (they found him), and then getting stuck in traffic, almost making him late for school. Mrs. Neto empathized with his hectic morning and said she was glad he made it to school on time in the end.
Looking around, I noticed many objects and displays that were familiar from my childhood Grade 4 classroom. Lined up along the windowsill were Styrofoam cups filled with dirt and the beginnings of tiny green sprouts. On the walls were exhibits of student work. However, there were also differences. Posters on the back bulletin board showed the different “Core Competencies” (Communicating, Collaborating, Creative Thinking, Critical and Reflective Thinking, and Personal and Social Identity). The chairs students were sitting at weren’t all the standard plastic-backed chair I remember either; some were wobble stools and others were on rockers.
A buzzer interrupted my thoughts, announcing the end of individual reading time. Students were instructed to find a partner and read to each other. Two boys reading Calvin and Hobbes comics partnered up and laughed at the antics of the boy and the tiger. Over the murmur of the class I heard a girl exclaim, “Oh, poor dinosaur!” in response to the story her friend was sharing. I hadn’t been in the class for more than 15 minutes and I had already witnessed displays of students practising and strengthening their social and emotional skills.
Walnut Park Elementary is one of seven schools in Bulkley Valley School District 54 (SD 54). It is no surprise that I observed social and emotional learning (SEL) in Mrs. Neto’s class, as SEL is a priority in the district. For those of you who are unfamiliar with SEL, it focuses on five competencies (CASEL, n.d.):
- Self-awareness (ability to understand your emotions, thoughts, and values and how they affect behaviour)
- Self-management (ability to manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviours to reach personal goals)
- Social awareness (ability to take other points of view and empathize with others)
- Relationship skills (ability to establish and maintain supportive relationships)
- Responsible decision making (ability to make caring, constructive choices about behaviour and social interactions).
There are numerous SEL programs designed for the school setting; however SD 54’s approach goes beyond a single program, which is likely one of the reasons it is so successful. SD 54 uses an approach that aligns with Comprehensive School Health (CSH).
CSH is an internationally recognized framework for supporting improvements in students’ educational outcomes while addressing school health in a planned, integrated, and holistic way. It is based upon the proven relationship between health and education: healthy students are better learners and more educated students are healthier.
Schools are often seen as an ideal setting to promote health among children and youth. Most children and youth attend school, and therefore ideas taught at school reach the majority of the population. However, educators already have a lot of material to cover in the short span of ten months. Adding more to their plate can be overwhelming, and in some cases, impossible. If you imagine each subject that educators have to cover as a block, many educators are already carrying their maximum number of blocks. Using a CSH approach to promote health ensures that we aren’t just adding another block to educators’ already towering stacks. Instead, a CSH approach seeks to embed health into the school and district culture so that making the healthy choice is the easy choice. I like to imagine CSH as a wheelbarrow rather than another block. It may take time and energy for educators and schools to figure out how best to use it, and how to organize their other blocks within it, but once they do, the wheelbarrow actually makes carrying all of the other blocks easier.
Specifically, CSH involves planning health-promoting activities in four distinct but interrelated areas:
- Teaching and learning
- Physical and social environment
- Community partnerships
- School policies
Here is more detail about each component:
Teaching and learning
Teaching and learning occurs in the classroom and beyond. It includes any teaching and learning opportunities that build knowledge and skills. Students learn from teachers, other adults in the school and community, and from their peers.
Physical and social environment
The physical environment refers to the physical spaces in the school that support health and well-being. This includes buildings, equipment, and outdoor areas. The social environment includes the quality of relationships and emotional well-being of members of the school community.
There are many potential community partners that schools can connect with to promote health and well-being. Some examples are parents, other schools or classrooms, community organizations, and health professionals.
The final component of CSH refers to provincial, district, school, or classroom policies, as well as rules, procedures, and codes of conduct that help shape a caring and safe school environment and promote student health and well-being.
CSH can be used to promote any health topic, but for this article we’re going to take a deeper look at how SD 54’s actions to promote SEL in their schools align with a CSH approach.
