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Duluth adds social-emotional learning specialists to two schools

Lowell Elementary kindergartner Ava Golen (from left), third-grader Emma Vanyo, and kindergartners Noah Mirsch and Channing Thornsberry perform a deep-breathing exercise, slowly inhaling and exhaling as Vanyo expands and contracts a breathing ball. Deep breathing can have a calming influence. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Lowell Elementary kindergartner Noah Mirsch leads a deep-breathing exercise for several fellow students, who inhale and exhale in time with Mirsch slowly expanding and contracting the breathing ball. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Taylor Walling reads “Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen” to students at Lowell Elementary recently. Walling is one of the district’s new social-emotional learning specialists. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Social work intern Kalina Groothuis creates a roofed “lions den” in the corner of an office at Lowell Elementary. The idea, still being tested, will be to have a comfortable space for students if they need calm down. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Meditation, breathing exercises and classroom nooks that feel cozy and safe.

These are some of the tools being used in two Duluth elementary schools this year as part of efforts to reduce behavior issues and increase attendance.

The Duluth school district's Office of Education Equity is using some of its state funding to pay for social-emotional learning (SEL) specialists, one housed at Lowell and one at Myers-Wilkins. The idea is that the people in these positions — both who are licensed social workers — will not only work with kids one on one and in small groups, but also with entire classrooms and their teachers.

"That person helps everyone be more responsive to the social and emotional needs of children and families," said William Howes, coordinator of the education equity office. "It's slow, but we change more in that way."

Social-emotional learning is not new, although the coining of the term has been more recent, said Stephanie Jones, an education professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has published research focused on the social, emotional and behavioral development of youth.

In school, learning is not only about acquiring knowledge and skills in academic areas,

"but also managing emotions and frustrations in ways that allow someone to learn, and getting along well with others in order to engage in learning tasks," Jones said.

An "explosion" of evidence and research that shows these skills are important to academic success, along with some popular writing by Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth got the ideas into the world more directly, Jones said.

The point is to help kids feel safe and welcomed in their school, and by going into every classroom, make sure none of the kids "fall through the cracks," said Lowell SEL specialist Taylor Walling.

"As a country we haven't been good about directly teaching kids these skills, and they get punished for not knowing what to do," she said.

Myers-Wilkins is a chosen site because of its high number of students of color, who have high rates of needs in the areas of social and emotional learning, Howes said. Lowell was chosen both for its high number of behavior incidents and because it's offered as an alternate choice to Myers-Wilkins families as part of its racially identifiable designation. Myers-Wilkins is the district's only such school, designated by the state for having more students of color than white students.

Myers-Wilkins has struggled with chronic absenteeism, or missing 10 percent or more of a school year. About one-third of its students last year were chronically absent. Lowell recorded 154 major referrals for discipline issues last year, such as class disruption and physical aggression. Principal Jen Larva said the number is low because of changing data collection practices during the year. This year's collection of incidents will help measure progress going forward.

'A huge help'

One day last week four kids were plopped on bean bags in Lowell's media center. Walling first read a book to them, and then used expandable balls to help with a breathing exercise. Sometimes kids put stuffed animals on their stomachs so they can watch the rise and fall as they breathe. Focusing on the expansion of the ball as they breathe in and out gives the kids a visual and helps with anxiety, Walling said.

Her typical day includes meeting with a handful of kids who need more regular attention and then spending longer chunks of time in classrooms, finding ways to help shape teaching styles or manage classrooms.

Emotion identification is an example of a lesson she might teach in a class or groups. In kindergarten, kids model angry, sad and happy faces. In a smaller group setting, they work on what makes them feel a certain way. Working with a single child will involve a more personal exchange.

SEL skills break down into three major areas, Jones said. One for cognitive skills, such as focusing and inhibiting impulses. Another is for things like managing frustrations, understanding emotions and showing empathy, and the last is for resolving conflict and understanding social situations.

"These (skills) play out every day in every interaction," Jones said, noting that while they are important for everyone, kids who face adversity, stress and trauma tend to struggle more than others in learning them.

At Myers-Wilkins, Liz Baczkiewicz has been spending a lot of time in classrooms getting to know kids and teachers. The school is working toward a focus of "mindfulness," she said, giving kids the skills to be present despite what's happening at home, in the next class or on the playground.

"We can all think about a day when we were super stressed out," she said, and most adults know to take deep breaths or compartmentalize their issues during the work day.

But most kids don't know how to do that yet, she said, and if they don't learn, it's harder to "concentrate on that math page ... So they crumple it up and throw it on the floor. They don't have the skills to express how they are feeling in the moment, how to say 'I'm frustrated.'"

Teachers try to hit these skills when they can, but it's not part of any curriculum, Baczkiewicz said.

Lowell first-grade Spanish immersion teacher Natalie Kapphahn said having Walling come into her classroom has been a "huge help."

Finding time to do a "mini-lesson on how to resolve a conflict" is difficult, she said, when teachers are already balancing instruction with managing general classroom behavior.

The long-term hope, Baczkiewicz said, is that every school has a SEL specialist.

Starting in kindergarten and teaching "these skills over and over again," she said, means that ultimately kids will become "better members of the community as a whole."