Students across the country aren’t just learning how to spell or solve math problems. They’re also learning what are known as social and emotional skills, like managing stress and having empathy. In Dallas ISD, teachers are learning how to teach these skills in the classroom.
Every morning, Ines Hita’s third-grade students at Lorenzo DeZavala Elementary start with what they call a “magic moment.” They breathe in and breathe out.
Then, they gather in a circle and greet each other.
“We check in: ‘How are we doing? Are we ready to focus on our day?’ or ‘How are we feeling?’” Hita said. “Students have the opportunity to decide if they want to share what they’re feeling or [talk about] what we’re going to focus on.”
These exercises don’t just get students to relax, Hita says. It help gets them ready for a day full of learning.
Hita incorporates in her teaching what educators call social and emotional skills. And, she’s one of several Dallas ISD teachers taking part in training to make social and emotional learning a regular part of a students’ learning experience.
The effort is part of a multi-year grant the district and the North Texas education nonprofit Big Thought received last year. Dallas is one of six cities around the country chosen by the Wallace Foundation to participate in this initiative.
This first year is focused on training the teachers. Next school year, teachers will implement these tools in class. Several other organizations, like Dallas Afterschool, The Momentous Institute and the City of Dallas Parks and Recreation, are also involved.
“Social and emotional learning are those skills that allow us to navigate the world, to work as a team, to recognize our own feelings or the feelings of those that we’re around,” said Greg MacPherson, senior director of program operations and new business at Big Thought.
These skills, he says, include things like managing your emotions, self-awareness, relationship-building and learning how to make positive decisions.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is, and it’s been called many different things. Some educators use buzzwords like "21st century skills" and "growth mindsets."
“I think what’s happening now is that there is a new terminology around it and new intentionality around the implementation of this, MacPherson said. “I think there’s been continued research and literature that shows these skills and competencies do have a positive impact on our students, on our adults, on anyone who’s practicing them.”
MacPherson says its boils down to educators paying attention to the whole child, not just how they do on the academic side.
Last year, Dallas school board trustees adopted a policy that all schools in the district will have to implement these skills by 2025.
“Those are skills that have to be taught and students have to understand that these are practices that are important for success,” said Juany Baldespino-Gaytan, director of student engagement and counseling services at Dallas ISD.
As part of the four-year grant, teachers will have to implement these strategies in the classroom, and the district will analyze student data to see if these skills are having an impact on students.
At Ervin Elementary on a recent afternoon, Kelli Sizer walked around a classroom of teachers in training. Sizer, the training instructor, asked them to name their favorite teacher and explain why they chose that person.
Some teachers said their favorite teacher was the one who believed in her students. Others said it was the person who took the time to have conversations with students.
Later, Sizer told the teachers to look at student behavior data from their campus.
“We know you can’t develop an overall plan right now in the next 20 minutes,” Sizer said. “However, you can kind of get started in looking at some spots that show blaring signs for improvement.”
Sizer wanted teachers to think about how they can build a better relationship with their students so kids stay out trouble.
Hita at Lorenzo DeZavala Elementary said sometimes, kids just want to know that someone cares.
“We are wanting to create an atmosphere where we can just feel comfortable enough and say ‘I know you’re going through something,'” Hita said. “I don’t know what it is, but I just wanted you to know that I noticed and I’m here if you need me.”
Hita said this happened to her recently when a colleague asked her how she was doing.
“Knowing that somebody cared enough to say something to me, that [she] took those couple of minutes to tell me that [she] noticed something was wrong, it turned my outlook,” Hita said. “And I was like ‘Wow.’ If it impacted me this much, I can only imagine how it’s going to impact our kids.”