The concept of school safety is evolving as it continues to maintain its position as a top-of-mind concern for educators, parents, and the community. As schools look for answers to keeping students safe, the definition of school safety has expanded to encompass more than just the immediate physical needs of students and staff.
In looking for answers, administrators and educators are investigating multiple angles. Researchers are identifying and documenting a trend recognizing the importance of social and emotional safety, and how those needs reflect on the physical safety of everyone on campus. A lack of social and emotional safety feeds an increase in students lashing out and acts of violence and disruption.
This has led some school districts to begin laying the groundwork for programs that promote social and emotional well-being in school. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has taken several steps to incorporate Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into their schools as part of a state-wide school safety study.
While the study will be on-going until 2022, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the rest of the state of California are already learning lessons that other schools can benefit from.
AIR Study and the Los Angeles Unified School District
The groundbreaking study that the Los Angeles Unified School District is taking part in is being led by the Washington, D.C. based American Institutes for Research. The 5-year, $5-million study is focused on examining school safety in California, a state with a very large and diverse student population.
While the study looks to gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to school safety, California schools are making positive changes that are promoting safer environments. Changes to the ways that California schools approach discipline and conflict mediation have already shown a 30-percent drop in suspensions since 2011.
One of the ways that the Los Angeles Unified School District has approached these reforms is to incorporate SEL into their schools. Through a focus on social-emotional well-being, the district is positively impacting the educational experience of its students.
A Brief Introduction to SEL
Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is a framework for helping students and even adults manage emotions, display empathy, master goal-setting, improve decision-making, and create positive relationships with others. It does this by teaching and strengthening 5 core competencies: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
Adopting SEL in the Los Angeles Unified School District isn’t some off the wall experiment. Instead, research over the last two decades has shown that SEL works. Students in SEL-based programs show improved classroom behavior, improve their academic performance, and feel better about themselves and their educational environment.
What Have We Learned (So Far) From the Los Angeles Unified School District?
Based on the research on SEL, the Los Angeles Unified School District established two charter schools. Both the City Language Immersion Charter school (CLIC) and The City School were founded between 2012 and 2013 on the principles of SEL. SEL wasn’t added on as part of the curriculum for these schools. Instead, the schools were set up with a series of guiding principles with deep roots in the SEL framework, and those principles drive everything that these institutions do.
Student surveys have shown an overwhelmingly positive response to the curriculum. Ninety-percent of students feel that the school promotes academic success for everyone, while 89-percent identify the school as being a supportive and inviting place to learn.
In addition to the remarkable results from these two charter schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District has seen impressive results related to other social-emotional focused changes, such as conflict resolution instead of more traditional punishments like suspensions.
While further research is warranted, the results of the changes reflected in the 2017-2018 reporting have been largely positive. Graduation rates have improved, as have scores in specific academic areas like mathematics and English language arts.
Keys to Adapting SEL
SEL is not a program that can be simply bolted on to an existing environment. It requires planning, training, adoption, review, and improvement over time. As part of the California program, The Partnership for Children & Youth coordinates initiatives and resources for the state’s school to collaborate and review their alignment with SEL principles.
Measurement, assessment, and re-alignment are key components to a successful SEL program implementation. Engagement in a continuous improvement cycle ensures that implemented strategies are actually improving the school environment, and those that aren’t are adjusted to better meet student needs. Moreover, additional components can be added as measurement and assessment uncovers gaps that an SEL implementation doesn’t currently cover.
To improve, however, schools must have concrete and easily-accessible data available around key metrics. Implementation of a system that can collect data points and offer meaningful reporting should be considered an important part of any SEL framework implementation.
While it is still early, the results seen to date in California, and in particular in the Los Angeles Unified School District are promising when it comes to the adoption and impact SEL can have on students and their social-emotional safety, well-being, and by extension, their academic performance. For an SEL implementation to be successful, however, it must be assessed and re-evaluated regularly, using clear data and metrics. In this way, schools can adapt the foundational elements of an SEL program to meet the individual and group needs of their student population. With the right data, assessment plan, and guiding principles, work like that being done in the Los Angeles Unified School District indicates a positive impact on school safety and student outcomes.
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