Setting the Tone for the Day, for the School, for the District Through Social Emotional Learning

Student meditating

Learn how Virginia’s Alexandria City Public Schools formalized social-emotional learning during the pandemic for diverse groups of students of different ages.

Photos by Susan Hale Thomas, Videographer/Photographer, ACPS

Settling into a sixth grade science class at George Washington Middle School with Science Teacher Ms. Desiree McNutt and ELL Specialist Elkin Rodriguez, students turn their chairs to face forward then close their eyes as Mr. Rodriguez leads the class through the day’s guided meditation.

ELL Specialist Elkin Rodriguez leads his students a guided meditation.

"Through our meditation practice, we motivate our students to better recognize and embrace their true nature, which is to be kind, helpful, and compassionate to ourselves and others," says Mr. Rodriguez who has been meditating for more than a decade. It’s been five years since the co-teachers introduced the practice, and those few minutes at the start of each class have changed everything — for their students and themselves.

Although many teachers like Ms. McNutt and Mr. Rodriguez have been incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into their classes for years, because of the pandemic, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) has been formalizing — and embracing — the effort district-wide.

What is SEL, and why now?

Social and emotional learning is an integral part of education and human development. As defined by Casel, the organization of researchers, educators, practitioners, and child advocates that developed SEL with all students in mind, "SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions."

Principal Jesse Mazur speaks to a teacher at George Washington Middle School.

"When you talk about school, everything starts with relationships. Relationships come before the introduction of content because in order to feel ready and open to learn, students need to feel safe, seen, and valued. No one can learn algebra or history if their brain is overwhelmed with emotions. And part of building relationships is understanding the hopes, needs, and desires of our students," says Jesse Mazur, EdD, the principal at George Washington Middle School (GWMS), who adds that ACPS uses the acronym SEAL — with "academic" integrated into the SEL equation.

"The pandemic has made SEAL vitally more important because we see the signs of stress and trauma that our students have experienced as expressed through the inability to engage in conflict resolution, interpersonal skills, advocacy, and managing their anxiety."

Setting the Tone

Students in Ms. Cottrol's classroom

After arriving at school and having breakfast, students enter Dora Cottrol’s kindergarten class at Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School and head to the Mood Meter where with a paint chip they can identify and label how they are feeling. Not only does the Mood Meter help Ms. Cottrol get a sense of where all her students are that day, it also helps the students themselves, over time, become more mindful of how their emotions change throughout the day and how their emotions can affect their actions.

The Mood Meter is one of several tools included in RULER, the SEL program that ACPS has been training faculty and staff to use. Developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER is a systematic approach to teaching SEL with the five main skills of:

  • recognizing emotions in oneself and others
  • understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
  • expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context
  • regulating emotions with helpful strategies.

“The kindergarten curriculum already lends itself to the concepts of SEAL since a lot of kindergarten is about learning social skills. The Mood Meter gives us an actual tool to help kids identify and understand their feelings beyond simply good or bad. Maybe a student is feeling brave or proud, maybe angry or overwhelmed. Being able to more specifically identify how we’re feeling — and all feelings are okay to have — helps us focus on strategies for when we’re feeling a certain way,” says Ms. Cotroll.

Teacher Dora Cottrol leads a class activity in her kindergarten class.

“What does frustration feel like in our heads, in our bodies? Then, how can we bring ourselves into a place where we can move from frustration to calm? Having these ‘feeling words’ and being able to recognize them and why they might be happening at any given moment is powerful for anyone, especially a kindergartener. Since we’ve started using RULER, I have definitely seen a difference in my kids, especially with how they’re able to express themselves.”

A similar scene unfolds in Anne Booth EdD’s fifth grade class at William Ramsey Elementary School. During Morning Meeting, a designated 30 minutes, district-wide, devoted to SEAL, students have marked the Mood Meter, maybe glanced proudly at the class charter they created together, and are gathering in a circle on the floor.

"Morning Meeting can include a circle or ball-toss greeting for community building, a quote when we are working on growth mindset, a silly stat for humor and connection, or a game or movement activity like 'I Have, Who Has,' in which teamwork is essential. These rituals and activities are for everyone to participate; they offer a pocket of time devoted to group connection, collaboration, and social- and emotional-skill building. It's proved to be incredibly meaningful," she says.

Mood meter in Ms. Booth's classroom

"Teachers have always tried to include SEAL in their classrooms, but I’ll have to say that now that ACPS is systematizing it, those 30 minutes first thing in the morning make a huge difference in how much time you have to spend dealing with student behaviors that are not positive during the school day."

At GWMS, Morning Advisory includes Mindful Mondays and Student Wellness Thursdays for students and teachers to discuss topics like eating well or bully prevention or do activities around door decorating, which involves teamwork, creativity, and community.

"It's important that we honor the experiences of all of our students, to understand the impact of the pandemic and the capacity of middle school students to reason through and recognize within themselves how they’re coping," says Dr. Mazur. "All of that requires trusted adults and a community foundation. Our common purpose, after all, is to support our students socially and emotionally as well as academically."

