Dr. Joseph Ricca: Selling SEL
How school leaders can build community support for new forms of teaching and learning
Guest Writer: Dr. Joe Ricca, Superintendent of White Plains Public Schools, NY
As a young social studies teacher, I thought my primary responsibility was to be a strong instructor—to bring lessons about history to life for my students, catering to their unique learning styles. Of course, this wasn’t necessarily wrong. But at the time I didn’t fully understand my responsibility to students’ social and emotional growth. Not, that is, until one freshman student—we’ll call him Michael—joined my class.
Michael refused to engage. I thought I might have to fail him; it seemed impossible to crack the puzzle of his disengagement. But there was something in Michael that prompted me to reach him on a personal level before addressing his grades. I knew his backstory: challenging external factors, little support outside of school, and an academic and behavioral reputation that haunted him.
So we started meeting regularly before school for conversations, which turned into study sessions. I made sure to praise him and say “hello” when I saw him in the hallways. Then, I encouraged my colleagues to soften their approach with him, show more compassion. Michael didn’t finish his homework? Stop giving him zeros, and let him complete the assignments with me. It wasn’t magic—in truth, it’s what savvy educators do everyday. It’s recognizing that our students need more than an education; they need to be cared for. Michael ended the year strong—not great, but far better than he began. I, admittedly, learned far more. I learned that caring matters.
Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is the idea that an education should go beyond academics. In today’s world, social skills and emotional development aren’t ancillary to a great education; they’re a key part of it. Sometimes, getting started with SEL means reevaluating our idea of a successful graduate.
Most districts are already implementing SEL ideology. Community service projects fall under the umbrella of SEL, as does increasing access for students with disabilities, working towards greater equity, or teaching lessons in character building.
But the implementation process goes beyond programming; communicating the value of social and emotional learning is a key part of the process. It’s changing the culture of the district; it’s selling SEL.
In my first superintendency at East Hanover Township School District (EHTSD), a good 10 years after meeting Michael, I got to see the value of SEL from another angle. As I was scanning students’ test scores, trying to make sense of the data, I realized something puzzling. By only looking at a student’s socio-economic status or at issues in their home life, I could nearly guess a student’s score.
We were chasing test scores when we should have been focusing on kids. I did some research and found that—when considering socio-economic factors—the bulk of districts are separated by mere percentage points. We were getting caught up in scores, but successful graduates need “soft skills” like empathy and compassion to navigate an increasingly interconnected world. Something is broken in the system of education, not in the students.
At East Hanover, our answer was SEL. And I don’t just mean creating new programs addressing social and emotional learning, I mean changing the culture of the district to value so-called “soft skills.” We worked on this rebranding at East Hanover, then I took the momentum to Elmsford Union Free School District (EUFSD) in New York.
I’ve since landed in White Plains City School District (WPCSD), not far from Elmsford. In each of the three districts I’ve served, we’ve put SEL at the forefront of our work. While the programs changed per district, the process of promoting SEL became somewhat of a formula built around four key lessons.
1. Learn from stakeholders.
Before tweeting about the glories of SEL, before creating a single program, create a space to learn from stakeholders. At my first district, East Hanover, we started the process of implementing SEL by putting together a committee to get a sense of the social problems in the district—and possible solutions. We didn’t stop at students and teachers; we included community partners, retirees, and elected officials.
These tigers were awesome! Learned so much at my @EastviewMS Focus Group today! Thanks for taking the time to teach me how we can serve you better. @wplainsschools #WPProud 🐯 pic.twitter.com/C5xQlOghsI— WPCSDSuper (@DrJosephRicca) February 1, 2019
At the time, bullying was a hot button issue at East Hanover. The problem surfaced quickly in our meetings, and the committee went to work brainstorming solutions that would ignite the community. Together we came up with a lesson, our main messaging, that fell under the umbrella of SEL: pay attention to students’ emotional lives.
Too often, parents felt they were overreacting when they worried about their child’s lack of interest in school or fear of going to class. As a community, we needed to pay more attention to our students. We wanted our parents, guardians, and students to know we were ready to listen and work with them as issues arose. A “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” attitude was hurting students’ development.
We then hit the ground running to spread our messaging, all the while learning from parents and stakeholders. Our communications campaign was split into several parts. First, we held coffee meetings with parents, who often shared their own experiences with bullying, or raised concerns or ideas. And we didn’t just ask parents to come to us; we met them at the library or at PTA meetings. If there was a community group willing to hear us, we were there, ready to speak—and even more ready to listen.
At East Hanover, no one would have publicly denied the importance of SEL. But that didn’t mean that the community initially bought into the idea. Some saw the work as a secondary concern, a “warm and fluffy” distraction from academics. Others didn’t understand the point. The common sentiment seemed to be, “I never had these types of lessons, and I turned out just fine!” With this logic, we would have rejected air conditioning in schools, leaving kids sweating at their desks. “I didn’t have it, so why do they need it?”
So we explained the benefits of SEL, including specific tactics to take against bullying and harassment, on social media. While instituting this more public, face-to-face campaign, we also spread our message on my personal Twitter feed as well as the district’s. Sometimes it was as simple as reposting an article supporting SEL to share our messaging with parents. The goal was both to demystify the causes of harassment and to shine light on practical ways the community could respond.
Something I didn’t understand at the start of the campaign: this marketing and communications work is SEL. It’s increasing community ties, learning to listen, and teaching the community how to better support their children.
