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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Navigating a critical moment
A comprehensive, multi-track approach to joy and wellness
By Jose M. Rodriguez, Man W. Chow, Aaron Ferrell and Cyrene St. Amant | November | December 2022
It would not be hyperbole to say that the events of the last several years, and indeed this one included, have set historical precedents that will reverberate for many years to come. The COVID-19 pandemic, its concomitant social and economic upheaval, and the incredible resulting stressors weighed heavily on all members of our community alike. As our leadership gathered in July 2021, just weeks before the start of what would certainly be a tumultuous year, we decided that our recovery plan must likewise ground its approach in a way that would incorporate all strata of our institution: administrators, teachers and our families. If we were to truly innovate and accelerate, we reasoned, then our strategy must both be inclusive and accessible to all. Only through such a coherent and coordinated strategy would the perspectives we’d propose find footholds within classrooms and conference rooms, lesson plans and leadership plans.
The data, after all, was clear: between 2019-20 and 2020-21, there were major declines across all student Social-Emotional Competency self-assessment survey indicators. Anecdotally, teachers and administrators alike reported much higher rates of burnout; teacher vacancies resulted in widespread deployment of personnel from offices to classrooms. Inside homes, students were serving double-duty as well; Panorama Education’s 2020-21 survey data found that up to 56 percent of students by ethnicity were taking care of someone in their family for most or part of the day. Meanwhile, the district’s incident reporting system logged a marked increase in reported incidents over previous years. This was not surprising to us; students who experience Adverse Childhood Experiences often manifest their trauma in at-school behavior, where those “symptoms impact behavioral and emotional development as well as academic performance” (Burke, Hellman, Scott, Weems & Carrion, 2011). Parents and families had suffered as well — in March 2020, the Los Angeles suicide hotline received 1,800 calls, up from 22 calls the month before. Indeed, 879 Angelenos died by suicide that year, and suicide remains the third leading cause of premature death for all Los Angeles County residents today. Nationally, Mental Health America listed California as 16th in the nation for adult mental illness prevalence and 22nd in the nation for overall mental illness prevalence in 2020.
Accordingly, board goals called for addressing those needs, setting impetus for a 50 percent improvement in student SEL competency self-assessment rates over the next four years. District foci reflected this need for addressing social-emotional competencies as well, adopting positional approaches of critical social justice, restoration and transformation as core instructional elements. As the district leadership team for our community of 24 schools, our objective was to drive an accelerated recovery grounded in quality instruction, but also fundamentally informed by Social-Emotional Learning tenets.
To this end, our objective benefitted from previous district initiatives that had regarded SEL competencies as essential components of a successful instructional program. LAUSD had collaborated with the California Office to Reform Education to adopt a framework for SEL, and LAUSD’s Student Health and Human Services division had also previously partnered with LAUSD’s Division of Instruction to promote SEL training.
Additionally, our objective would also benefit from recent pandemic-informed research regarding SEL as a vital component of successful recovery: best practices recommendations from Hanover Research published in “Best Practices for Instructional and SEL Recovery” (2021) and Panorama Education’s “Principles for Reopening” (2021). Both publications emphasized the need for catholic SEL training across all stakeholder groups within schools, establishing universal support structures that would tie together academics and SEL. We would also draw upon the work of Claudia Bermudez & Rebecca Hatkoff, enlisting their support in promoting the development of anti-bias, “Joyful Disruption” classroom ecologies that would recognize the presence of trauma within our students’ families from a compassionate, “Warm Demander” perspective (Bermudez & Haktoff, 2022).
Our resulting wellness and improvement initiative would be an unprecedented, comprehensive incorporation of SEL competencies and anti-bias perspectives across all levels of our instructional program: across our 24 school leadership teams, within the practices of our nearly 400 teachers, and within the families of our nearly 10,000 students.
