Redwood Elementary holds schoolwide Social-Emotional Learning Day

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Redwood Elementary School held its first schoolwide Social-Emotional Learning Day on Nov. 23, integrating activities into the daily curriculum and underscoring the importance of social-emotional learning to students and staff. 

The SEL Day was conceived by Redwood teachers Paul Stefanelli and Jennifer Paull and supported by Principal Kimya Jackson. A guide was created for teachers to follow, offering different activities that could be adapted to each grade level, as well as to virtual learners. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, SEL refers to a wide range of skills and behaviors that utilize, for example, critical thinking, emotional management, conflict resolution, decision making and teamwork. While these skills can be difficult to quantify or test, they are considered vital for student success in the classroom, in the workplace, in social atmospheres and in the community. The CASEL’s District Resource Center names five main components of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

One of the West Orange School District goals for 2021-22 is “to incorporate a daily SEL activity into all lessons, to share resources and provide support to instructional staff in this regard.” The Board of Education has also listed SEL as one of its goals for 2021-22, stating, “The West Orange Board of Education will provide support to the administration in its development of district resources to support students and staff with social-emotional and mental health needs throughout the school year with midyear and end-of-year presentations to the board and community.” 

Redwood’s SEL Day included several activities. To begin, each teacher provided an explanation of a particular SEL concept by using pictures, video, audio or written text, helping students understand the concept through skill practice, discussion with a peer group or partner, or individual writing tasks. The teacher revisited the concept throughout the week in class and with homework. 

Simple exercises designed to utilize breathing as a way to reduce life stresses and calm emotions, recharging and refreshing students and staff, were included in the activities. 

“We also worked on a stress alphabet with our classes,” Stefanelli said. 

A stress alphabet allows the students to work together and come up with positive or negative words relating to their idea of stress and how to address it. 

“We developed ‘bridges,’ or strategies, to go from sad to happy,” Stefanelli said. “Students were able to write them down on a card and keep them in their desks. We had a pajama day to make students more comfortable. Many of them spent time in their pajamas during virtual learning.”

“We’ve been virtual for almost 1.5 years,” Paull said, “and students don’t have the stamina for a full day and its activities. Parents are saying their children are currently overwhelmed with adapting to a six-hour schedule.

“This is the first time some of our students are interacting with others in a school setting,” she continued. “SEL Day helps to provide a group memory, like an assembly, to help with social adaptation. We are beginning to see them loosen up.” 

Research has shown that SEL not only improves mental and physical health and relationships, but it also reduces negative behaviors and disciplinary actions. In randomized trials in Chicago, Ill., and Hawaii, results showed: a 20-percent improvement in reading, an 18-percent improvement in affiliations with good friends, an 85-percent reduction in disciplinary referrals, a 62-percent reduction in violence, a 51-percent reduction in bullying and a 17-percent increase in honesty.

Jackson was pleased with what the team considered to be the beginning steps for the integration of SEL into Redwood culture.

“We have begun to develop strategies in addition to breathing and counting to 10. Staff can also utilize these concepts for virtual learners. The CASEL’s framework will help to develop relationship skills for staff, students and families,” Jackson said.

When Jackson asked students to give her a word or phrase that could switch them from sad to happy, she quickly found her favorite one: ice cream. It may just become an SEL mantra at Redwood.

Photos Courtesy of WOSD