Shelton educators create curriculum focused on students' social emotional learning

SHELTON — Kristen Santilli was principal at Mohegan Elementary School when the pandemic shuttered schools nearly a year ago and forced learning to go virtual.

Santilli said she and her staff saw, over the next few months, anxiety issues, educational regression and emotional detachment in many students as children could only connect with friends and teachers through a computer screen.

So when she assumed the role as the district’s director of curriculum this past summer, she put social emotional learning, or SEL, at the top of her curriculum to-do list, and she said the results have been positive.

“As a former principal, I cannot explain how much this work is needed for all students,” Santilli said about her social emotional learning curriculum.

“The past few years, we have seen anxiety increase at the elementary level as well as the higher grades,” Santilli added. “This work is long overdue for our kids. We as a district have done work with social emotional learning over the years, but this needs to be embedded within the daily routine.”

The state Re-Opening of Schools plan came out over the summer to help schools open safely and had many components in it. Addressing SEL at the very beginning of the school year was one of the components, followed by on-going SEL support throughout the school year.

The biggest SEL focus was on building relationships among staff, students and families, according to Booth Hill School kindergarten teacher Kim Atkinson, a member of the SEL District Committee established by Santilli.

Atkinson volunteered to work alongside Santilli because of her background in social emotional learning. She is presently working on her doctorate in educational leadership with a focus on social emotional learning.

“Setting common social emotional learning foundational language amongst the students and staff with the district’s starter lessons helped to lay the groundwork for future SEL growth,” Atkinson said.

“SEL is not a fad or a one-time thing,” she said. “It requires a strong foundation. SEL is a way of learning and living and the Shelton Public School District is at the beginning of this life-changing journey.”

Building relationships offers networking opportunities for students, staff and families who are working through various traumas that may or may not be aligned with the pandemic, Atkinson said, adding that the “beauty of addressing SEL is that it is for all people.”

Although the Shelton School District has dabbled in various SEL programs before this school year, she said, the district wanted to unite efforts and create a common for its concepts across the district.

Atkinson said she and Santilli worked to create a 10-day SEL lesson sequence that established the foundation of social emotional learning.

Santilli coordinated a social emotional learning professional development in September: “teacher buy-in was incredible,” she said.

On Day 1 of the student lessons to start the school year, Atkinson said the district sent home a letter for families outlining the daily topics so they could continue the conversation and continue to build the skills at home each day.

The SEL lessons, titled “In This Together,” began with building classroom communities and making connections, a common definition of social emotional learning, and recognizing signs and strategies for distress.

The lessons then moved into the five core SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The final lessons focused on self-regulation strategies and using symbolism to express emotions.

Each lesson followed a pattern of setting a purpose, relating to some form of media (such as video, book, poem or song), an open-discussion portion and then an activity which usually included a written, oral or drawn response, depending on the age level.

Although the lessons were broken into four categories — Pre-K, K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 — Atkinson said all grade levels followed the same sequenced Connecticut state social emotional learning standards but carried out the learning targets based on their developmental abilities.

“These were not graded activities,” Atkinson said, adding that there were “opportunities to build relationships, give students agency and voice and enhance SEL knowledge while establishing SEL district norms.”

After the 10 days were complete, Santilli said, the district sent a survey out to families and students, formed a district committee to analyze survey data and create a strategic plan for on-going SEL implementation moving beyond this school year and each school continued or initiated SEL programs to help students continue to develop their SEL skills.

Erik Martire, the district’s K-12 Guidance Curriculum leader and SEL District Committee member, said it is not any one lesson that makes the difference in student engagement but the continuing effort acknowledging the need for social emotional learning as part of the daily curriculum.

“These lessons help put students in the right frame of mind to learn, and that is when students learn the best,” Martire said. “Promoting resilience, social awareness and making connections ... these lessons show we are coming from a place of understanding and want to work to help them achieve their goals.”

"Teachers are now implementing these ideas throughout the school day … we’re addressing the whole child,” Santilli said. "This is good for the kids, and we need to keep this as a priority. Children were just not feeling connected to the school, their teachers … there was no sense of belonging. We are working to change that.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com