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SEL in Action: 5 Lessons from Stratford School

“Life Skills is an important educational priority for our middle school students, and we’ve been looking carefully over the past few years at how to enhance our programming in this area. Before employing a robust assessment system and evidence-based curriculum, we just didn’t have the data or the resources we needed to plan professional development, prioritize our interventions, and, perhaps most importantly, personalize our discussions and structure our lessons when guiding students for growth in these critical areas.” - Monisha Gupta, Senior Director of Curriculum and Innovation, Stratford School, Saratoga, CA

Recently, Stratford implemented the ACT Tessera™ assessment for nearly 1,000 middle school students, along with the evidence-based Tessera Teacher Playbook curriculum, to help introduce social and emotional programming.

Gupta’s SEL experience aligns to the recommendations provided in the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD)’s new report, “The Practice Base for How We Learn.” The report is authored by the Commission’s “Council of Distinguished Educators;” under lead author Sheldon Berman, superintendent of schools in Andover, MA.

The short but powerful report articulates five pillars of SEL programming, called “Consensus Statements on Practice.” We can examine aspects of each statement from the practitioner perspective, in this case the Stratford School.

1. SEL is “for ALL students.”

The Commission leads with a statement of universality: this learning and growth is critical not just for at-risk, behaviorally challenged, or otherwise needy students, but for each and every child in our schools. Students and their problematic behaviors are not to be the target, but rather, we need to focus upon “the broader environmental and social context in which students learn.”

At Stratford School, the life skills curriculum is for all students. After careful consideration, the weekly time allocated for advisory meetings between teachers and students has been expanded, with teachers using the ACT Tessera teacher playbook as their go-to resource for lessons on teamwork, tenacity, and resilience.

2. SEL “starts with the adults.”

The Council explains that few teachers have received much SEL preparation, so “teachers and adults need support…in ongoing dialogue and interactions with colleagues and coaches/consultants.” It’s also valuable for all the adults to get on the same page about SEL by using a common language and approach.

Stratford carefully rolled out SEL programming for their teachers, beginning with summertime staff meetings and trainings. Teachers receive the curriculum with frequent administrator guidance on how to implement particular lessons from the playbook. SEL assessment results are reviewed in faculty meetings, with teachers using time to discuss and strategize how to share reports with students and support growth. Employing an SEL assessment and instructional system has helped with consistency. As Gupta explains, “it’s so useful to have a common language about the skills we are cultivating; now teachers, students, and parents are on the same page.”

3. Strong Leadership is Central.

It’s not enough to have good intentions. For students to successfully grow in these key domains, schools must have a plan, allocate resources, assign responsibilities and monitor progress.

As a fast-growing network of schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, Stratford does nothing haphazardly. Their SEL program is a priority of their Board of Directors and is prominently articulated in plans and budgets. Gupta explains that she meets regularly with school principals to review progress on the “life skills” program and to ensure the SEL curriculum is being effectively deployed. At most Stratford middle schools, there is a vice principal assigned to provide guidance and ensure effective SEL implementation.

Because the SEL assessment is administered twice annually, Stratford is being prudent to ensure that students aren’t labeled by their assessment results. In fact, they are finding the use of the data highly valuable for student and school-level continuous improvement.

4. Explicit and Embedded Instruction, and a Caring Classroom and School Climate.

This statement of practice is perhaps the most important, and appropriately has the longest discussion of any in this report. There is widespread conversation among SEL thought leaders about the competing approaches of teaching SEL skills in targeted lessons or as fully integrated into academic learning. The Aspen Institute takes the “both/and” stance:

“As with traditional subject areas, social and emotional abilities can be taught with a scope and sequence and with dedicated time and space in the curriculum…[and] through the planning of daily instructional processes, the very content students are studying in [every academic subject area] can offer seamless ways of fostering social and emotional development.”

Stratford, as we noted, is rapidly expanding its program of direct instruction in SEL competencies, prioritizing the areas that their assessments indicated as needing greater support. Stratford Principal Becky Turner adds that her teachers are also working hard to design project-based learning experiences that deliberately cultivate persistence and resilience, such as in extended writing projects and in STEAM “maker” experiences.

5. Home School Community Partnerships Matter.

In this practice, the commission’s educator panel implores engaging parents in ways inclusive of - but not limited to - parent education. It also argues that students ought to have more field experiences in learning, using service learning opportunities to “enable young people to exhibit and strengthen their social, emotional, and academic competencies.”

To this end, Stratford prioritized parent communications as they’ve launched and managed their new SEL assessments and curriculum. They feel pleased with their progress, despite a few bumps in the road, and are committed to enhancing their work in this area in the future.

Principals sent out letters and held on-campus meetings prior to administering the measurement, and then sent cover letters accompanying the student reports on these assessments giving parents guidance on how to discuss and debrief these results with their kids.

They are now striving to update parents with regular reports about the SEL curriculum in biweekly newsletters. Next year, they are intending to add an extended discussion of this work to their Parent Back-to-School Night, when they have, by far, the greatest parent attendance and attention.

In examining Stratford's implementation of ACT Tessera in the context of the Aspen Institute's SEAD report, we can see that SEL programming does not happen in a vacuum. It is an all-hands-on-deck approach to benefit all students, with careful planning, leadership and integration into classroom experiences and parent and community partnerships necessary for success.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.