Social and emotional learning (SEL) has always been important in secondary schools. However, most experts agree, it’s never been as critical to the success of all stakeholders—principals, teachers, and, of course, the students themselves—as it is today.

To explore this issue further, we convened a roundtable in September to get the thoughts of three principals from different areas of the country: Mark Anderson, principal of John Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, CA; Skyles Calhoun, principal of Lake Ridge Middle School in Prince William County, VA; and Kevin Grawer, principal of Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School in Maplewood, MO. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-​Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: Why is SEL so important today?

Anderson: I don’t think SEL is more important now than it was a decade ago—I just think we’re more aware of its importance than we were a decade ago. As we’re learning more about students, and the brain, and schools and how they function, and our roles in society, it’s become more important to create a well-rounded student that will be successful after leaving our system. We need to address not just the academic piece, but also connecting with each of them as a person, connecting with them socially. I also believe with the advent of technology and people being very hyperaware of everything that is going on in the world, no longer are people just connected to their home or maybe travesties in their home. What is happening across the nation and the world is affecting our students much more and at a faster rate than it used to.

Grawer: I think we have more strategies now and support systems within schools to deal with them. Our schools now are a lot more than schools. They are community centers; they are, in some cases, mental health centers. We used to just have only school counselors. Now we have social workers, we have counselors, we have partnerships with local mental health agencies. We never did that in the past. So, we’re sensitive to the students’ needs, I think, and a little bit more proactive and timely in our response to them, because we see how it affects them academically and socially.

Calhoun: Our kids are dealing with so much more than we ever had to deal with, and they need support. I also would like to add that much of what our students are dealing with stems from gender-based issues. At Woodbridge Middle School, for the past nine years parents have had the opportunity to opt their students into either all-boy or all girl-classes for their core class (language arts, math, science, and social studies) instruction. The makeup of these classes, and the relationships the men are able to establish with their boys and the ladies with their girls are critical to addressing SEL needs.

Levin-Epstein: Are there certain predominant social and emotional issues that you find secondary school students dealing with today?

Anderson: I’m seeing a large increase in depression, a lot more kids identifying depression and being treated for depression, and working with parents [to handle] anxiety and depression. [We’re] having to provide the services to help them cope with life, and academics, and be successful with that depression that they’re feeling.

Grawer: I, too, have seen depression and self-harm and probably a rise in just anxiety in general as pressures mount—with testing, with pressure to get into college, especially as students get closer to their senior year. You have to start—for the first time in your life—making decisions that are yours, and they affect you for a long time. I think we need to be proactive in finding ways to put students through those paces some, so to speak, so that when they do make the decision they have a support group; they know the decision-making process for an important decision. Overall, I’ve just seen an increase in students that need some type of professional support, whether it’s drug counseling, mental health counseling, or family counseling.

Calhoun: Students are becoming much more open with their teachers at school regarding their issues as building relationships becomes a priority for school staff. I think the idea that they have a “safe place” for support is becoming clearer.

Levin-Epstein: How does the support process start?

Grawer: The first line of defense is often just a teacher in the classroom, and we hope they are sensitized to see in students when there are changes or noticeable behavioral differences. Then they would refer that to their administrator or counselor. Obviously, you bring the student in, counselors talk to him, the principal talks to him, we call the parent and have a meeting. I also do home visits. In the summer I try to pop in their houses; if not, I do it during the year. You get insights, and you start offering support. The good thing about what we’ve got here, locally, is it’s all free. Family therapy, anxiety therapy, depression, drug counseling-it’s all 100 percent free. [Therapists] will come to school as well. Parents don’t have to worry about insurance. I find that that ease of the process makes them more open to accept it.

Anderson: The key is you have to have multiple points of entry. I feel like I have a connection with students, but oftentimes they know the nurse better or the counselor, or a teacher, or it’s the person in the front office who greets them every morning. So you want to make sure that everyone has kids that they have that connection with … so whoever is connected knows how to help that family access what they need to access through the school.

