An Interview on Student Success & Wellbeing

The Pegasus Springs Education Collective has established five broad categories from which we will not only create our own monthly content, but also curate online posts and articles in order to bring the latest news and information to our community. Occasionally, we will provide information pertaining to one of the broad, overall categories, while in some months, we will narrow the focus to a more specific subtopic within one of the categories. Here are our five content categories, along with a sampling of the subtopics included within each:

  • Student Success & Wellbeing: Social emotional learning, behavioral and mental health, educational equity, cultural proficiency and responsiveness, safe and supportive learning environments, trauma-sensitive schools, multi-tiered system of supports.
  • Leadership & Culture: Teacher and student leadership, administrative practices, student extracurricular opportunities, school culture and climate, ongoing professional learning, teamwork and staff collaboration, collective efficacy.
  • Learning & Teaching: Student engagement, curriculum, instruction, assessment, academic subject areas, classroom management, interventions, school data, student achievement.
  • Parents & Community: Parenting and caregiving, community partnership, child development.
  • Education Issues & News: Legislation, special education regulations, civil rights, accountability.

Our focus for June is Student Success & Wellbeing. While this big topic is always a priority throughout the school year, it is also important to remember that as we transition to long school breaks, it can sometimes be an especially challenging time for some students—particularly for those who rely on the supportive environments their school is able to provide them on a consistent basis. As the school year comes to an end, we thought it might be a good time to reflect upon this critical topic. We talked to three educators for this month’s feature, and we’re pleased to share an excerpt of their insights below.

Erin Walsh (EW) is a speaker and consultant on topics related to brain development and raising resilient young people in the digital age. She is also an educator for the Higher Education Consortium of Urban Affairs where she teaches undergraduate students a program called “Making Media, Making Change.”

Marlene Lifshin (ML) is a social worker at the A.W. Coolidge Middle School in Reading, MA, and she is a faculty advisor for the school’s “A World of Difference” club, an ADL program that prepares middle and high school students to work with their peers to confront bias and create inclusive environments in their schools and communities.

Sara Burd (SB) is the Director of Social Emotional Learning and School Counseling for the Arlington Public Schools in Arlington, MA and an adjunct professor at Lesley University where she teaches for LIfTS—the Lesley Institute for Trauma Studies. She is a licensed School Guidance Counselor, School Adjustment Counselor/Social Worker, and Registered Drama Therapist.

PSEC: Student Success & Wellbeing is certainly a large topic, encompassing several important components that can all have a tremendous impact on students’ academic success—and of course even on their overall health and safety. Let’s look at a few different aspects of this big topic and discuss what they mean to you, or why you feel they are so important. First, there is a major focus now on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in education, but it is not really a new concept. What does this renewed focus mean to you, and why do you think it’s important to attend to SEL in schooling?

SB: The renewed focus in SEL is coming at us from a variety of entry points. We have business leaders in shock at the lack of resilience and persistence their entry level employees display in the workplace. We have higher-ed institutions noticing a lack of inter and intrapersonal skills in their students. We have an increase of mental health symptoms being experienced by students at all ages and across all ranges of abilities and economic status. We have a global society that is unlike anything we have encountered before and we have been submerged in a technological flood we don’t yet fully understand and are paying for our hyper “connectedness” in every way. I fully believe that fostering SEL skills and building safe and supportive schools and communities are the only ways our students will be able to learn not only academically but also personally. The data is irrefutable; SEL is necessary for all of us, not just our students.

PSEC: There is also an emphasis on creating trauma-sensitive schools and on providing safe and supportive learning environments for all students. What does this mean to you, and why do you think this is essential for students?

