When I began my career as an educator, social-emotional learning (SEL) was not something that was part of my plan. Though my students were wonderful, needs in the areas of motivation, relationship building, and-self awareness were evident. Developing a version of SEL was my organic response, using meaningful discussions and activities to drive achievement and help meet student needs. I was implementing SEL without even knowing what SEL was.
When I became Dean of Students at Alpena High School, I saw a need for SEL, but I was hesitant about any SEL that felt forced at the high school level. I needed something that both students and staff could connect with and benefit from. In my experience as a teacher though, school-driven SEL initiatives were often met with resistance or lacked the authenticity needed to engage teens.
Alpena High is situated in a geographically vast northeast Michigan school district. We have large student populations coming from both urban and rural poverty in addition to groups from middle-class and wealthier backgrounds. Students here tend to form strong identities based on their backgrounds and interests (farming, athletics, performing arts, etc.), making it challenging for them to connect across differences.
In 2019, student perception surveys showed that a surprisingly large number of our students lacked strong, positive connections to their school and peers. It became evident that we needed to focus resources and efforts on increasing student connection to school, especially among our at-risk students. For all of our students—and our freshman transition group especially—building relationships is critical to cultivating belonging and promoting success through high school.
I worked with our freshman counselor and school social worker to plan one-on-one mentorship and small-group intervention for our freshman transition group. Assistant Superintendent Meaghan Gauthier suggested an SEL curriculum developed by an organization called Wayfinder, designed specifically for high school students. At this point, I had no idea how thoroughly woven into the fabric of our school SEL would eventually become.
Every day with our freshman group involved trial and error, but we were making progress. For example, thanks to the safe and respectful environment that the program and relationships had created, one student grew empowered her to share her feelings in ways she hadn't with others at school before. Another “class clown”-type student used his journal to express that he used humor to cope with his lack of friends and struggles to make peer connections. Breakthrough moments like these helped members of the group grow closer to each other and feel more connected to school as a whole.
Our group was starting to form a strong community when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While remote learning made progress tracking more difficult, needs for SEL support for the student population at large grew larger and much more apparent. When we issued a new student school perception survey, the data that came back made it clear that a concerning number of students had been struggling to find connections at school, and the situation was only growing tougher.
So, starting in fall of 2020, I pushed to bring SEL to a larger group of students. Ninth grade health classes started using the curriculum on a pilot basis. While the back and forth of pandemic learning dampened impact, we did notice enough growth to know it was worth sticking with the following year. In 2021, we rearranged our master schedule to ensure every student would have an advisory period for regular check-ins and SEL and more teachers could build relationships and monitor student progress.
We did encounter some resistance from teachers who were more focused on academics than in taking on advisory or SEL. To address this, we started with the Why—going back to research on the importance of school connection, coupled with data showing that the number one thing our students lacked was positive peer and staff relationships at school. To help with buy-in and staff engagement, we started doing Wayfinder SEL activities in our monthly staff collaborations. This helped teachers grow more comfortable with facilitation by seeing it modeled and more confident in SEL’s efficacy. To encourage those who remained skeptical, administrators started joining classrooms, taking part in activities, and showing their presence and support.
As of the 2022-2023 school year, SEL is a fully integrated part of our programming at Alpena. We’ve seen students who may not have previously emerged as leaders find their voices through Wayfinder and take on leadership roles, while others have built strong friend groups, improved grades, and discovered new interests. All around school, teachers have spoken about impactful and meaningful discussions they’ve had in their classes.
For me, the biggest successes have been the relationships I’ve seen form over the past few years. By going through the Wayfinder curriculum together, we’ve built greater belonging and a mutual respect and understanding that goes beyond the traditional teacher/admin-student dynamic. Wayfinder has helped us create a stronger sense of community and connection, both among students and between students and staff.
Based on our experiences, here a few recommendations I’d make for making SEL a transformational part of your school culture:
- Understand the needs of your students - While globally applicable, SEL is not a one-size fits all endeavor. What works for one school and student body may not work for another. Find ways to identify student needs through surveys and focus groups.
- Integrate vision with strategy - We’ve tied it to our district’s Profile of a 21st Century Graduate and our school’s Wildcat Way—our own graduate profile—so that student achievement is recognized and celebrated. Students and teachers engage in SEL every week on Wayfinder Wednesdays, students are celebrated for their growth and achievements through Wildcat of the Week acknowledgements.
- Provide robust support for staff - For staff, training is ongoing. We incorporate Wayfinder activities into our staff collaborations and debrief afterward. I facilitate some of this work myself, but we also like to have teachers take ownership and present their successes to their colleagues. We are using success to build success.
- Lighten the load with high-quality resources and tools - Simultaneously building and implementing new resources can be onerous on any team and detract from an effective roll-out. We chose to partner with Wayfinder because it feels authentic, age-appropriate, and relevant for our students. Their curriculum, supplemental activities, and assessments to lift the cognitive load off of our team and enable them to focus on our students.
If I were to give advice to educators rolling out a new SEL program, I’d say that the most important thing is to find what works for your context. Holding social-emotional development as a foundation of quality education will be a critical part of the future of learning, and you’ll want to make it as easy and enjoyable for yourself and your staff as possible. Don't worry about doing it perfectly or following a rigid schedule. Approach it organically, and have fun. Find a team who is passionate about the work and can support each other through the process. Keep coming back to the program, and make it a priority. By focusing on relationships and keeping the human needs of your students and staff in mind, you'll be able to cultivate a sense of belonging and connection, leading to overall improvements in school climate and culture.