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"It's about being a good human": New Hanover County school officials on social-emotional learning

What social-emotional learning entails.
What social-emotional learning entails.

During this midterm election season, New Hanover County School Board candidates have debated the merits of the district’s efforts to support social and emotional learning. WHQR spoke with two school officials about what it is — and how it impacts students.

Susan Cole is the school system’s positive culture and climate coordinator. She described how she sees what social-emotional learning, or SEL, is really about.

“It's about teaching humans to be good humans. It really focuses on: how do we build a student's ability to engage with a learning environment, set goals, academic goals, personal goals, and achieve those goals — and working together with their peers to solve problems?” Cole said.

In order for kids to be successful in academics, according to Cole, educators need to ensure that they’re ready to comprehend subjects like math and reading.

“In my experience as a school psychologist, when kids struggle, it's largely around struggling with engaging with the learning environment, feeling safe to take risks, to maybe fail sometimes,” she said.

In response to questions from the community about what specifically the district is doing in terms of SEL, Cole said it varies depending on grade level.

“So in our elementary schools, it might look like, teachers have flexibility here, but it could be one 20 to 30 minute [lesson] where we're really going to focus on how we make friends, and how we foster those relationships and maintain those relationships,” Cole said.

Julie Varnam is the assistant superintendent for student support services. For middle and/or high schoolers, this SEL time is when they, for example, introduce them to the ‘Say Something App’.

“This is taught to them as, ‘This is a tool for you, should you feel that you need help, or a friend or somebody you know that needs help, whether it's bullying, whether it's just difficult relationships, whether there is fear of self-harm or harm to others, this is a way that you can communicate to an authority anonymously, or use your name. This gives you an opportunity to be accountable to yourself, to be accountable to people you care about, and to be accountable to your school community,’” Varnam said.

In response to criticism that this type of learning is not doing much for students, Cole said, “We also find that students experience greater success, and not just in that overall sense of, ‘I feel successful in this space,’ but we actually see an increase on standardized test scores and not a small one.”

And if they develop those skills, they’ll likely be recognized for it in the workforce, officials say.

Research by Harvard professor Dr. David Deming, as published in the Harvard Gazette, shows that “employers are increasingly rewarding workers who have both social and technical skills, rather than technical skills alone.”

Additionally, Varnam said SEL is about getting kids to understand the reasons behind their behaviors — even maladaptive ones.

“‘Well, the reason I'm acting like this is because I'm feeling like this. Or you know what, this is really hard for me right now because I’m hungry, or I’m just really frustrated, and I need to take two minutes, and then I’m going to back to my thinking brain.’ And it's not that we're talking about feelings all day, we're getting back to the instruction to get them back to that level of success, but they're also seen and heard in the process,” Varnam said.

Varnam added that this type of social-emotional learning framework is “a protective factor for all students to prevent anti-social behaviors, such as bullying. Bullying is a form of communication when really there's a power struggle. We're teaching our students to engage in discourse, not only discourse about their learning, but discourse about how they are getting along with, or how they are interacting with their peers.”

Some critics say that requiring teachers to handle social and emotional development can be too burdensome. But Varnam maintains it’s part of an educator’s job.

“There's this old analogy of when a student doesn't know how to compute numbers, we teach, when they don't know how to read, we teach, when they don't know how to ride a bike, we teach, when they don't know how to swim, we teach, when they don't know how to behave, we…discipline, punish, we respond differently. Why aren't we teaching because that's what our students require,” Varnam said.

But she said the district does have consequences for student misbehavior.

“If a student has the skill and chooses not to use it, then that's a performance issue, and there's going to be accountability. But that accountability is meant to be safe, supportive, and instructive. And it doesn't mean we don't have discipline measures — we do,” Varnam said.

Both school officials said if parents are unsure about what’s being taught in their child’s school, just ask.

“And if parents have questions about how their school is engaging in the social-emotional basic skills, then have a conversation with your child's teacher, have a conversation with your principal assistant principal, counselor, school social worker, and ask, ‘How are you approaching my human where they're little or big?’,” Varnam said.

And the school system, according to Varnam and Cole, is not trying to supplant parents or be a replacement for the parents’ value system.

“It really takes all of us, there is no room for anybody’s place to be taken because it takes all of us to support our individual little people or big people in approaching this world, this global citizenship that they need to have,” Varnam said.

Further, the district maintains that SEL is not taking the place of any academic instruction – but those skills are mainly used during the learning of content.

It’s also mandated by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

“We don't find people that say, ‘You know, the mental health of our students is not important.’ Yes, we all know, it's important. How do we address it? And in that, we train our staff in Youth Mental Health First Aid, in addressing small risk factors that so that they don't become huge risk factors for students,” Varnam said.


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR