Strengthening Existing SEL in New Jersey

In January 2017, I began my work at Moss School in Metuchen, NJ. Moss is a public special needs pre-k and kindergarten school. My focus was helping to develop and pilot social-emotional learning (SEL) and character development curriculum for kindergarten students.

Moss was no stranger to SEL when I joined. In fact, they had long been working to integrate evidence-based approaches to teaching social and emotional skills to students, given the astounding amount of research indicating how critical these skills are to student success in academics and beyond.

 

Moss Overcomes SEL Hurdles

Moss was well aware of the benefits of SEL curricula, as well as the hurdles that stand in the way of successful SEL education. One of the biggest hurdles is, of course, time. When Common Core expectations are high, and so much is already asked of our teachers and students, how can we ask them to take on this additional huge task of social and emotional skills education? Moss Kindergarten Teacher Christina Spring asked, “How are we going to juggle all of this?”

Despite these challenges, everyone at Moss recognized the need to educate the whole child, even if standardized test results hadn’t yet evolved to prioritize character and social-emotional skills development. Commitment to the objectives was high, yet the question remained, how can we add yet another set of objectives to an already packed school day?

Principal Richard Cohen’s answer to this question became, we won’t add, we will integrate. Since instructional time was already so limited, Cohen spearheaded methods of integrating SEL education into the existing curricula. In fact, it proved enormously effective to transform many academic and non-academic aspects of classroom life so that they had an eye toward social and emotional concepts, practices, and objectives. Several iterations of this brought Moss to the forefront of schools providing quality social and emotional education to their students.

 

Using Technology to Power Up SEL at Moss

My task when I arrived at Moss was to help find and implement tools in the classroom that would allow Moss to extend and even further advance its SEL curricula from three main perspectives, 1.) making it even easier for teachers to provide SEL curricula, 2.) getting students more engaged and excited about the curricula, 3.) using technology as a tool to assist and strengthen Moss’s SEL work.

With my strong background in SEL and character education research, I was able to get up to speed quickly with the current SEL programs at Moss to really understand the elements that made them successful and what they needed to grow even stronger.

I started by working with the students bi-weekly in small groups. Relying on expression through art and situations in children’s literature, students learned about identifying emotions, emotional regulation, triggering situations and how to problem solve during emotionally stressful times. Teachers reported significant differences in the actions of even their most behaviorally challenged students. We were on the right track.

 

YouHue at Moss School

With such positive feedback following the piloted SEL small group instruction, Principal Cohen and I began working on another SEL pilot, one that could easily be facilitated by classroom teachers without any outside help in the future, would excite the students to increase their engagement, and would introduce a healthy technology to assist the work.

YouHue was introduced to me about halfway through my time at Moss by my Principal Cohen. YouHue is an app-based program for social and emotional learning. Initially, technology as a tool for education and health made me nervous. The current generation of youth has been raised on technology. With new innovations and more and more reliance placed on web based products, the question of how healthy technology really is for youth and young adults is readily asked.

When I was first given the opportunity to pilot YouHue as a method of daily, guided self-reflection and emotional identification, I at first thought the technology would take away opportunities for verbal openness. Despite my initial fears I had trust in the evidence and research provided by the YouHue team, as well as the great instincts of Principal Cohen that had led Moss so far already. I trusted that technology could in fact be beneficial when used in the right context. So, I led the YouHue Pilot with my SEL students.

To my surprise, YouHue was able to fill in the gaps where my students struggled the most during small group instruction. Although SEL implementation was already successful at Moss, YouHue kept students engaged, willing and excited to self reflect—something that was a struggle to maintain prior. The students were more energized in their practice of the SEL concepts they were guided to learn through YouHue--both while using the app and in real life. Plus, it made it significantly easier on me to instruct and facilitate practice. To get started, all I had to do was give students the app, and the exercise guided them in a short practice of self-reflection, emotion identification, and self-expression.

 

Healthy Technology to Support SEL

It was then that I realized that it is not technology that is harmful but rather the way we use it that matters most. If we teach students to utilize web-based applications that are useful for their mental health, physical health, or academics like YouHue, we are effectively adapting to better resonate and teach today’s youth—the generation of technology. There are companies, like YouHue, who take on the responsibility to design technology that helps, and does not harm, children’s delicate minds, empowering them to learn better. Such healthy technology tools advance the quality of education we can provide young people. They serve as assistants to expand our capabilities as educators.

Since the May 2017 pilot of YouHue at Moss School, kindergarten teachers and the Moss Principal continue to explore and familiarize themselves with the beneficial features the app has to offer. Because of the positive and engaging experience Moss teachers and myself had with YouHue, the principal of Moss School, who also oversees all grade-level curriculums in the Metuchen School District, hopes to integrate YouHue into the permanent curriculum at Moss next year.

 

Martinez, L. (2016). SEL is Good Teaching. Edutopia. Retrieved from:

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/sel-is-good-teaching-lorea-martinez

 

Written by: Catherine Adelhoch & Kristi Kelly

Making SEL Accessible in Philadelphia

Some schools we talk to think that mental wellness and ‘soft’ skills education are luxuries only to be enjoyed by schools with money. This means schools with the luxury of extra time and energy. With YouHue, mental wellness and ‘soft’ skills education are accessible for students and educators at every school.