I. Leadership, first from within
We began our initiative by surveying our 24 school leadership teams: “What concerns are at the forefront of your mind, and what additional support might you need?” These broad, open-ended questions encouraged our school leaders to speak candidly, allowing us to establish a common ground of challenges. We then explored this common ground against the backdrop of the board’s SEL goals, and an introspective dive into childhood trauma’s effect on learning. These conversations coalesced into a common coherent acknowledgement regarding both the need for SEL within our recovery and the need for further SEL understanding within ourselves as leaders. One principal’s survey response captured the common sentiment: “I recognize the value of SEL and need the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the SEL competencies before bringing it to my staff.” To meet these needs, we dedicated substantial time over the next four meetings to each SEL component. At each meeting, we invited our school leaders to deepen their learning within the context of their schools, and to share those contextualizations with the greater community. The resulting conversations established a shared focus on how to lead, monitor and evaluate our SEL initiative as it would apply within classrooms and departments. In addition, these conversations encouraged inter-school partnerships where resources and expertise were shared to the benefit of the greater community.
II. “Joyful Disruption” classroom ecologies
While the learning of school leadership teams needed to be addressed first, we understood that the bulk of SEL development and “Joyful Disruption” classroom ecology building would need to take place within the classroom. This is where we realigned most of our resources, creating professional development sessions for 128 teachers — a little over 25 percent of our total teaching staff. School leadership teams were also included. Each session took participants through a series of introspective conversations, challenging teachers to deconstruct previously held ideas of normalcy (such as binary families) while supporting the SEL professional development that school leadership teams were providing to their teachers. The intent here was to demonstrate an approach toward SEL development that could be incorporated into instruction in academically unobtrusive yet emotionally pivotal ways. Teachers were encouraged to introduce “increasingly complex ideas, concepts, instruction, and activities to provide students with opportunities to level up their understanding, knowledge, skills and self-efficacy” (Bermudez & Hatkoff, 2022). Much of this approach would be from a “Warm Demander” perspective (Hammond, 2014), in which the teacher emphasizes “anti-racist, anti-bias” language while setting goals that rigorously challenge students to further their SEL skills. For example, word problems that previously referenced binary parents, or furthered racial stereotypes would be modified for inclusivity and diversity. By building in such “windows and mirrors” within instruction, students might feel more readily capable of attempting instructional challenges — with the warm, yet demanding support of their teacher. Likewise, physical classroom environments might also reflect such perspectives; classroom libraries might include texts by authors from a wide range of ethnicities, and furniture that might be unintentionally dispassionate (such as an imposing teachers’ desk) might be replaced with more compassionate structures (like a couch or bean bag set). Sessions were differentiated for primary and secondary teachers — recognizing that the approaches to each might differ in alignment with the brain development of children. And, we audaciously encouraged teachers to exercise agency over the construction of these paces that would improve climate and culture within their classrooms.
III. Engaging families as partners
While efforts have been made in the past to provide a degree of SEL professional development to both school leadership teams and teacher groups, families were generally much less involved in Social-Emotional Learning initiatives. We saw this as a unique opportunity to build lasting relationships with our families while spearheading an SEL education initiative that might become part of our community’s lexicon, influencing our interactions in positive ways for years to come. Through surveys, we learned that community members and families had heard of the term social-emotional wellness, but wanted to learn more about what that meant for their children and how they might support their children’s social-emotional learning within such a framework. Indeed, parental willingness to learn about SEL was tempered only by familial limitations of time and the fraught nature of in-person workshops at the height of a global pandemic. Consequently, because our surveys and conversations indicated that the extent of such receptivity was substantial, and because data clearly indicated a need for knowledge about the SEL competencies, we constructed a plan to share information with as many families as possible through two outreach vehicles: our public (virtual) town hall meetings, and a year-long series of workshops that would establish two online, knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing communities. In time, we hoped these expert communities and our more general town hall participants would help inculcate a culture of SEL-informed perspectives and expectations throughout our 24 schools.
Accordingly, we reached out to our families through our monthly newsletter, our district website, at each of our virtual town hall meetings (open to all families at our 24 schools), email communications and text messaging. We also took advantage of the few minutes at the end of each of our academic parent workshops (for example, Phonemic Awareness or Foundational Math Skills workshops) to invite families to attend. In total, we spent about two months building up interest in our SEL parent workshops.
Our approach, however, did not end at only offering information regarding SEL. We believed that families needed more support to build SEL competencies, especially given global conditions and the acute symptoms of trauma that were manifesting themselves among our student populations — a belief that was unfortunately further confirmed by the marked increase of incidents at schools across the district, even more than those increased incidents in the previous year. It would not be enough to simply encourage parents to engage in SEL-building activities with their children; we needed to help create those opportunities for our families. Just as we were asking teachers to create “Warm Demander” ecologies and opportunities within their classrooms, we as a district leadership team needed to create “Warm Demander” ecologies and opportunities for our families.
