Matawan-Aberdeen considering Social Emotional Learning Initiative

Staff Writer

ABERDEEN — Schools officials are looking to launch a new Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Initiative.

This program is aimed at helping students acquire and apply the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make smart decisions.

During a July 25 meeting of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District Board of Education, Rachel Alvarez, a social worker in the district, talked about how social and emotional learning skills are critical to being a good student, citizen and worker.

“What really piqued my interest was … [superstorm] Sandy and how it affected Matawan, affected many places on the coast,” she said, noting she provided mental health counseling to many devastated towns.

“The question I started asking is, ‘Why were some towns so quick to bounce back … and other towns struggled?’ and it was beyond economic because some of the towns that struggled the hardest were the wealthiest.

“I would sit in community meetings and would listen to people talk and what I realized was … the piece that seemed to make these communities bounce back quicker was community, was dependence on their friends and neighbors.

“It really made me start looking, because when we talk about that, we talk about resiliency in communities and look at what communities are made of — families and individuals — and what we are looking for [in] our kids, our students, our families, our parents, the next generation, is that resiliency.

“What we’re hoping to do with SEL initiatives is teach resiliency skills, teach the ability to say, ‘we can bounce back when anything traumatic happens.’”

Alvarez said there are many educational benefits to SEL.

“The research really shows what SEL programs do,” she said. “They really do bring down violence, whether it’s self-harm or harming others, it brings down and reduces the amount of substance abuse … it brings down all these pieces that are keeping our kids from learning and at the same time increases things like attendance, graduation rates and all these pieces benefit not just the communities and not just us as concerned citizens, but benefits our kids through the years as they’re being educated.”

Alvarez said SEL is best done through effective classroom instruction, student engagement in positive activities in and out of the classroom and broad parent and community involvement and evaluation.

“We take all those pieces and know it will take our kids to the next level,” she said. “I started in February and had the ability to talk to a lot of staff, students, parents, and a lot of the programs Matawan-Aberdeen has right now are phenomenal … [and] we tried to enhance some of that by piloting it in Cliffwood Elementary School, and we were really able to take it to the next level by working with teachers.

“This summer … we tried to take it from a different approach because we know SEL skills are important and that it’s important to learn problem-solving and emotional regulation and community building, [but] it can’t happen in a vacuum.

“What we did was we sat down together and created a program and model and handed it to the teachers and worked with the teachers so they could implement it in their classrooms.

“Teachers are taking those skills, those five key SEL skills [self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making] and netting it into their class day-to-day.”

Alvarez said the district’s Extended School Year Summer Social Skills program has volunteers who come in from the community to work with the students, such as yoga therapists, pet therapists and even a district high school student who put together a music lesson to show music as a coping skill and joy.

“They’re practicing their social skills in a larger group,” Alvarez said.

To take it to the next level, the Board of Education approved six district social workers, school counselors and guidance counselors to work 10 hours each on planning and creating a curricular foundation for SEL for implementation in grades pre-K-12.

“How do we take this to the next step [and] how do we do something that no other district is doing?” Alvarez asked.

“Each school is so very different and the kids are different and the communities are different … so we’re going to take a step back and … figure out what’s working. What are the strengths for each school, each class, each grade; what are some of the weaknesses; what opportunities are out there and what threats are keeping it from happening and then design programs that fit those needs.”

To help implement the initiative, Alvarez said small committees made up of teachers, staff, administrators and students will be formed in each school to figure out what needs are out there.

“We’ll come back on a district level and figure out how we can put all those pieces together,” she said. “The goal will be, after doing that research, is coming up and working with evidenced-based programs to make sure that the programs we’re putting in … are right for the community, are right for the each grade.

“… We’re going to know through research that these are the best programs [and] we want to make sure [students] are getting the services they need right now.”

Some of the pieces Alvarez said the district is looking at implementing in the coming school year include putting in PowerSolving, a problem solving program and social skills [program] in Lloyd Road Elementary School and Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School behavioral disabilities and selected self-contained classrooms; implementing Sources of Strength, a peer-to-peer leadership program that is noted to show reductions in suicide prevention for the middle and high schools and forming an advisory council.

“There are so many resources out in Monmouth County, how do we take those resources to really help our children and help our families get to that next level of success?” Alvarez asked.

“This doesn’t exist in any other district and … [it’s important] to embrace this and say ‘we feel that social emotional learning is a key component of academic success for our kids, is a key component for life success for our kids and let’s make sure we put the programs in place.’

“My goal and hope is for other districts to say, ‘How do we do that, how can we take our kids to that next level?’ … and really be this premier district that is doing something nobody else is doing.”