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Elementary students benefiting from social emotional learning

While social and emotional impacts on students have been a concern throughout the pandemic, staff at Wadena-Deer Creek Schools in Minnesota have worked on mental health and trauma-informed school training for about four years. The elementary school added Mary Ellenson as student success coordinator at the start of this school year, along with morning meetings and additional curriculum to create common vocabulary, unity and encourage discussion about emotions.

Wadena-Deer Creek kindergartners
Wadena-Deer Creek kindergartners started the day off with breakfast in the classroom then a message from principal Louis Rutten by Zoom.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal
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WADENA, Minn. — Wadena-Deer Creek elementary students are learning more about understanding their emotions with classroom discussions, videos, lessons and calming items.

While social and emotional impacts on students have been a concern throughout the pandemic, staff at the elementary school have worked on mental health and trauma-informed school training for about four years. The elementary school added Mary Ellenson as student success coordinator at the start of this school year, along with morning meetings and additional curriculum to create common vocabulary, unity and encourage discussion about emotions.

“We cannot learn our ABCs and 123s if our students are not feeling safe, loved, heard, helped, communicated with and overall feeling like a part of our community," Sara Lenz wrote in an email shared with school board members on Dec. 20. She is a specialist and Emotional Behavioral Disorder teacher. "WDC realized this and I see the changes daily as my crisis calls have dramatically decreased, students have coping tools they are using on their own and students are asking for the help they need!”

What is social emotional learning?

The Committee for Children defines social emotional learning (SEL) as “the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.” The core of SEL is listening to students and helping them understand their emotions to become better students.

At Wadena-Deer Creek, elementary students have a morning meeting in their classrooms with elementary principal Louis Rutten and the entire school on Zoom for about 5 minutes. Teachers then go through a presentation with quotes, videos and questions made by Ellenson.

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“By taking that 30 minutes every morning to have a morning meeting has really united the classrooms and the school with that common language,” Ellenson said. She said students celebrating birthdays come close to the camera as the whole school wishes them happy birthday.

With morning meetings, lessons and PAWS boxes, teachers and paraprofessionals have been able to move from training to doing, according to Rutten. The PAWS box includes items to help students release stress and calm down. Students have learned when your “brain pops” then you react in a fight, flight or freeze mode. For example, a student who used to leave the room (flight) now heads to the PAWS box area as a safe space.

What are students learning in the morning meetings?

Ellenson said teachers are seeing the value of the lessons for students.

Lenz has the morning meeting with a group of K-fourth-grade students. She said students are focused and engaged during the meetings. Second-grade teacher Lindy Thompson noted the morning meetings in her classroom are about 15 minutes, and “I 100% believe it is worth it.”

“The content is connected to what they are experiencing in their lives,” Lenz wrote. “I especially enjoy hearing the interactions between the older and younger students. The advice the kids have for each other and the ways they can help each other solve problems is the ultimate teachable moment to facilitate and it happens daily thanks to this new program.”

The discussions help recognize the many factors in a student’s life as they are trying to learn. Staff members have also received training on Adverse Childhood Experiences and used the MindUP curriculum over the past few years. Rutten said having these efforts in place prior to the pandemic has helped students and families in these difficult times.

How will social emotional learning continue?

Besides the morning meetings, the Second Step curriculum is a once a week lesson for about 30-45 minutes along with short optional activities during the week. The curriculum includes a script teachers can use based on their grade level.

“The Second Step lessons each week allow us to have deeper conversations about emotions/emotion management. It is nice that there are some similarities between grades so that we all have common language,” Thompson wrote.

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Board members noted their interest in using the lessons for fifth-grade students in the future as they transition to the middle/high school. The Second Step curriculum is available for kindergarten to fifth grade. Fifth- and sixth-grade students also have homeroom.

“I believe our equity work is tied very closely to becoming a trauma-informed school and I am looking forward to continuing these conversations as well,” Thompson wrote. “We had some questions arise about homework policies, attendance awards, fundraising, and other equity issues. I believe as a district we have made great strides with adding our morning meeting and Second Step curriculum, but would also like to see some actions taken with these other conversations.”

Related Topics: WELLNESS
Rebecca Mitchell is a Multimedia Reporter for the Wadena Pioneer Journal and Perham Focus. She loves capturing local stories through words, photos and videos, and providing resources for the community.
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