STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
Education has changed, and not solely due to technology. Today’s schools are taking a more holistic approach, focusing on all aspects of a student’s growth, not just academics.
In the Marble Falls Independent School District, officials are proactive in addressing the social-emotional learning component.
MFISD has brought on a total of six social-emotional learning campus coordinators and implemented a school violence and mental health training program.
Executive Director of Special Services Shana Bunch-Fancher pointed out that school districts can no longer just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.
“Social and emotional learning provides sound skills, self-resolution, and intervention to those who need that support,” she said. “There are different at-risk factors and targets on what skills we need to teach to what kid.”
It’s not a “touchy-feely” approach. Research bears out the benefits of social-emotional learning for students in and out of the classroom as well as on the community as a whole. MFISD Superintendent Chris Allen said it comes back to addressing all of the needs of a student. If a child is struggling with social or emotional issues, other areas of their life, including academics, could be negatively impacted.
The district has built a team of specially trained counselors and teachers with support from a district coordinator and a behavior specialist. MFISD is placing teachers who have expertise in student behavior and emotional well-being, called Social Emotional Behavior Coaches, at each elementary campus. These are Tiffany Goodsell at Marble Falls Elementary School, Rolandria Brown at Highland Lakes Elementary in Granite Shoals, Amy McQueen at Colt Elementary in Marble Falls, and Kalika Turner at Spicewood Elementary.
The district is assigning licensed professional counselors at the high school — Christina DeLoach — and the middle school — Stacey Tays.
Social Emotional Coordinator Angela Kennedy and Behavior Specialist Ibiine Ogbanga will help throughout the district.
“It’s a huge initiative around the district,” Bunch-Fancher said.
MFISD is also utilizing a curriculum, funded for three years via the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s STOP School Violence Prevention and Mental Health Training Program, to enhance social-emotional learning for students.
The curriculum has three parts:
• Stop and Think Social Skills offer elementary students special instruction on behavior expectations, including conflict management and resolution.
• Second Step at the elementary school campuses “moves into self-regulation, mindfulness, and other statements to manage stress and other difficulties in life,” Allen said. This curriculum helps transform schools into supportive, successful learning environments uniquely equipped to help children thrive, according to the STOP program’s website.
• Emergent Tree is a software provider committed to implementing behavioral solutions with systems focus and an instructional approach, according to the web site. Emergent Tree was used on the middle school and high school campuses.
Bunch-Fancher said the school district spent the 2018-19 school year implementing the framework. Teachers also have a point of contact to receive assistance.
“One of the fundamental ways schools can implement school safety is by teaching these ways,” she said. “It’ll make a huge impact on teachers and the well-being of the whole child.”
Campus leaders and staff have found innovative and effective ways to put social-emotional learning into action. At Colt Elementary School, they began using the Peace Path mat last year. Students stand on either side of the mat and take turns sharing how a situation made them feel and what they would like the outcome to be. The mission of the program, and the coordinators who oversee it, is to help students resolve disputes or negative behaviors and create a way to restore trust. It does not replace discipline if a student’s behavior requires it.
“This allows both sides to hear how their actions made the other person feel,” said Colt Elementary School Principal Erika O’Connor. “It builds empathy, and it also helps the students see that it is never OK to hurt others, that their choices have consequences, and it helps them consider how to handle the situation next time.”
The goal is for students to use the Peace Path without teacher or administration intervention. The mats, which were paid for by a Pedernales Electric Cooperative grant, are a component of Colt’s restorative practices.
“Those folks are employed with a mission of helping to strengthen the overall mental health and wellness of our students and staff,” Allen said.
The skills and tools students learn along the Peace Path are ones they can use throughout their lives.
Across the district, the social-emotional learning program will include some counseling but also classes for students. With the support of community partners such as the Phoenix Center and Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, the school district will be able to offer students personal attention, Bunch-Fancher added.
“Before things turn tragic,” she said. “At least, that’s the hope.”
Bunch-Fancher, who wrote her dissertation on the subject of social and emotional learning, added that research shows the more a school district can provide positive ways to address a student’s sense of not belonging or being unwanted, the better the outcomes are.
That’s why this program aligns with the school district’s commitment to love every child and inspire them to achieve their fullest potential, Allen said. In short, administrators said, when a student makes friends on campus and likes their teachers, they are in an environment that stimulates learning and gives them the confidence to thrive.
The tools students learn will help them well into adulthood as they become employees, spouses, parents, and good citizens.
“It provides them with a whole level of problem solving,” Bunch-Fancher said.
Allen said school security is vital because of the world we’re living in, but district officials also realize connecting with students on a more personal level and identifying the lonely, left-out, and hurting student early is a key in keeping everyone protected.
“If you’re meeting the health and wellness of your kids, they feel emotionally safe … and feel connected to school on a broader community; they’re engaging in positive behavior and have hope, so they don’t end up in dark places,” he said. “We can help you to think of how to overcome the challenges, and no one deserves to be mistreated and everyone deserves to be loved.”
“We are doing everything we can on our end to make sure every child is safe,” Bunch-Fancher added. “Social and emotional learning needs to be taught to every child all day every day.”