EW: Repair and healing happen in the context of networks of supportive relationships. Why must schools respond? We know that trauma can lead to a cascade of challenges for students inside and outside of the classroom and that traumatic events interfere with students’ ability to learn. There is no “outsourcing” dealing with trauma to others if schools want to be a place where every child can learn and thrive. Without understanding how trauma works, schools risk re-traumatizing students when educators misinterpret challenging behaviors. The shift in the field from “What is wrong with this child?!” to “What is going on inside this child?” is so profound and important if we are going to correctly identify what children need to learn and what tools will help us get there. It’s also worth noting that trauma sensitive schools aren’t just good for children who have experienced or are experiencing significant adversity, but are universal protective factors for all students. Everyone is set up for meaningful and engaged learning when a school understands the impact of stress on the brain, prioritizes warm and caring relationships, and builds in opportunities across the building to help students practice emotional regulation skills.

PSEC: How do issues of educational equity represent important challenges for schools and educators to address—and how do issues of equity potentially impact student success?

ML: To effectively address issues of equity, it’s important for each of us to first have a good understanding of our own experiences, biases, and identities. It’s also important for leaders to first acknowledge the difficulties that can be present with this process and the challenges that educators face in their classrooms. When leaders listen and gain perspective, they tend to model the norms necessary to open up dialogue and to create an environment safe and comfortable enough to discuss the challenges associated with equity. And such efforts are not limited to just staff. It’s also important of course to include students’ input in this process. Once the appropriate environment and norms have been established, exploring and addressing all the various factors that can impact educational equity can become an ongoing process that an entire school community engages in continuously.

PSEC: This topic also includes issues of cultural competence and responsiveness, in order to connect with all students and to create learning experiences that are bias-free and actively draw upon students’ diverse backgrounds, identities, strengths, and challenges. How do you feel these issues are important to student success?

ML: An effective school creates a learning community where all members can feel safe and heard, because it truly values diversity, accepts differences, and respects different perspectives. Attending to the development of cultural proficiency is a key part of this, as it ensures that everyone not only possesses an understanding of other cultures, experiences, or personal identities—but also an understanding and awareness of how our own identities and experiences tend to shape our current perspectives, biases, or practices. This can be important reflective work for a community to do in order to ensure success for everyone. Schools can also indicate that their commitment to these issues goes beyond mere lip service by fully embracing and valuing student organizations within the school that support diversity and help enhance cultural understanding. By integrating these organizations’ missions into the core values of the school and by consistently prioritizing their efforts, this commitment can permeate throughout the school and shape the overall culture and climate.

PSEC: What final thought or piece of advice would you want to share about SEL or this overall topic of Student Success & Wellbeing?

EW: While we can try to tackle these things alone, students will benefit when an entire building is dedicated to the work. Educators teach in systems and students learn in networks of relationships. It will take all of us to bring these themes to the center of our work. It is also a reminder that this work can be difficult and can’t be solved in one session or one program — it’s about sustained work over time.

SB: When I was growing up, I needed to go into our basement and access the Encyclopedia Britannica or use the card catalogue at the library to find an answer. Our students now ask their device and have a plethora of answers and sources. School has rapidly moved away from information gathering to application of information, and we have to keep pace with these shifting needs. Our charge is no longer to ensure our students can read or write a 20-page report with APA format. Our charge is to help students learn who they are in this world and how they want to be with themselves and with others. That is an impossible feat if we never teach the SEL skills of self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, healthy relationships and responsible decision making.

ML: SEL efforts best succeed when integrated universally within a school’s Tier One practices for all students. By utilizing their mental health staff to help achieve this approach, schools also not only succeed in establishing some effective proactive and preventative measures, but also can “normalize” efforts associated with a student’s wellbeing and eliminate any stigma sometimes associated with addressing issues that can seriously impact the emotional or behavioral health of kids. I believe it’s important to remember that SEL cannot be done in isolation in order to be effective. It can’t be seen as simply another separate initiative—for example, done solely during counseling or in student advisory sessions. SEL really needs to be woven throughout the entire fabric of the school and curriculum. For students to make real progress, they need to be able to practice and internalize the skills in all settings and across all curriculum.

Thank you so much, Erin, Sara, and Marlene! You can find their full interviews here. How do you incorporate SEL initiatives into the frameworks of your own school? We’d love to hear in the comments below.