2. Give the community ownership.
By listening first, we’d created a diverse range of stakeholders with ownership in the initiative. When it came time to implement real programming, our community—especially our students—was ready to join in. Working with our PTA and other community partners, we increased the number of student assemblies teaching tolerance, cooperation, and self-respect—the underpinnings of any successful social fabric. We adorned our buildings with student-created posters, banners, and murals highlighting our philosophies of unity, kindness, respect, responsibility, and self-determination. We even created programming that allowed our students to make positive contributions through service projects and beautification opportunities.
Our initial focus group also helped us get our messaging out into the community. Remember the elected officials we invited to serve on our original SEL committee? When New Jersey enacted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights in 2011, those folks, along with law enforcement officials, were out explaining the bill’s importance to the community. Then, our district hosted the first annual Community Night of Respect. Law enforcement officials and state legislators, including then State Attorney General, Paula Dow, announced the new legislation at the event. What a special night! We were working together with all of our stakeholders to support our children, leading a conversation about kindness.
Of course, we didn’t just want to engage our most powerful community members; we also looked to folks on the edges of our district. Senior citizens, for example, are valuable to our students’ social and emotional growth. So we started simple programs, like inviting our senior citizens to free concerts and theater events. To continue to really build community connections, we provided free transportation and arranged for student greeters to interact with our senior citizens before and after these events. What we found is that seniors, who sometimes have a negative perception of “kids these days,” stepped into our schools and were really wowed by students. They got to see just where their support goes in the community—the service they provide in advocating for public schools.
The response to these seemingly minor additions was enormous. Our community revelled in the fact that we weren’t just focusing on high stakes test scores; we were developing students’ character and citizenship alongside their intellect.
As a leader, I’m lucky to work with amazing educators who will take an idea about programming—even just an experience—and run with it. Even at the school level, sometimes the best thing I feel I can do is stand back and support. I say, “That sounds awesome, give it a try.” Sometimes, I just ask to be invited so I can show up and cheer them on.
Ways to give your community ownership:
- Invite parents to feedback meetings to discuss SEL, answer their questions, and address their concerns.
- Connect stakeholders on the fringes of your community—like senior citizens—with students.
- Have students make posters and banners promoting key SEL skills, like self-confidence, empathy, and teamwork.
- Give your teachers plenty of input and authority in determining SEL programming.
3. Rebrand with SEL in mind.
Implementing SEL in my second superintendency looked different than it had in my first. At East Hanover, we had spearheaded our shift towards SEL with the anti-bullying campaign, but Elmsford had different needs. Elmsford’s varied demographics didn’t keep with the perceived wealth of Westchester County, which gave the district a negative reputation. To renew the district’s focus on SEL, then, we needed to refocus the district on students’ successes, not their failures.
At first, this doesn’t seem to fall under SEL’s umbrella. But focusing on the positive is critical in supporting human beings. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true. Too often in education, we talk about where our teachers or schools are failing. We don’t talk about where kids are succeeding despite tremendous obstacles. If we fall into this false narrative, we simply perpetuate a deficit model of thinking: what don’t these kids know, as opposed to, how are they shining?
So we committed to flipping this paradigm. We moved away from saying that students lacked in any way. They could do better, or push harder, but they weren’t lacking. This deficit mindset had been pushing us away from considering students’ stories. And when you’re working with kids, their stories are everything.
At Elmsford, this paradigm shift started with a rebranding of the district. We restructured the district’s website and increased our media presence by inviting local press to attend our myriad functions. And of course, we didn’t ignore the power of face-to-face interaction, instituting coffee and conversation meetings both in the mornings and evenings to allow for the free flow of ideas between stakeholders and district administrators.
We also implemented community-building programs across the district. Our general education students assisted students with special needs; older kids read for younger kids; varsity athletes visited elementary schools. Judging from the way the kids reacted to our athletes, you’d think the NFL had stopped by for a visit.
At Friday night football games, we invited elementary school students onto the field at halftime. While kids enjoyed running around on the turf, parents got to see their children as part of something greater. It planted that seed of community early on, helping us build a more unified district.
4. Celebrate your successes.
To give SEL equal weight with academics, the arts, and athletics, we need to celebrate it with the same gusto. Some say that you can determine what an organization values by where it places its resources. In my current district, we are proud to devote a great deal of our resources to our students’ well-being.
Celebrating our victories is not something we’re shy about. When our district’s initiatives were named Promising Practices, we gave the honor as much attention as we would any academic recognition. When they became No Place for Hate Schools—the same excitement. When we were awarded a State School of Character? The entire community came together to celebrate. Whether through newsletters, traditional media, or social media, we always connect the work to our students’ overall success.
We know “why.” It started in 1943 when Abraham Maslow suggested that humans must fulfill their social and emotional needs before we can achieve self-actualization. In the 75 years since, we’ve learned more about the importance of those skills in navigating a complex, hyperconnected world. As school CEOs, we can make a critical difference by unifying our districts’ commitments to SEL, incorporating those goals into our district plans as often as possible. In the end, the more attention we pay to SEL, the more likely it is that our students will be positively engaged within their schools and reach their full potential.
The best part? Implementing SEL doesn’t cost much; all you need is an understanding that this work matters. Even in my first interactions with Michael, I learned that our public schools have a responsibility to do more than just teach subjects—we teach people. Perhaps the most important lessons we can share are kindness, care, and compassion.
That’s SEL, and our children will be better for it.
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