Along with Morning Advisory, mentoring, and counseling services, clubs also play a large role in SEAL. "Prior to the pandemic, SEAL generally came from a need exhibited by a student and our school counselors would then create specific clubs to promote and model behavior for students around those needs," says Dr. Mazur. "Our clubs, which include LGBTQ+, Latinas Leading Tomorrow, and Minority Student Achievement among many others, offer students the opportunity to talk about issues that are impacting them with trusting, nurturing adults."

SEAL in the Curriculum

Ms. Booth with students

Recently, for her Social Issues Book Club unit, Dr. Booth’s students read Kelly Yang’s Front Desk about the experience of a Chinese family that immigrated to America. From the voice of the feisty and determined 10-year-old daughter, the story includes heady themes like extortion, fraud, and racism. “There’s one part of the story where some of the people taking advantage of this immigrant family are immigrants themselves,” says Dr. Booth. “That shocked the kids and we ended up having a rich discussion, in particular about the importance of empathy.”

Dr. Booth says that one of the best parts of her school, William Ramsey Elementary, is its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. All but one of her students this year are ELL students … she has Farsi, Urdu, Spanish, and French speakers, and kids wo speak several languages. She has students from Ghana, the Sudan, and recently from Sierra Leone. “SEAL happens organically when students teach each other — and me — simply by sharing their cultures. This is the kind of food I eat, there are traditions linked to the clothes I wear, I’m Sikh and I don’t cut my hair ... Their curiosity and openness seem to develop directly into so much of what we are trying to teach through SEAL.”

Dr. Mazur talks about seeing SEAL integrated into the curriculum long after Morning Advisory is over. “Maybe this is due to our teachers’ growing knowledge around the benefits and importance of SEAL, but it could also result from the fact that teachers inherently interject social and emotional learning throughout the curriculum because it’s part of the human experience,” he says. For example, sixth grade students recently read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which focuses in large part on balancing the good of the group versus the good of the individual. “Thematic-type books like The Pearl engender conversations that touch on many of the topics that we talk about in SEAL — understanding our reactions and how they impact others, being reflective and thoughtful, and communicating in a way that’s respectful. They can also lead to conversations that connect a book’s themes to current events around racism, inequity, or Black Lives Matter, for example.”

Kids Regulating Selves

Science Teacher Ms. Desiree McNutt

Sixth grade science at GWMS is about to begin when Ms. McNutt sees one of her students slamming his locker. "I can tell he is totally off track, angry about something," says Ms. McNutt. "'Baby, what's wrong? What can I do?' I ask. 'I'm angry. Something happened at lunch,' he says. 'I see that you're angry.' He says he wants to go to the front office instead of coming to class.

"So, I say to him, 'You want to try meditating first before you go to the office? I'll write the pass and if you still feel like you need to go see an administrator after we meditate, you can leave.' He came in, he quieted himself, he meditated with the group, and he stayed in class … that was my goal."

As part of their meditation practice, Ms. McNutt and Mr. Rodriguez show their students videos about the science of the brain and its neurological reactions to emotions. The visuals of the different parts of the brain make the meaning of the practice more real.



SEAL for Faculty and Staff

Students are not the only ones affected by the pandemic. School faculty and staff continue to deal with the stress, the anxiety, and the constant changes and unknowns of the last few years. And it’s not over. For Ms. Cottrol, not only did she rely on her colleagues and school leadership for support, she also used some of the lessons and tools from RULER to deal with her own emotions. “When we teach our kids about respecting and caring for others, we also talk about respecting and caring for ourselves. When we need to reset and calm ourselves, we take a deep breath in, then out: ‘Smell the flower, blow the soup.’ It works and it brings levity. I find myself using this technique when things feel chaotic,” she says.

For Dr. Mazur — who knows all too well the demands on a principal and an administrative team to run a school during a pandemic with all the relentless shifting and moving parts — the pandemic has taught him that you can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. “The intersection of home and work collided, and we had to work through that, which took some time to fully understand. I think I have become a lot more self-aware because of the pandemic and that self-awareness has helped me become more empathetic towards the needs of my 185 staff members and all our students and their families.”

Fortunately, when the pandemic does end, school faculty and staff as well as students and families will have more tools and strategies to use in times of small and large crises.

“What I tell our students — and what I know myself — is that it’s easy to find peace. It’s right here, right now. It’s right inside all of us,” says Mr. Rodriguez. “If we can teach that, we have accomplished something life-changing and life-lasting.”

Videos & Photos

Slideshow: SEL in action in Alexandria, VA

Related video

Dr. Christina Cipriano: Why we need to make family engagement a top priority in social-emotional learning for diverse language learners

Dr. Christina Cipriano from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence explains why social-emotional learning for diverse language learners cannot simply be a translation of emotions, words, and terms since it wouldn't take into account the rich variability of cultural and linguistic nuances. To help learners from all cultures and backgrounds, the first and primary part of the SEL program approach includes full family engagement instead of considering it as an after-thought or add-on.

See the full interview with Dr. Cipriano below.

Social-emotional learning

Meditation and mindfulness



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