The COVID-19 pandemic had necessitated a nationwide leap forward in terms of computer expertise. Families who had never heard of Zoom, Google Drive, or Minecraft became intimately acquainted with all three. This widespread expertise in turn generated considerable interest in computer technologies, digital design and programming. Our team capitalized on this interest by developing family SEL coding project content, which was parallel to our SEL informative content and built within the same parent workshop session. This content was entirely created using free public-license software that could be run on a wide range of devices, ensuring that all families could participate fully. We felt that this would be an incredibly worthwhile, timely investment in our community, and thus built this feature into outreach promotion of our SEL+STEM parent workshops.
While efforts have been made in the past to provide a degree of SEL professional development to both school leadership teams and teacher groups, families were generally much less involved in Social-Emotional Learning initiatives.
This double-feature of SEL learning combined with parent-child programming project opportunities proved to be very well received. Sixty families registered for the afternoon series, and another 40 families registered for our evening series. Over three months in the spring of 2022, our district leadership team guided families in through bi-weekly, hourlong workshops that combined SEL with STEM project building. Families learned about growth mindset, then worked together as parent-child teams to solve complex projects that required them to experiment with coding on Scratch. For most families, every aspect of these projects was unfamiliar — not just the coding, but even the Linux-based operating system. We hoped that this shared unfamiliarity would lend itself to SEL development, and for many families it did. In our final session survey, parents acknowledged learning “new ways in showing my kids how to address one another and how to think of new ways of overcoming some obstacles” and recognized that they “need[ed] to broaden my views on what’s possible for myself and my teen so we can improve our skills together.” This recognition of new perspectives was especially encouraging to us, as we had intentionally built in time for families to interact with each other, share their own stories, and build a sense of community that would transcend not only zoning boundaries, but also social, ethnic and economic boundaries.
IV. Continuing the work
As the 2021-22 school year drew to a close, we spent time reflecting on the year that had transpired. We saw increases in the number of 9-12 grade students on-track or nearly on-track to meet UC/CSU A-G requirements, and end-of-year primary school literacy assessments showed that students improved more than 12 percent over fall scores. Incident reports declined in number and severity, and by June nearly all classrooms we visited across our schools had transformed their environments to reflect “Joyful Disruption” principles: dedicated and diverse libraries, rigorous learning challenges scaffolded from compassionate perspectives, communally agreed norms instead of restrictive or punitive policies. Certainly, it would be presumptuous to claim that our SEL, anti-bias initiative was entirely responsible for these academic or social improvements. But, we feel confident that our holistic approach to SEL responded to the needs of our community, and instilled perspectives that will continue to inform our practice into the future.
And, indeed, our work continues. The need is still acute, and at the time of this writing, 9,000 COVID-19 cases are currently confirmed, with the county nearing a total of 33,000 deaths due to COVID-19. Inflation has placed significant pressures on households just as eviction moratoriums have expired, and federal pandemic-related funding for schools has been significantly scaled back or expired. We will continue to incorporate SEL development into our school leadership meetings, and SEL language will likewise continue to factor into our classroom visits. Most excitingly, our parent workshops will not only continue, but expand — we have partnered with local museums to provide discounted or free opportunities for families to visit, guided by topics that we will cover in our workshops. We look forward to not only discussing anti-bias perspectives as contemplative topics, but inviting curators at our local museums to retell the stories of how Angelenos before us faced — and overcame — systemic racism. We have great faith in our schools, our students and our families, and we remain convinced that our community will continue to build back stronger than ever.
Hanover Research. (2021). Best Practices for Instructional and SEL Recovery. Available online from Hanover Research:
Panorama Education. (2021). A resilient Reopening: 3 Principles for Welcoming Students and Adults Back to School. Available online from Panorama Research:
Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin.
Bermudez, C., and Hatkoff, R. (2022) Joyful Disruption. Available online from Joyful Disruption:
Burke, N., Hellman, J., Scott, B., Weems, C., & Carrion, V. (2011). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on an urban pediatric population. Available online from The National Library of Medicine:
Jose M. Rodriguez, Man W. Chow, Aaron Ferrell, and Cyrene St. Amant work in the Los Angeles Unified School District.