By Judith Paolucci, Ph.D.
Students’ mental health and social and emotional learning (SEL) are important responsibilities of schools that are often overlooked when states rank schools and districts. In Smithfield, the investment in these areas over the past few years has positively affected school safety, behavior, and academic learning.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national organization that disseminates information about SEL and advocates for effective policies and practices for SEL, defines social and emotional learning as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Last year’s large increase in state aid to Smithfield allowed the district to increase its team of psychologists and social workers by 1.4 FTEs (full-time equivalents). Together with guidance counselors, these staff members serve all students in varied ways. Their tasks include counseling sessions, psychological testing, social histories, and risk assessments.
The brains of students continue to develop through their years in school. Impulsive and sometimes aggressive behaviors may be exhibited and such behaviors may or may not pose safety concerns to the school population. Since we are now able to have a clinician available in each school, we can conduct immediate risk assessments for any safety concerns that are reported, increasing school safety, in general.
Clinicians also helped improve each school’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support – laying out plans for ensuring strong, schoolwide practices for SEL as well as for addressing increasingly concerning behaviors. At GMS and SHS, for example, a connections survey serves as a screener for students who may not feel adult or peer connections at school. Several activity groups at GMS, run by a behavioral consultant/specialist or social worker, supports the development of interpersonal skills and builds confidence in individual students.
The development of this team is supported by professional development, including a full-day training provided by Dr. Prachi Kene, Associate Professor at Rhode Island College, who focused on suicide prevention and shared information about the scope of the suicide crisis, the latest theoretical and research efforts in the field of suicide risk assessment, and factors necessary to minimize risk.
Guidance staff also contribute to this work. Middle school group guidance classes address the problem of bullying from an analytical and practical perspective. Guidance staff also support a mentoring program that pairs 8th grade mentors with 6th grade mentees to assist in leadership building and peer connectedness.
At the elementary schools, the implementation of Responsive Classroom practices addresses schoolwide expectations for classroom climate and culture. The Responsive Classroom approach provides practices that help classroom teachers create safe and engaging learning environments. We began this year with a pilot group of teachers who participated in 4 days of intensive training prior to the start of school. Additional trainings and book study groups have expanded the learning to others throughout the schools.
Morning meetings, an integral part of the Responsive Classroom approach, include topic discussions that foster students’ improved awareness, empathy, and understanding. At the very start of their school day, students connect with one another and with their teacher. Schools combine classroom meetings with schoolwide meetings that start the school day as a community. Another practice advocated is the careful use of language that encourages good behavior and healthy thinking.
Since educators may not have had enough of an exposure to SEL during their pre-service years, the district provides a variety of trainings. Smithfield administrators and educators attended Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which is designed to give participants strategies to help adolescents with mental health problems or who may be experiencing mental health crises. The course includes strategies for helping youth experiencing panic attacks, contemplating suicide, or engaging with substance abuse.
At the high school, training with the Youth Restoration Project of RI and subsequent in-house professional development on the tools and mindsets of restorative practices, are helping educators provide positive learning environments where occasional lapses in good behavior is addressed in effective and positive ways.
Prevention and intervention efforts for substance use are important components of a comprehensive approach for SEL in Smithfield. We work with the Smithfield Prevention Coalition and the Southern Providence County Regional Coalition to bring resources and programming to our schools. Speakers at parent meetings, educational materials, and other resources have been made available through these partnerships. In addition, a grant has enabled us to engage a full-time student assistance counselor from the Rhode Island Student Assistance Services (RISAS) for our high school. This individual will work at SHS through the end of the 2019-2020 school year at no cost to the school district or town.
The increased emphasis of SEL for schools has required additional resources but this is money well spent. Students’ mental health is as important as their physical health and is a shared responsibility of families and communities. While we have lost over $1.4 million in state aid for our schools for FY20, the school district budget submitted to the town maintains a level of support for SEL that ensures that efforts will continue to address important concerns about students’ mental health, including suicide prevention, substance use prevention and interventions, and school safety. It is now in the hands of the Town Council and town voters to decide what level of funding can be supported.