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How SEL transformed our school

The dean of students at DC Public Schools outlines how one of its schools used social and emotional learning to boost enrollment and student satisfaction.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

How SEL transformed our school


As a Dean of Students at DC Public Schools, I consider it my primary duty to ensure that students and staff feel connected and engaged at school. Langley Elementary, a school within our district, has historically struggled with behavior challenges, high suspension rates and an unimpressive student satisfaction rate. To compound this, an increase in charter schools in the area has resulted in a competition between public and private education, and the area neighborhoods are becoming gentrified.

Rather than leave things as they were and hope for the best, I decided it was time to weave a social-emotional learning program into curriculum and craft a school culture from scratch — one that focused on the success and happiness of the student, as well as consideration for each individual’s emotional needs. It’s too often that we fall victim to one-off tools, I wanted to find something that would evoke long term change for our district yet was practical enough that it could be easily implemented into existing curriculum.

Finding an answer

In Washington, D.C., the rise of charter schools has resulted in unprecedented drops in student enrollment rates at some traditional public schools. The diversity of the area has shifted, with 50% being made up of affluent families, and the other 50% being middle- and lower-class families.

This signaled the need for change and called for a solution that would be able to adapt to each person’s unique situation and needs. To me, this signaled a demand for something that would not only draw students in but retain them. The answer was SEL.

Washington, D.C.’s average student satisfaction rate is 90%. Prior to implementing an SEL program, Langley Elementary’s rate was hovering at 70%. Between the enrollment drops and lack of student happiness, it was time to implement a system and long-term solution.

Implementing a system

The first step toward change was to invest in our teachers. District leaders and teachers collaborated, choosing Conscious Discipline because of its comprehensive approach that integrates social and emotional learning, discipline and school climate, three elements often addressed separately. The program’s unique “adult first, child second,” foundation immediately distinguished it from other SEL offerings. With a goal of holistic implementation in mind, we knew that buy-in and support were essential at all levels — from principal down thru the whole school. Our faculty recognized that students were struggling with emotional regulation, and we knew that a well-rounded, effective program was required and that professional development resources would be beneficial. A trainer was brought in and an SEL team was formed, giving teachers the support to make change happen.

One of the things that Langley has struggled with in the past is relationship building between students and staff, and staff and parents. Through the SEL program, we identified a new morning routine that targeted this need, where faculty hosts a ritual where every student chooses how they’d like to be greeted prior to entering the school doors. We encourage students to talk with one another in the cafeteria, a stark contrast to when they would be reprimanded in the past for making noise.  We also created a family engagement team made up of teacher leaders who planned family fun nights, a back-to-school barbecue, and school-wide academic partnering where families meet to learn about the curriculum, their child’s data, learn how to help their child at home and they get to bring home those activities to practice.

When each student gets to school in the morning, they are greeted by administrators who initiate a connection through a greeting ritual. With this, we’re gauging how students are feeling at the beginning of the day and intervening as necessary. Another change that the system has brought is to incorporate a Brain Smart Start each morning, where students can connect and get rid of any stresses they came in with that day. There are four main components that make up these sessions: an activity to unite, an activity to disengage, an activity to connect and an activity to commit.  In conjunction with this strategy, teachers hold brain breaks throughout the day, where students take part in meaningful activities to relieve tension and anxiety.

We also hold monthly assemblies where our entire school family participates in a Brain Start Smart activity that includes the four components. As an example, we recently united by participating in our school family song, which is a take on the classic “We are Family” and practiced a breathing strategy for the disengage component. 

When conflict between students does arise, we use a strategy dubbed the Conflict Resolution Time Machine. This is a step-by-step process of how to solve problems in a healthy and helpful way, focusing on our school family and functioning based on helpful behaviors instead of hurtful.

Recess has also experienced a large shift. We partnered with Playworks, an organization that ensures that recess activities are positive, safe and meaningful. Prior to this implementation, we realized that recess was not as safe as it could be, and often promoted division among students. Now, students are led through different activities that promote an active lifestyle and build valuable life skills through play. Playworks has provided students in upper grades with the opportunity to become junior coaches, and they meet regularly with our Playworks coach to learn games to teach to younger students. Since implementing this program, we’ve observed a significant decrease in the amount and frequency of negative interactions among peers at recess, and instead, the program has given students an environment to foster meaningful connections and relationships. Similar to Conscious Discipline, this program reinforced our desire for practical, long-term difference.

Change wasn’t just happening with our students, it was impacting our staff as well. Teachers were commenting that they enjoyed SEL practices so much, that they were bringing the strategies home to use with their own children. Our teachers are enjoying the new, nurturing culture at Langley, where everybody can feel connected to one another.

Incredible results

Today, one of the strategic priorities outlined in D.C. Public Schools’ five-year strategic plan, A Capital Commitment, is educating the whole child. That includes providing SEL to ensure all students are college and career ready. We know this system-wide focus on embedding SEL into DCPS’ culture and classrooms will pay off, because all of these little changes at Langley have led up to a schoolwide shift. After implementing an SEL program, we experienced immediate change. Student satisfaction rose to 86% within one year, and suspension rates have dropped from 65% to 23%. Additionally, our students are happier. They are learning how to cope with their emotions in a healthy way while growing social skills.

My advice to other districts who are interested in the benefits of SEL is simple: do it. Invite teachers, parents and students to collaborate to identify needs, and source SEL practices that meet those needs. Through the intentional implementation of SEL, big changes will result. Having faculty buy in is critical to the success of any program, and SEL is no exception. We created a team specifically tasked with helping to implement our program, and after seeing the positive ripple effect that SEL had, we now have full faculty support. SEL has helped our school to promote a safer, more loving and joyous school family environment, and has truly transformed our school.

Where before we were trying to convince students to come to our school, we’re now currently overenrolled by 110%, which is unique for our district. Our school has become a family, and we’re confident that this success would not have been possible without a thoughtful SEL program implementation.

Monique Robinson is a dean of students at District of Columbia Public Schools.


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