Ds Scholarship

How Denver schools prioritize social-emotional learning

Preschoolers in Natalie Soto-Mehli’s class have been talking about feelings lately.

“I have some little cards with pictures, and we’re going to do a game with these,” explained Soto-Mihli, a Trevista teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School, for grades 3, 4, and 5 sitting on the rug. “But, before we do that, we’ll sing a new song.”

To the tunes of the song “London Bridge Is Falling”, she sang:

I have feelings, yes I do. yes I do. yes I do.

My body tells me how to feel,

feelings in my body.

Denver Public Schools requires each school to provide 20 minutes of daily SEL this year.
Rachel Wolfe for the chalk band

Upstairs, fifth graders were talking about the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions. They discussed what it means to lose control and “flip your eyelid.”

“When our amygdala takes over, it’s really hard to control our emotions,” teacher Taylor Kalchbrenner told her students, some of whom were seated and others who felt more comfortable standing. “So what we have to do is we need to take back control.”

Both lessons are what schools call social-emotional learning, which teaches students to be emotionally resilient, form supportive relationships, and develop healthy identities. As Denver Public Schools transitions to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the district is asking each school to provide 20 minutes of daily social and emotional learning to help students meet the mental health challenges brought on by two years of pandemic living.

District data shows that more students this fall were flagged as needing extensive mental health support on a screening tool called the Behavioral and Emotional Screening System, with elementary and middle school students needing more help than high school students.

When students have this support, it’s easier for them to focus on their homework, said Kim Price, director of academic learning in the Social and Emotional District. This focus is perhaps more important than ever, given the prolonged interruption that has occurred in student learning.

“The transition from behind the computer to the classroom again has been different for all of us,” Price said. “This has been a lot of the thinking behind supporting social and emotional learning.”

Most Denver schools have already taught some form of social-emotional learning, Price said, although the depth varies. She said the requirement of 20 minutes per day ensures that all students receive the same basic amount. In keeping with Denver’s belief in school autonomy, the district is allowing schools to choose their own curriculum, although Price said federal funding for coronavirus relief has enabled the district to purchase one called Mosaic that schools can sign up for.

Two little girls hold a card as they talk during a social and emotional learning lesson.  They are sitting on a gray carpet, and there is a drawing in front of them on pink paper that says

Genesis Martinez-Baca, 3, left, and Aniyah Soto, 5, look at a card with a picture of a surprised child. They decided it was a “comfortable” feeling and placed the card on the orange construction paper during the match to sort the feelings into comfortable and uncomfortable categories.
Rachel Wolfe for the chalk band

Trevista at Horace Mann School has focused on social-emotional learning for several years, thanks to the scholarship she received along with five other elementary schools in Denver. Trevista uses a curriculum called Step Two, which includes preschool sentiment lessons and a fifth grade unit in the amygdala, as well as a program called Mindful Discipline. The program provides teachers with practical resources, such as a set of “feeling companions” dolls – angry, sad, frustrated, happy – that young students can use to process their feelings.

Principal Jessica Mullins was a teacher in Trevista before becoming the school’s leader. She said the two programs have made a noticeable difference at the school, which is located several blocks from the city’s largest public housing site, Quigg-Newton Homes. Even before the pandemic, many students in Trevista experienced the stress of poverty, marginalization and institutional racism that can sometimes manifest as difficult behavior in school.

“Before the grant, we worked from a place of compliance, now we work from a place that students own and choose,” said Mullins, who spent nine years at the school. “You can see how the teachers are quietly checking in with the students. Each student receives a greeting, the redirects come with kindness and love and are handled in a way that honors and values ​​the children.”

In a fifth-grade classroom shared by Calechbrenner and co-teacher Alison Yukom, students can choose to sit on the carpet, at a desk, or stand nearby during their social and emotional lesson—anything that makes them feel more comfortable. When a boy answers Calechbrenner’s question in a quiet voice, more muffled by his face mask, Calechbrenner leans in so you can hear him, rather than asking him to speak, and then repeats what he said to his classmates.

One day this week, fifth graders practiced responding calmly to stress. The teachers gave them four scenarios—including not being invited to a party and getting into an arithmetic problem—and asking the volunteers to act calmly and respond uneventfully.

A girl named Ariacelli gave her everything.

“This math problem is so hard! How am I supposed to know?” She said. “It’s so stupid. I give up!”

Ariacelli took a deep breath. “Maybe I should skip it and come back to it later.”

Her teacher smiled. “Oh, resolve with that positive self-talk!” Kalchbrenner said.

The students said the lessons were helpful, especially the advice to stop, breathe, and name their feelings when they were upset. They said that counting to 10 works well, too.

“When we first taught it, we tried it and it worked,” said Soleimani Khairy, 10.

“I think the lessons are very useful because you can use them in case you are angry or when you are upset about something,” said Marie Martinez, 11.

Mullins said that despite all the stress of the pandemic, Trevista is experiencing fewer behavioral crises than it was before COVID-19. In the spring of 2019, before the pandemic, the school averaged 40 to 45 radio calls per week for support, meaning that a school counselor, social worker, or other official responded to the classroom to help with student behavior.

The average number of calls at the school this fall is between 20 and 25 calls per week, Mullins said.

A preschooler leans on a professional assistant while lying on the floor, each wearing masks, while she rests her hand on the boy's back.

Zaiden Garcia-Shippley, 3, leans on career assistant Aracely Martinez during an emotion lesson.
Rachel Wolfe for the chalk band

This success is not entirely due to socio-emotional learning. The school also provided additional support at the beginning of the year to two larger-than-normal classrooms, a large number of students with behavioral needs or reading difficulties, and teachers new to Trivista. One of these classrooms was a first grade class where many students spent their entire virtual year in kindergarten as well.

Mullins said a school teacher, coach, or mental health worker spent nearly the entire day in those classrooms supporting the teacher for the first six weeks.

“Teacher fatigue can come hard and fast when there are disruptive behaviors and students are below grade level,” she said. “This system has allowed them the support they need to thrive.”

But social-emotional learning also played a big role.

“The pandemic has helped our employees more and more empathize and come out of that place of love first,” Mullins said. “That was there, it’s even more than that now.”


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