We knew we were looking for something to help our students transition to high school successfully, but what we didn’t know was that we were looking for social-emotional learning (SEL).

Opening a new school can feel overwhelming and a bit stressful with the construction, new faculty, and changes in our school boundaries. Our biggest concerns, though, were establishing our culture and making sure our ninth graders were ready for high school. In our district, we haven’t had freshmen in our high schools for over 30 years, and the transition was a concern for us and especially our parents. Could we continue to run our school the way we had in the past, with a lot of freedom and responsibility put onto our students? We expect a school full of leaders and good decision makers. Would our culture be enough to acclimate our freshmen to the “Wolfpack Way?”

We put a lot of time and effort into creating a transitional program for our incoming students, and three years later we have something we could not have envisioned when we started our quest.

Our transitional program has gone from being a “here is how high school works” to a “here is how life works” program. We want to give our students the necessary skills to navigate life and, in the process, tie these lessons specifically to Green Canyon High School—transforming their high school experience into a testing ground for more than just academics. Before we knew it, our “transition” program was an SEL program. It took us three years to get it right. We made a lot of mistakes along the way (telling you about all of them would be a whole other post), but I want to share what we learned through all of this.

  • For students to navigate an ever-changing world, you must have an SEL component in your school. We cannot meet the needs of our students by being reactive to all the problems and social issues they have to deal with while in high school. We have to be proactive and give them the skills to navigate those challenges before they become problems. These same skills will be used repeatedly during their adult lives.
  • Get out of your school and see what is going on in the rest of the world. When we started this journey, we had never even heard of SEL. Go to conferences, visit other schools, and if you cannot visit, call them and see what they are doing. The biggest part of our curriculum came from Growing Leaders by Tim Elmore. When we went to learn about his “Habitudes” (image-rich lessons focused on the habits and attitudes of good leaders), we were the only ones there from public education; the rest were from higher education and the corporate world.
  • If what you are doing is a priority, then treat it like a priority. We learned this from one of our Habitudes—“The Half-Hearted Mountain Climber.” If you are going to commit to something, commit to it fully. Give it the necessary time, resources, and energy. And by all means, involve your very best staff members; they are game changers and impact makers.
  • When making big changes, be transparent and include all stakeholders. Changes affect different groups differently, so let them be part of the process. We let our faculty share their concerns. They had questions about how this would affect their course offerings, who would get to teach the new classes, and how we would fund the program. Then we sold our vision to the students and asked about their concerns and what they thought they needed to be successful. Finally, we got input from parents and listened to their concerns and needs. Ask, listen, make a difference, and turn your critics into fans.

I have been in education for over 25 years and it boggles my mind why SEL has not had a bigger role in public education. The core concepts of SEL are so vital to a happy and successful life, and SEL is a must to meeting the ever-changing challenges of education. Learn about it and see what it has to offer you and your school. A great place to start is The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning website.

Shane Jones is currently an assistant principal at Green Canyon High School in North Logan, UT. He has worked in education as a counselor, teacher, coach, athletic director, and is the 2019 Utah Assistant Principal of the Year.

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