Involving Parents

Levin-Epstein: How do you make the determination of when to involve a parent?

Grawer: I do it every time, immediately, unless an issue of student safety is involved. As a parent myself, if I knew a school had concerns about my child and I figured they weren’t telling me, I’d be upset. Parents hate surprises. We want to make sure that we are ahead of the information. Because sometimes when it comes from the students, even the greatest students, it tends not to be fully rounded. It’s very important to call the parents every time, even if you are saying, “I’m not sure this is the case, but I wanted to call you just because this came up and I wanted to make you aware that we are seeing this.”

Anderson: You always want to communicate with the parent. The one time when I don’t, or maybe I hesitate, is when the child is sharing things and their issue or their problem is the parent.

Calhoun: I think that’s something that has to be handled on a case-by-case basis, depending upon your knowledge of the family situation, your knowledge of the child, your knowledge of what exactly is going on and, obviously, the seriousness of the issue or the potential threat or harm that could come to the child. I had a situation yesterday with a child who has been cutting class and hanging out in the bathroom. He was able to share with me some home situations that weren’t very pleasant at that moment that he was trying to deal with. He felt like he really didn’t have anybody to talk to or anybody to turn to. In a situation like that, after we finished I asked him, “Would it be OK if I shared some of our conversation with your dad?” He asked me not to. At this point in time I’ve told him that I will not do that, but I want to continue the dialogue with him. Right now I think the most important thing I can do is establish that relationship and that trust. So, I’ve made a professional decision not to involve parents at this time because I don’t think the child is in any harm. I don’t think he’s harmful to himself. Right now, the biggest thing I think this kid needs is just somebody he can turn to and share things with. Trust is a key element. You do not want to violate the student’s trust, so I always want to make sure students fully understand why parents need to be involved, and then we talk about how to involve them. Sometimes students want to take the information home themselves, and then we follow up with the parent. Every case and every situation is different.

SEL Instruction

Levin-Epstein: Do you have SEL courses?

Calhoun: I already mentioned our Same Gender Program. At Lake Ridge, we have an independent study period for our students. It’s a very, very small class setting—most of the classes are five to 10 students. The primary functions of this class are to develop literacy skills, reinforce mastery learning, and provide enrichment. The underlying goal is building relationships with kids and getting to know them outside the regular classroom. This is a course that is not graded. It’s just time for teachers to spend quality time with a small group of students where they can really get to know the kids.

Grawer: We have no formal class for the social-emotional needs of our students. In a small-school setting like ours, we pride ourselves on being proactive, knowing when signs are off and we need to act. We’ve added a new nuance this year which I’ve been wanting to do for years. We do “Days of Recollection” and “Days of Service.” We used to just do Days of Service, but we realized we weren’t really meeting kids’ developmental needs. So, this year, with the seniors, we had a full day out of school with the staff. Our theme was “Relationships in Decision Making,” because we know that after senior year relationships really change, even with parents. A lot of times kids in high school are friends because they’re just close to each other physically and location-wise. We wanted to talk about all those things with them, formally with staff, in small groups. We wanted to have them go through those paces before that time came. We’re trying to do that now for every grade level, just to fill that gap that we think we might not be filling in a normal classroom day.

Grief Counseling

Levin-Epstein: How do you deal with grief counseling?

Grawer: A school can go two ways when addressing grief: You can grow further apart and become more factioned, or you can use that as an opportunity to become more of a family. Spending time with those families, sitting with them, talking and checking on them periodically is something that we try to do. Recently, a boy was killed from our school and we spent a lot of time with the family in their home—talking to the funeral home, [providing names of] lawyers, and giving them resources they didn’t know how to access. I put on my calendar every month a time to call these families to check and see how they’re doing.

