Learning from Tragedy: How A Bullying-Related Teen Suicide Led to SEL Reform in Massachusetts

By Kaela Farrise, CEI Intern, and Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

This article  is based on an interview with Jillayne (Jill) Flanders, former principal in South Hadley, MA, and currently an educational consultant (August 6, 2019).

After a tragedy propelled her district into national news, Jill Flanders, then a school principal in South Hadley School District in Massachusetts, began to rethink her school’s priorities. She realized that excellence in writing, reading, and arithmetic could not come at the expense of the so-called “soft skills” often being overlooked in favor of standardized test preparation. For the past decade, social-emotional learning (SEL) has been moving more and more into the spotlight in Massachusetts as an essential aspect of Pre-K-12 education.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), one of the leading authorities on SEL across the nation, defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL, 2019). These are skills that students, and at times staff, must learn through direct instruction to successfully work together in school and beyond.

South Hadley Sets the Tone in Massachusetts

In 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince died by suicide after what was described as “months of bullying.” Six teenagers were criminally charged in the case (Boston Herald, 2010). Flanders described the tragedy as hugely altering for the district and beyond, “It rocked our world. When your school district is on the cover of People Magazine for bullying, something has to give.” The efforts to prevent bullying have brought about big changes in what exactly is being taught and how it is being delivered in Massachusetts classrooms.

Jill worked in South Hadley for 15 years, building on existing SEL curriculum, which was cursory and general, to make it developmentally appropriate for young students and to tailor it to fit the specific needs of their population. She believes that one-size-fits-all curricula should not be taught straight from the manual, but rather adapted to meet the needs and desires of each individual school’s staff and students.

Along with her colleagues, Jill worked to design a curriculum that would  “build a foundation with the preschool and early elementary aged kids that would stay with them and hopefully convince the next school they go to to continue to build on those SEL skills, too.” They did this to combat the behavior and thought patterns that start in Pre-K that can lead to bullying in high school. School leaders convened a Core Learning Team (CLT) comprised of stakeholders from all avenues of the school community—the school psychologist, behavior therapist, physical education teacher and other specialists, paraprofessionals, teachers, the custodian, a bus driver, and parents to develop a plan. After discussing what the students needed the most, the CLT opted to use Parent Teacher Organization funds to hire a local story teller who spent a year coaching students about how to respond to challenging situations. He also helped students write songs about SEL skills to help them better remember and understand them.

The CLT grew the program for a number of years, hoping it would take hold across the district. One lesson they learned was the importance of focusing on the teachers and staff first, making sure they are able to implement the principles amongst themselves before asking them to teach students. Jill made this suggestion:

“We should have taken a year just to work with the adults. You need to address the issues that adults are dealing with and figure out how you can include everyone. Until you address those issues, you don’t include everyone. Fortunately we had a school culture where everyone could talk to someone and we could figure out a way to move forward. But as you’re building your school culture, you’ve got to take care of the adults first.”

Massachusetts Makes a Commitment to SEL

Jill’s story is just one example of the shift in direction and focus towards SEL seen across Massachusetts in the last decade. In fact, a number of exciting initiatives are pushing the conversation around how to best integrate SEL into schools.

SEL is one of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) 5 core strategies, in which their goal is to prepare all students for success after high school. Key levers in this work include safe and supportive school climate and culture and effective family engagement. Massachusetts DESE is committed to building out supports and policies in partnerships with practitioners in the field and other state agencies to advance this work in the Commonwealth, both in and out of school. While the program at South Hadley that Jill Flanders and her CLT designed has been discontinued after a change in school leadership, her earlier work in individualized SEL instruction has been popping up throughout the state. Perhaps her influence can be felt widely, because Ms. Flanders has been involved with or consulted with many of the programs and organizations promoting SEL throughout the state.

Current Innovative Initiatives Across the State

Social Emotional Learning Alliance of Massachusetts (SEL4MA)

SEL4MA is an advocacy, promotion, and connection organization in the state with a mission to “advance and support effective SEL policies and practices in all schools and communities in Massachusetts” (SEL4MA, 2019). The group holds events around the state focused on promoting SEL and preparing educators to use SEL concepts in their curriculums. Not only is the group in Massachusetts, but they now have trademarked chapters in every state and continue to build alliances every day. Jill is the Membership Chair.

Excellence through Social Emotional Learning Network (exSEL Network)

The goal of the exSEL coalition is to “to gain critical insight on how to support the development of social-emotional skills through changes in policy and practice at the district, school, and classroom levels” (exSEL, n.d.). The project is currently working in 16 districts across the state with three years of pilot funding to retool and focus SEL as a part of the major curriculum in schools as opposed to a stand alone class. The coalition consists of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives, and Massachusetts School Administrators Association— along with the Rennie Center and Transforming Education.

InterconnectED

Housed under Boston College Lynch School of Education’s Center for Optimized Student Support, InterconnectED is led by Mary Walsh and Joan Wasser Gish along with a Massachusetts advisory board (InterconnectED, 2017). The group is in the process of “…developing a statewide infrastructure to facilitate and advance the local integration of education with social services, youth development, health, and mental health for children and families” (InterconnectED, 2017). InterconnectED has also developed a series of white papers on topics such as wraparound services, reducing the number of students dropping out of high school, and the science of learning.

To support SEL in Massachusetts, Massachusetts DESE is offering a series of courses on SEL during the 2019-2020 academic year. These courses focus on SEL standards and SEL and family engagement. Jill hopes that other states can learn from the efforts in Massachusetts to incorporate SEL into their school cultures. Most importantly, to do so before a tragedy strikes.

Stay tuned for an upcoming comprehensive report on the State of Mental Health in Massachusetts Schools.

References

Belmont Public Schools. (2019). Belmont Public Schools social emotional learning. Belmont Public Schools website.

Boston Herald (2010). 2010: The year that was. Boston Herald website.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2019). What is SEL? CASEL website

exSEL. (n.d.). Excellence through social emotional learning network. exSEL website.

InterconnectED. (2017). Research update – October 2017. InterconnectED website.

Rios, S. (2019, May 8). Greater Boston sees major shift in population’s racial makeup, report finds. WBUR.

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