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New FISD initiative focuses on students’ social, emotional needs

October 9, 2018

Through an initiative started this school year, Friendswood ISD educators are aiming to help students develop as people who can manage emotions, set goals and make good decisions.

“For so long school we were so focused on academics, but now we’ve turned toward trying to make more of an impact in kids’ lives and targeting the whole child, which includes their emotional needs,” said Diane Myers, who serves as the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary curriculum and instruction.

District officials joined with parents and community residents last spring to form a committee aiming to look beyond a traditional, academics-only approach. That effort led to a focus on addressing students’ social and emotional needs.

Myers said the committee will work to ensure practices for “social-emotional learning” continue successfully in coming years.

“I believe this will be an ongoing process to implement and refine and bring in new ideas,” she said.

Committee members have drawn lessons from sources including consultant and motivational speaker Houston Kraft’s “Character Strong” program and the Chicago-based organization Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Although the district’s campuses each have their own programs, Myers said SEL activities’ themes first revolve around get-to-know-you activities where kids share their favorite family traditions or best-loved movies. Activities then focus on developing social-emotional learning competencies, including self-discipline, time management, good decision-making, self-awareness, relationship skills and social awareness.

Recently, students at Friendswood Junior High met in one of their 20-minute, twice-weekly, small-group SEL sessions called Mustang Impact. In these groups, students participate with kids who aren’t in many of their classes, in an effort to get students to know people who may not be in their immediate orbit.

“They talked in small groups, which are called ‘families,’ and they discussed the origins of their names, the importance of it,” said Myers. “It’s a way for them to get to know each other better on a personal level.”

FISD spokeswoman Kelsey Purcell sat in on a recent session and observed how the children responded to the activity and interacted with one another.

‘A safe place’

“The kids appeared to be very eager to share their answers,” she said. “Most were raising their hands high trying to be the first to talk. It was cute seeing them so excited.”

Beyond their excitement, Purcell said the students felt the group was an opportunity to express themselves.

“I specifically talked with two students before the class began and they told me about how much they love (the Friendswood Junior High School program) Mustang Impact and how it makes their day better,” Purcell said. “The students described it as being a safe place where they could talk about things that were bothering them and not feel judged. They said the support from their peers and teacher helped them to feel comfortable sharing.”

As part of the SEL initiative, teachers received training about how to foster an emotionally healthy environment for their students including a “culture of kindness” based on Kraft’s philosophy.

“We’ve always had teachers who care about building relationships because this is what we do, we love kids,” Myers said. “A culture of kindness can do nothing but help with achievement as far as their learning. You can’t get to a person’s head without first having their heart.”

Other tangible steps the district has taken include re-emphasizing the role of school counselors.

“They are there for more than just scheduling classes and helping kids get into college,” Myers said. “We want people to know they are there for students needs emotionally.”

The district created an SEL “living” page on its website with a continuously updated list of resources for those struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. The page, found at www.myfisd.com/sel, also includes a student-produced video, created in collaboration with FISD’s communications department, targeting cyberbullying.

Myers said getting the kids involved was important.

“We have found it very powerful for them to be involved,” she said. “It gives them voice and choice.”

For more about the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, visit casel.org.

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