Anderson: The biggest skill I’ve learned over time is listening. You just need to hear that person’s voice, you need to hear what they are going through and let them share what they are feeling. When you have kids who are in accidents or in trauma, or even kids who are dealing with grief or trauma in their life, it’s pulling everyone together, listening, validating each person’s feelings as being true and real, and letting them know that their voice still matters. They are a person of worth; each person is a person of worth.

Calhoun: Being a large school system, we do have a tremendous level of support structures in place at the district level. When something like this happens at a school, immediately the crisis prevention team will appear and provide assistance and support, which includes counselors, people from the student assistance prevention program, school psychologists, social workers, etc. There is an actual crisis team that will arrive on scene almost immediately and help with just the coordination of everything.

Levin-Epstein: Can you share a success story in the SEL area?

Calhoun: I recall a sixth-grade student who unfortunately was experimenting a bit with drugs and was stupid enough to bring a joint to school. There were a lot of tears around the table as we were talking about the possibility of expulsion. I advocated for this child to return to school only if the parents would agree to place him in our all-boy program. The parents agreed to allow him to return in the all-boy program, and he absolutely excelled. Giving him this second chance at being the model student, he really did turn himself around. He went on to high school, was in the ROTC program, and became a student ambassador for our gender program. Every year, including this past year, he was one of the alumni that we always bring back to talk at our information session to parents. He spoke about being given opportunities to make good choices and how important those good choices are. I think it involves making the decision to put the kids with the right people at the right time to build those relationships so that the kid has a chance to make good choices.

Grawer: I think of one student who transferred to our school as a sophomore from a challenging background. He had some serious behavioral issues, discipline issues, and I remember the meeting with his mother and him when they first showed up to enroll. His attitude and energy were both extremely negative, as if he had no one there. I was quite upset with him, that’s the best way to say it. I angrily left that meeting, and ended it by saying, “Listen, if you want to come here, you’re not doing any of that. We work too hard and you’re going to have to get in line.” He took a little bit of time to do it, but long story short, he got better and better. 

Adults have to outlast the students. We have to be more resilient than the most difficult and challenging student, because we’re adults. He had a problem with harassing females, and I forced him to be on suspension, to get support from an agency that deals with gender issues and harassment. Of course, the family did not seem excited at first, but he went through it, and he improved. He graduated on time and now has some life options he didn’t think he would ever have.

Anderson: When you meet so many students at such a formidable time in their life, where so much is being changed and learned, you see growth out of everyone. As a teacher, I taught at a high-intervention place. You had to be kicked out of school, and then you came to me and I was your teacher. I had this one kid for three hours a day, and I dreaded seeing this child every day. At parent-teacher conferences, the mother walks in and I’m like, “I’m going to let this mother have it,” because every day I’m being tortured by her son. And she said, “Mr. Anderson, you are my child’s most favorite teacher he’s ever had. Oh, I am so grateful he has you.” And that changed my mindset immediately about the child and the perception of how we treat kids. All of a sudden the next day all I saw was the potential in him. So, from a freshman who was failing, he ended up going to college after his senior year. 

As an administrator, I had this one girl who would sass back and be disrespectful. I was involved in a program, and I invited her to be a part of it. At the end of the program I asked each of the students to write a letter to their parents on: “If you died today, what would you want to be your lasting legacy?” The kids are writing … it was very solemn-we’d set that mood. I started pulling some of the kids over and making a circle, and I said, “Tell me about how you feel about going through this process.” This girl says, “Well, you know, Dr. Anderson, I have to tell you, when I was writing to my parents I thought about you. And I thought, ‘I am so rude to you every time that you talk to me.’ And I want to let you know that if I were to die today, that would not be the impression that I want anyone to have of me. I need to be a better person. I need to be kind to all people at all times to create that lasting memory.” I am not an emotional person, but everyone’s crying, I’m crying with her. It was very embarrassing [he laughs], but I had made a connection with this young lady; she eventually saw the importance of respect and that we are here to support them. I think that’s our ultimate goal—for the kids to know that we all make mistakes, but I am here to support you.