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How supporting SEL can improve diversity and equity in education

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This past summer, our superintendent laid out several distinct goals at our leadership summit, with one focused on the development and implementation of a districtwide diversity and equity plan. After the summit, every campus leader took that directive back to his or her respective school. This year, I've been tasked with leading the charge on plan development for McKinney High School in Texas. With the pandemic in effect and racial injustice issues a key concern worldwide, finding new ways to improve diversity and equity in education was becoming an imperative for our district.

Ideally, we wanted to leverage even more fully the 7 Mindsets’ social and emotional learning curriculum that we had put in place three years earlier. We tapped into the curriculum’s equity resources and began offering related professional development to our entire staff. This helped McKinney High School leverage the SEL curriculum across its teacher population, with the goal of helping them better manage the pandemic-related issues they were grappling with.

We also had conversations with every stakeholder group (e.g., students, staff, parents, guardians, community members, etc.) to take a pulse on how we can provide those equitable outcomes. And we used professional development with our teachers, knowing the value it provides in connecting those instructors with their students. 

We immediately saw how this type of work can be uncomfortable. When you start talking about the implicit bias that people bring to the classroom every day, teachers may feel attacked. But coming into the 2020-21 school year, our teachers and staff knew that they’d be facing a litany of existing and emerging roadblocks. With the pandemic still in full effect and remote learning seen as the safest educational delivery method, we set our school’s sights on aligning teachers and students with campus relationships, culture and communication.

5 steps to improving diversity and equity in education

To work through these issues and help keep teachers comfortable, we gave them a common language on how to facilitate conversations with their students about race equity, inclusion, ethnicity and nationality. That took away some of the tension and pressure and helped us host more productive conversations.    

Here are five more strategies we used to effectively implement diversity, inclusion and SEL at our high school: 

  1. Get everyone involved. We had community conversations that included our diversity team, students, parents and community members. We had roundtable conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and diversity and inclusion to gain a better sense of belonging and to embrace everyone in our school community.  
  2. Equip teachers with the right tools. Many times, students have experienced some type of adverse trauma that they bring into the school every day. Our goal is to equip them with the proper tools, and that’s what we focused on with our professional development. We began by training staff members on cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching (CRT) practices. This helps bridge the gap between students' home and school cultures, primarily as it relates to belonging, diversity, equity, inclusion, and helping students to feel like they are valued. The school’s entire staff also completed 90 minutes of equity training with trainers from 7 Mindsets, which currently conducts ongoing equity professional development with staff members via the SEL portal. 
  3. Weave it right into your classroom culture. Most of our students look forward to SEL, and our teachers have collaborative planning time where they discuss how they are going to use resources from the 7 Mindsets portal. We’re at the point now where students view SEL as part of their classroom culture. When they start to implement the strategies, or if they need a mindful moment to de-escalate a situation, that's when we see the beauty of the program and SEL come into fruition. Today, McKinney High School’s teachers embed 7 Mindsets as a part of their warmups and/or bell ringers. For example, they may show a video and have students pair-share about the mindset that was featured in the video, or even do a quick write up about it. In all, the resource hub includes a library of thousands of curated SEL resources to meet the evolving needs of classrooms, schools, and districts. Our teachers can search and share resources with other educators (in the district and around the country) and learn best practices. They can use the lesson builder tool to combine resources, and create and share their own lessons. They can also customize their classes with thousands of resources including videos, activities, journal prompts, book suggestions, printable resources, and more.
  4. Don’t be afraid to break the mold. In some cases, adults may need to change or break the mold before they start talking to students and teaching SEL. For example, a child who has experienced a trauma may have a lot of things going on in his or her mind, and sometimes teachers may shy away from the situation simply because they’re unsure of how to discuss those issues. Social and emotional learning starts with teachers. After all, they’re the ones who teach SEL strategies and reinforce them throughout the day. However, if teachers themselves don’t have social-emotional well-being, they won’t be able to address the SEL needs of their students. You’ve likely heard that it takes the “whole” teacher to develop the “whole” child. We are committed to making sure the adults in our  buildings have supportive growth-based relationships. We’ve given them the tools, incentives, and strategies to be successful. And most of all, we’re supporting and nurturing them along the way.
  5. Reach the entire student population. In our district, about 40% of students are from economically disadvantaged homes and lifestyles. We want to provide opportunities for them, and statistics show that the students who need SEL opportunities aren't middle-class white students, but rather the students who are part of marginalized populations. If we truly want to help everyone live their best lives, we need to explore actionable steps that promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of a healthy social emotional learning curriculum and program. With the SEL platform our district uses, it incorporates the “we are connected” lexicon, to encourage students to seek out and understand unique identities and cultural awareness. 

Empowering students and teachers

 At McKinney Independent School District, we resumed face-to-face learning in September. It's been a challenging year, but when teachers are working on their own SEL and health, and collaborating with one another, they’re empowered. They’re serving as models for our students.  

Throughout the current school year, we’ve seen students grow not only in their behaviors but also academically. Initially, we were worried that, because of the pandemic and the school closures, we would see some academic regressions. But when students started using the 7 Mindsets SEL curriculum, they got very motivated and focused. 

These students also are turning to their teachers for support when they need help -- be it a mental moment, an anxiety problem or another struggle. When teachers can make the connection between classroom learning and its impacts students’ lives, that’s when SEL is truly effective. 

 

Justin James is the assistant principal of McKinney High School in McKinney ISD in McKinney, Texas. He helps implement the 7 Mindsets’ social and emotional learning curriculum at his school. 

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