Just like math, history and science, social-emotional learning (SEL) is becoming a part of Dallas ISD students’ daily lessons.

“We’re trying to teach both, and what we’ve learned is that they reinforce each other,” says DISD board president Dan Micciche.

SEL has become one of the district’s top priorities. Early this year, the school board approved a policy that makes the program a mandatory component of districtwide curriculum by the 2025-2026 school year. A handful of schools, including East Dallas’ Dan D. Rogers Elementary, already have made it a part of their day-to-day activities.

And now, DISD has announced a Wallace Foundation grant for up to $400,000 that allows the district to develop an SEL implementation plan.

But SEL is an unfamiliar concept for many of us outside of the education system, and even those who advocate for it note how best to teach and evaluate SEL is up for debate.

What is SEL?

SEL is related to the idea of educating the “whole child,” says Annie Wright, the director of Evaluation for SMU’s Center on Research and Evaluation.

“We all know that there is a lot more to academic achievement than just reading, writing and arithmetic,” she says. Social-emotional learning is “all the underlying mental and emotional health that really rounds out well-being of any student.”

The godfather of SEL is the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), founded in 1994, which advocates that these types of learning should be “an integral part of education from preschool through high school.”  The organization cites fewer behavior problems and improved academic performance as a few of SEL’s benefits.

According to CASEL, there are five components of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

“The person who succeeds in life is the person with those skills — not the person who has academic skills but no personal skills,” Micciche says.

 What the planning grant will accomplish

The Wallace Foundation —  which was established in New York to “foster improvements in learning and enrichment for disadvantaged children” — selected nine urban public school districts nationwide to receive the nine-month grant, which includes support from CASEL and the Forum for Youth Investment.

Dallas ISD applied for the grant with the nonprofit Big Thought, which partnered with the district to ensure SEL will be a part of classroom and after-school programs.

If the district does well developing the SEL plan, DISD could be considered for a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant in fall 2017, says Juany Valdespino-Gaytan, director of special projects in DISD’s teaching and learning division.

But before Dallas ISD introduces SEL to its students, faculty will undergo mindfulness training, so they can set an example for the students.

“If we’re teaching them these tips, then they need to see as adults we know how to control our anger and have coping strategies as well,” Valdespino-Gaytan says. “It’s not just about self- management. It’s also about self-awareness.”

Evaluating the effectiveness of the programs DISD uses will be crucial, Wright says, and often is the most difficult part because there isn’t a consensus among educators and researchers.

“There’s emerging agreement about what the best program would be to teach SEL skills,” she says. “There’s probably the least amount of agreement in how we measure those outcomes. Survey research is a start, but it’s not there yet.”

The program will be piloted at nine DISD campuses, which is beneficial because it allows the district to receive feedback before the program is expanded to an additional 39 schools the following year, Valdespino-Gaytan says. Dallas ISD officials have visited other districts that have implemented SEL, such as Austin and Cleveland.

Valdespino-Gaytan says DISD sought out both “their challenges and what their successes have been,” she says. “We really wanted to learn from them, so we didn’t repeat any mistakes.”

Why it’s important to Dallas ISD

SEL benefits everyone, Wright says, but it’s particularly helpful for students in high-poverty situations, where stress greatly impacts students and families.

The goal, ultimately, is for students to have better coping skills, which in turn helps them to perform better academically, Valdespino-Gaytan adds.

Micciche points out that roughly 86 percent of DISD’s 157,000-plus students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measurement that indicates how many schoolchildren are living in poverty. Of those, 3,600 — or 2.2 percent — are homeless. These students face problems at home that hinder their ability to focus in the classroom, he says, and also their long-term career prospects.

“You want somebody who can manage their emotions, who can work together with others, who perseveres,” Micciche says.

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