100’s Turn Out for Spilka’s Social Emotional Learning Forum

J.D. O’Gara
Issue Date: 
February, 2018
Article Body: 

About 175 educators and others attended a forum on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) hosted on Tuesday, January 9th by Senator Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland) with the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy (www.renniecenter.org). The conversation highlighted the work of exSEL: Excellence through Social-Emotional Learning (www.exselmass.org), a network bringing together school districts across Massachusetts to design and implement policies and practices that promote SEL.
“About nine communities are using SEL and have it embedded into their curriculum a little bit ahead of communities in Massachusetts,” explains Sen. Spilka.
The exSEL Network is led by the exSEL Coalition, whose members include the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives and Massachusetts School Administrators Association. The exSEL Coalition’s non-profit partners, the Rennie Center and Teachers 21, provide expertise, support and training for the network.
The forum was part of Senator Spilka’s MetroWest Kids Initiative, designed to identify strategies to help children in MetroWest learn, grow and succeed, with a focus on social-emotional learning. SEL is a research-backed framework to bring skills like stress management, positive relationship-building, responsible decision-making and empathy into classrooms.
Spilka, who served as Ashland School Committee chair at one time, started the MetroWest Kids initiative about two years ago.
“There were times I’d meet with school committee members, parents, school administrators. I’d hear there were gaps in information coming to them about raising healthy, resilient, strong kids. And so we did some research,” says Spilka.
What she found was a new movement, called Social-Emotional Learning, was taking hold across the country. “Children in school learn how to apply the knowledge and skills necessary to understand themselves, their own emotions, their goals for themselves and for others,” says Spilka. Some of this learning might focus on setting and achieving positive goals, appropriately feeling and showing empathy, being able to maintain positive relationships and making healthy decisions.
“Talking many of my community members, when I asked if that would be a good thing to bring resources to my communities, there was a resounding yes.”
Spilka organized her first major forum on Social Emotional Learning about a year ago, inviting the CASEL group out of Chicago to come speak in January of 2017.
“From my perspective, social and emotional learning should be an integral part of all of our education systems in what we do, not as a separate component of curriculum, but throughout the curriculum, from preschool through high school,” says Spilka. Schools, she says, are looking at how to coordinate frameworks so as teachers teach academic components, social and emotional components are embedded in classroom instruction.
“It’s been used to create a more welcoming, participatory and caring climate in schools, which is much more conducive to learning,” she says. The Senator explains that schools that have utilized SEL practices have seen decreases and bullying.
While last year’s conference served as more of an introduction, this year’s forum featured the Rennie Center, of Boston, for a deeper dive into Social Emotional Learning topics.
“As chair of ways and means, I have really focused on building resilient kids,” says Spilka, who began her career as a social worker and maintains a strong focus on children and mental health. “All of us have hardship during our lives, and you want kids to weather it, be persistent, have empathy and make good healthy decisions. I do feel that school systems, because of MCAS and testing, that we’ve gotten away from social emotional learning, but I think we really need to look at growing the whole child.”
Spilka was pleased with the turnout for the event, which included educators, administrator, parents, and even students.
She adds that the SEL approach in school must take place “in conjunction with parents and families and communities. You can’t have one without the other. We need to be reinforcing each other. I think that it’s really important to educate the whole child, and by doing that, I think, ultimately, test scores and grades will improve as well.”
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