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Elementary students benefiting from social emotional learning

While social and emotional impacts on students have been a concern throughout the pandemic, staff have worked on mental health and trauma-informed school trainings for about four years. The elementary school added Mary Ellenson as student success coordinator at the start of this school year, along with morning meetings and additional curriculum to create common vocabulary, unity and encourage discussion about emotions.

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WDC kindergartners started the day off with breakfast in the classroom then a message from principal Louis Rutten by Zoom. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Wadena-Deer Creek elementary students are learning more about understanding their emotions with classroom discussions, videos, lessons and calming items.

While social and emotional impacts on students have been a concern throughout the pandemic, staff have worked on mental health and trauma-informed school trainings for about four years. The elementary school added Mary Ellenson as student success coordinator at the start of this school year, along with morning meetings and additional curriculum to create common vocabulary, unity and encourage discussion about emotions. The additional social emotional learning (SEL) lessons are based off the trauma-informed approach used at Roosevelt Elementary in Detroit Lakes.

“I am so happy that WDC has taken this huge step forward and realized that children need to be emotionally stable in order to function and learn,” Sara Lenz wrote in an email shared with school board members on Dec. 20. She is a specialist and Emotional Behavioral Disorder teacher. “We cannot learn our ABCs and 123s if our students are not feeling safe, loved, heard, helped, communicated with and overall feeling like a part of our community. WDC realized this and I see the changes daily as my crisis calls have dramatically decreased, students have coping tools they are using on their own and students are asking for the help they need!”

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Mary Ellenson, Wadena-Deer Creek elementary school student success coordinator. Contributed / Kyle Gylsen, 2021

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What is social emotional learning?

The Committee for Children defines social emotional learning as “the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.” The core of SEL is listening to students and helping them understand their emotions to become better students. At WDC, elementary students have a morning meeting in their classrooms with elementary principal Louis Rutten and the entire school on Zoom for about five minutes. Teachers then go through a presentation with quotes, videos and questions made by Ellenson.

“By taking that 30 minutes every morning to have a morning meeting has really united the classrooms and the school with that common language,” Ellenson said. She added birthdays are fun as students can come close to the camera as the whole school wishes them a happy birthday.

VIDEO EXAMPLE:

With morning meetings, lessons and PAWS boxes, teachers and paraprofessionals have been able to move from training to doing, according to Rutten. The PAWS box includes items to help students release stress and calm down. Students have learned when your “brain pops” then you react in a fight, flight or freeze mode. For example, a student who used to leave the room (flight) now heads to the PAWS box area as a safe space.

What are students learning in the morning meetings?

Ellenson said teachers wondered about having the time to fit lessons in and are now seeing the value of the lessons for students to successfully learn.

Lenz has the morning meeting with a group of K-4th grade students. She said students are “focused” and “engaged” during the meetings. Second grade teacher Lindy Thompson noted the morning meetings in her classroom are about 15 minutes, and “I 100% believe it is worth it.”

“The content is connected to what they are experiencing in their lives,” Lenz wrote. “I especially enjoy hearing the interactions between the older and younger students. The advice the kids have for each other and the ways they can help each other solve problems is the ultimate teachable moment to facilitate and it happens daily thanks to this new program.”

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"We cannot learn our ABCs and 123s if our students are not feeling safe, loved, heard, helped, communicated with and overall feeling like a part of our community."

— Sara Lenz, specialist and Emotional Behavioral Disorder teacher


The discussions help recognize the many factors in a student’s life as they are trying to learn. Staff members have also received training on Adverse Childhood Experiences and used the MindUP curriculum over the past few years. Rutten said having these efforts in place prior to the pandemic has helped students and families in these difficult times.

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Zones of regulation help students identify and communicate how they are feeling. Students learn that ranges of emotions are OK and will be learning tools to adjust from the different zones. Contributed / Wadena-Deer Creek Schools

Students have worked on team building and emotional zones of regulation. The zones are represented by different colors to help students identify and communicate how they are feeling. Students learn that ranges of emotions are OK and will be learning tools to adjust from the different zones. Ellenson said the discussions are an important part of preventing crises instead of only reacting.

How will social emotional learning continue?

Besides the morning meetings, the Second Step curriculum is a once a week lesson for about 30-45 minutes along with short optional activities during the week. The curriculum includes a script teachers can use based on their grade level.

“The Second Step lessons each week allow us to have deeper conversations about emotions/emotion management. It is nice that there are some similarities between grades so that we all have common language,” Thompson wrote.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Ellenson named student success coordinator at Wadena-Deer Creek elementary

Board members noted their interest in utilizing the lessons for fifth grade students in the future as they transition to the middle/high school. The Second Step curriculum is available for kindergarten to fifth grade. Fifth and sixth grade students also have homeroom.

“I believe our equity work is tied very closely to becoming a trauma informed school and I am looking forward to continuing these conversations as well,” Thompson wrote. “We had some questions arise about homework policies, attendance awards, fundraising, and other equity issues. I believe as a district we have made great strides with adding our morning meeting and Second Step curriculum, but would also like to see some actions taken with these other conversations.”

As students are often encouraged, take a slow and deep breath. And take the next right step.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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