Using a CSH approach to promote health ensures that we aren’t just adding another block to educators’ already towering stack.
In 2016, the B.C. Ministry of Education released a revamped K–9 curriculum with the significant new addition of Core Competencies. The Core Competencies closely align with the five SEL competencies. Incorporating the Core Competencies into the provincial curriculum is an example of a policy change that supports SEL in schools. Policy changes such as these are effective, especially when combined with support for implementation. While changes to the curriculum are out of the control of any one school district, the district can provide this support to ensure they are successful.
A case in point: around the same time that the new curriculum was being released, SD 54 created a new position within their district: Elementary Social and Emotional Helping Teacher. It was originally a part-time role and filled by a school counsellor in the district. Over time it developed into a .8 FTE position as demand from educators to work with the Helping Teacher increased. In a short video about the initiative, superintendent Mike McDiarmid explains that the role was spurred by increasing concern about the mental wellness of students in the district and educators feeling like they didn’t have the necessary background to teach the social and emotional curriculum.
This partnership between the district and elementary schools successfully supported implementation of SEL and the Core Competencies. Educators could schedule sessions for the Social and Emotional Helping Teacher to join their classroom to collaborate and co-teach around the social and emotional curriculum. If you think back to my earlier analogy of the teacher holding a towering stack of blocks, you might ask, “How are they supposed to load the wheelbarrow without dropping everything? They don’t have any free hands.” This shows just how important partnerships are when it comes to CSH. In SD 54, educators who had previously felt uncomfortable or unsure about how to approach SEL gained valuable skills and confidence by observing and working alongside the Social and Emotional Helping Teacher. They were then able to more easily incorporate the ideas that they had learned into their regular lesson plans, which laid the groundwork for embedding SEL into the school culture.
In Mrs. Neto’s classroom, the physical environment supported SEL with different seating options that allowed students to self-regulate depending on how they were feeling. Schools and districts can support changes in the physical environment by ensuring there is funding available for classrooms to put toward SEL. There are also strategies educators can use to impact the physical environement that don’t cost any money. Mrs. Neto turned off some of the lights in the classroom when students were high energy and it was time to focus, and had different seating configurations that were associated with different levels of ease to communicate with their classmates.
Modelling behaviour and actions is another form of teaching. By modelling SEL through their words and actions, teachers are directly impacting the social environment. Cultivating an environment of mutual respect and care will support learning and create a space that is more enjoyable for everyone. Sometimes actions speak louder than words; Mrs. Neto’s calm and empathetic demeanor set a precedent that her students followed.
Teaching and learning is part of many of the actions that I’ve already discussed, but SEL was also explicitly addressed while I was in Mrs. Neto’s class. After students each did two laps around the school (an effective way to regulate their energy levels and develop their fitness), they came inside and worked on their daily goals. Mrs. Neto started the class off by reviewing her own goal from the previous day: to read one chapter of her book. She shared that it was difficult because she was tired, but she persevered and managed to finish the chapter. Alongside their goals, students had space to write the steps they would take to achieve them and something they were grateful for. I walked around the room asking students what their goals were, and they varied from being a better listener to eating healthier snacks. In the space asking what they were grateful for, many of the students wrote, “Mrs. Neto.”
Procedures such as daily goal setting and partner reading demonstrate how policy can be established at the classroom level, and that it doesn’t have to come from the district when using a CSH approach.
These collective actions in policy, community partnerships, the environment, and teaching and learning have made SEL an integral part of students’ school days in SD 54. Hopefully you can also see how the approach the district took meant that the weight of it didn’t fall solely on any one person’s lap. And while Mrs. Neto is particularly passionate about SEL, the underlying SEL principles are present in every classroom in the district.
Health and learning are intertwined. Using a CSH approach to make health and well-being part of your school’s culture will inevitably improve student learning and behaviour and contribute to the development of more well-rounded students.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (n.d.). CASEL’s SEL Framework: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted? https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CASEL-SEL-Framework-11.2020.pdf