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Social-emotional learning is gaining popularity in K-12 education 

Wellness in the classroom

While foundational subjects like math, science, and English continue to be the base of education, more schools and districts are diversifying the kind of knowledge students gain in class. Finding its place alongside literature and statistics, social-emotional learning is becoming more prevelent across the country as a crucial component of education.


Social-emotional learning is information and programs that cater to the social and emotional well-being of students. This can include anything from one-on-one counseling to activities and workshops that address any area of mental health.

According to San Luis Obispo County Superintendent of Schools James Brescia, there is now some form of social-emotional learning happening in every district in the county. As a previous educator, he sees the importance of incorporating it into the classroom.

click to enlarge HEALING TUG San Luis Obispo County's juvenile court school, Coastal Valley Academy, focuses on transforming students through social-emotional learning and offers fun activities like outings to Morro Bay to improve emotional health. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY OFFICE OF EDUCATION
  • Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Obispo County Office Of Education
  • HEALING TUG San Luis Obispo County's juvenile court school, Coastal Valley Academy, focuses on transforming students through social-emotional learning and offers fun activities like outings to Morro Bay to improve emotional health.

"It's understanding that third grade teachers are teaching third grade subjects as well as third graders," Brescia said. "Teachers need to approach students in a holistic way so they are ready to learn."

In 2016, California joined the Collaborating States Initiative (CSI), which focuses on serving the academic, social, and emotional needs of K-12 students. Since then, the California Board of Education has been encouraging social-emotional learning programs in schools across the state.

Karen Donaghe, executive director of Alternative Education within the county, believes catering to the mental health of students is essential for learning.

"Kids have to be at school and ready to learn. We talk about this with nutrition and getting a good breakfast—hungry kids can't focus," Donaghe said. "Similarly, if a student has experienced a trauma or is unable to process their emotions, they are not ready to learn."

Loma Vista Community School, Grizzly Youth Academy, and Juvenile Court School are alternative education options within San Luis Obispo County. Since these schools are attended by at-risk youth, social-emotional learning is a primary focus for risk reduction. Behavioral therapy is a key component to alternative education, which helps students process strong emotions.

San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD)—which includes 10 elementary schools, two middle schools, and three high schools—is also giving social-emotional learning an increasingly prominent role in the classroom and beyond.

Kimberly McGrath, Assistant Superintendent of Education at San Luis Coastal, highlighted the steps the district has taken in regards to social-emotional learning.

"The school board has a priority and sincere concern about not only students' academics but their health in a social-emotional aspect," McGrath said. "We understand the need for students to manage their own emotions and set healthy goals, so we emphasize how we treat one another."

While these goals seem abstract, San Luis Coastal is attempting to meet them with concrete programs. Counselors are on-campus resources for not just high school and middle schoolers, but children in elementary school as well. Middle school and high school students in the district are being led through discussions about suicide-prevention, depression, and anxiety in class.

Reaching beyond just students, all take-home school newsletters include advice articles from Connect Be Well, a local organization that focuses on wellness. Connect Be Well is also the organization that helped create REACH Club at San Luis Obispo High School.

REACH received national attention this past April when NBC's The Today Show featured students from the club in a video segment regarding teenage stress. The club uses approaches like mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress and anxiety. Students in the club are also encouraged to reach out and help others, including leaving kindness notes around school.

With similar goals as REACH, Del Mar Elementary in Morro Bay is introducing its own mindfulness program this upcoming year. The program, named Restore! For Kids, was piloted last academic year in a first-grade classroom and will now be offered in all kindergarten through fifth grade classes. The program is created by Carry the Vision, an educational nonprofit based in Gilroy, and teaches techniques for stress reduction and enhanced well-being.

Superintendent Brescia is placing an emphasis on teachers' ability to establish these types of programs and promote students' wellness. This past spring, Brescia held the first Building Community Summit for the county, and plans to begin hosting it twice annually. The summit, which mainly focused on how school leaders can encourage open dialogue and behavioral health, had more than 120 participants.

"We can't overemphasize the importance of looking at the whole child," Brescia said. "It is incumbent on us to assist them in every way we can." Δ

Editorial intern Ashley Ladin can be reached through New Times Editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].

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