"It’s to the point whERE [my student] knows when he needs it.

He’ll say some days, ‘I need YouHue.'"

YouHue is simple and quickly becomes part of classroom life. A student opens the app, selects the emotion she is feeling, and describes why she is feeling that emotion. Then, that log is saved into a database that the school can access. The exercise guides students to express themselves appropriately.

When students find their voice, it actually gives time and energy back to the classroom teacher by reducing classroom behavioral issues and helping connect better with students. When students can express themselves appropriately and effectively, they are able to ask for what they need and modulate their behavior to achieve their goals.

 

Example: Special Needs in Philadelphia

An easy way for her already overburdened teachers to carry that focus into every classroom.

One of our very first YouHue-enabled schools had recently spent years on at-risk and low-performance lists, fighting budget constraints and resource limitations. With a new principal, came a new focus on culture. She saw poor behavior and weak academic performance as a symptom of something deeper, something in the emotions of her students.

She set a powerful example of reaching out to her students, letting them know that she heard them, really understood them, and that they could trust her to lead them. By expressing this acceptance and care, she was able to get students to buy into her vision for their future. The school’s performance improved dramatically not only in academics and graduation rates, but in every measure of student behavior and engagement.

This amazing principal heard about YouHue from a colleague and saw an opportunity to strengthen the ability of each of her teachers to deliver mental wellness education into their classrooms. From our first call, she expressed her unyielding prioritization of student emotional health. What she needed now was an easy way for her already overburdened teachers to carry that focus into every classroom.

 

Bringing YouHue into the Classrooms

We started with just three donated iPads, and YouHue was brought to life in their three highest needs classrooms of special needs students. The program would start simply, each student would log his or her feeling of the moment in YouHue when she or he arrived to the classroom each morning. Also, teachers would encourage the students to log their self-expression in YouHue as needed--perhaps when a student is upset, withdrawn, overwhelmed, frustrated, or overexcited.

The students would mainly complete these logs by themselves, but occasionally with the assistance of the teacher or a support staff member.

 

Three Months Later

"It has improved [the student] and he doesn’t even know it. He just thinks he’s picking up an iPad and telling it how he feels. He doesn’t realize it’s an outlet."

Three months later, these teachers were reporting significant behavior change in some of their most challenging students. In fact, these students were the first to start showing results. Teachers described the new capabilities of their students and tone in their classroom:

“It’s improved [the student] and he doesn’t even know it. He just thinks he’s picking up an iPad and telling it how he feels. He doesn’t realize it’s an outlet.”

“YouHue gives [the student] a way to filter how he’s feeling. Sometimes he doesn’t want to talk, and so he uses YouHue. ‘Ok, go talk to YouHue,’ I’ll say. And he goes, he does the exercise, he rethinks how to handle things, and filter himself. He’ll then say to me, ‘Ok, I’m a little calm, but I still need to go to the Calm Down Area.’ He’s able to modulate his behavior much better than he was at the beginning of the year.”

“It’s to the point where [the student] knows when he needs it. He’ll say some days, ‘I need YouHue.’”

"[My student] wants to learn now."

“[My student] talks to [YouHue] as a friend, then comes back to [the real world] and that helps him get through.”

“[My student’s] outbursts have decreased.”

“[YouHue] got [the student] to become more comfortable talking to me.”

“Talking with me and YouHue helping turn him around and he wants to learn now.”

“I normally use YouHue when [the students] come in in the morning. It is part of our morning routine as we go through morning message and review homework.”

“[My student’s] confidence level is increasing.”

“It used to be, give [the student] any task and he would be like, ‘I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it,’ and he would put this whole big front on. YouHue helped him because it’s made him realize he can use his voice, helped him realize he can do things. He’ll say he’s frustrated and I’ll tell him, ‘You can do it!’ and now he realizes he can. ‘I can!’ he says.”

“When we started the program, we talked about feelings--what they are. Then we went through each of the YouHue emotion pictures to get them thinking about what each one meant.”

“I remind them to just go on and, ‘Say how you feel.’”

“One of my students is nonverbal, so the emotion pictures help.”

“Sometimes if a student is upset, I’ll suggest she goes on and uses YouHue.”

“When we have interpersonal communication or when we talk about communication in lessons, the students understand a bit more because they’re getting into the emotions already through YouHue.”

“[One of the students] is so excited about it each morning he helps make sure all the other students do their morning log, as well.”

"It’s easier for my students to communicate about their feelings. They are more receptive. They talk a bit more about how they are feeling, and are more open."

 

Change Can Be Simple

All of this from a passionate principal, some amazing overburdened teachers, and a few donated iPads. In just three months, these classrooms made significant demonstrable advancements in the social and emotional skills of their special needs students. It is no longer expensive or time-consuming to support the mental wellness of students.

YouHue changes classroom life by changing classroom culture, which starts with helping students express themselves appropriately and meaningfully. When you change classroom life, you change student performance, which changes lives. All it takes is making mental wellness a priority, and a little help from YouHue