Austin Independent School District (AISD) has developed a model for systemic social and emotional learning (SEL) for its more than 81,000 students that focuses on empowering campus leadership, coordinating with family and community partners, coordinating with climate and pedagogy, and explicit instruction. Using a vertical team structure approach, Austin started with two high schools and their feeder schools. Since 2015-16, all 129 schools in the district have been implementing SEL.
AISD’s SEL strategic plan, first approved in 2011 and revised for 2017-2020, drives SEL implementation. Additionally, in an effort to create safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging, and equitable learning environments throughout the district, a team of SEL specialists help guide SEL implementation on each campus.
SEL in Action
Empowering Campus Leadership: SEL specialists engage with and help develop campus leaders in a variety of ways.
- The SEL Leadership Pathway is a four-semester micro-credentialing program. Each micro-credential (MC) includes 12 hours of Professional Learning for teachers. Teachers are required to implement a classroom practice based on their new learning and submit evidence of their classroom practice as well as a reflection on the learning and application. At the end of the two-year program, participants receive a SEL badge and increased compensation.
- Leadership training is held every summer for principals and assistant principals. Over the years, SEL has been one of the primary training teams for this group, offering sessions that delve into topics like community circles, cultural proficiency and inclusiveness, adult SEL and more.
- Thanks to a generous grant from a community partner, we pay a stipend to two designated facilitators on each school campus from 2017-2020. These facilitators act as liaisons with the SEL Department, work with campus leaders to guide SEL implementation, and lead their campus’ steering committee.
- Job-embedded professional learning is being offered in the form of campus book studies on a variety of titles related to SEL. Engaged campuses participate in a “training of trainers” event during the summer, in which the SEL team leads campus staff through book study concepts and resources. They, in turn, host campus book studies with their staff, which develops deeper understanding of SEL concepts and a common language.
- Campus Steering Committees are made up of campus administration, teachers, and staff. This group creates campus goals and leads SEL implementation efforts.
- Conversations and collaborations designed to strengthen systems, common language, and shared practices between community partners and Austin ISD’s SEL work are ongoing.
- Families as Partners is an Austin ISD SEL initiative with the goal of creating sustainable and effective school-family partnerships for academic success. The initiative is grounded in the principle that authentic engagement flourishes when families and faculty build trusting relationships and see each other as equal partners. They also focus on encouraging parent engagement through training that enables parents to take an active role on their child’s campus.
- Campuses engage with parents and families in multiple ways. SEL specialists support these efforts by co-facilitating parent book studies on different SEL-focused and neuroscience-based books, as well as helping to host SEL family nights during which parents and guardians engage in SEL activities and learn with their children.
- Each month the SEL team publishes a newsletter on various social and emotional learning concepts. News, articles, and literature related to the concept are also curated and shared via AISD’s SEL social media platform.
- The district has also provided SEL-focused training to multiple out-of-school providers and community partners.
- Elementary and middle schools have received explicit instruction materials from Second Step. Lessons are designed to be taught weekly and reinforced in all areas of the school.
- High schools have received School-Connect as their explicit instruction resource. Some high schools use School-Connect in advisory class; others have students participate in Restorative Practices; and, still others use approaches such as developing lessons based on student needs driven by campus data.
- In six high schools, a Methods for Academic and Personal Success (MAPS) class is being taught to freshmen to develop SEL and study skills, supporting students as they make the transition to high school.
- The SEL team leads adult-focused learning opportunities for teachers and staff as well. These sessions may be offered districtwide or per campus request. Topics can range from self-care and compassion to mindfulness, restorative practices, etc.
- Peace areas are encouraged and widely used in elementary classrooms across the district. The goal of a peace area is to have an easily accessible, comfortable space for learners to identify and express their feelings in order to regulate their emotions and solve conflicts with others.
- AISD believes having routines and rituals in our classrooms and school communities is beneficial for every child. Utilizing CASEL’s three signature practices is one way to build a solid foundation of safety, consistency, and joy for both adults and students, whether in the classroom, on campuses, or in a meeting space. These practices include a welcoming ritual, engaging pedagogy, and an optimistic closure. When used consistently, these signature SEL practices create conditions for growth and learning across all SEL competencies while using culturally responsive teaching strategies to help create collaborative classrooms.
- Community-building circles are used to build rapport among all members of the classroom community as well as offer a format for academic learning that lends itself to discussion of SEL concepts.
- Aligning classroom management practices with SEL practices through the use of process-centered feedback, peace areas and other conflict resolution processes, regular engagement with restorative practices, and regular reference to SEL common language creates cohesion and predictability across the campus.
- Incorporating SEL standards and practices or concept exploration through academic learning is always a goal and one that is embedded in the district’s “Yearly Progress Guides” for each core subject.
- AISD has seen that academic learning is inextricably linked with social and emotional learning.
- Elementary schools with high SEL integration ratings had 7% more students pass the Texas STAAR test in reading and math in 2015.
- Discipline referral rates decreased 45% at elementary schools and decreased 29% at middle and high schools within three to four years of SEL implementation.
- Student climate survey results show that in regard to school connectedness, middle and high school students are able to talk about their problems with adults at schools more, improving 30+% year over year.
- Middle and high schools participating in SEL for more years experienced a greater decrease in chronic absenteeism than did schools participating in SEL for fewer years.
- Strengthen AISD’s culture by embracing the principles of social and emotional learning districtwide — from the boardroom to the classroom and into the community.
- Develop the social and emotional knowledge and competencies of all district staff to create the environments that optimize teaching and learning.
- Leverage the implementation of social and emotional learning to advance AISD’s commitment to cultural proficiency, inclusiveness, and equity.
- Develop an innovative integrated system of social, emotional, and mental health support for students that includes and extends beyond SEL.
- Contribute to the national evidence base for social and emotional learning.
Coordinating with Family and Community Partners: The focus of SEL extends beyond school buildings and into the community.
Explicit Instruction :
Coordination of Climate and Pedagogy: In addition to explicit SEL skills instruction, SEL has become central to academics and school climate and culture through the following ways:
Sustainability: The concept of sustainability has been a priority from the start. As the SEL initiative has been scaled to include all schools, budgets have risen as well — from $690,000 to more than $2 million in recent years. The district has supplemented funding from local benefactors with federal grants for its specialists, a central part of the implementation strategy. A local philanthropic matching program yielded $2.4 million in three years. The district also has a dedicated fund development team comprised of internal and external leaders.
Communication is key. AISD has taken multiple steps to communicate about the importance of the work with all stakeholders — from the board and cabinet to parents, students, and the community.
Seed Model Campus Cohort: In 2017, AISD rolled out the Seed Model Campus Cohort Program. The purpose of the Seed Model Campus Cohort is to support campuses throughout AISD in the journey of goal-oriented, intentional, campus-wide SEL integration into school culture and systems.
In order to engage in the process, all participants are asked to submit a plan, which includes a combination of short-term and long-term S.M.A.R.T. goals around the four development areas addressed in the SEL Implementation Survey. In its inaugural year, participants in the Seed Model Campus Cohort documented an average achievement of 3.7 or above (on a 5 point scale) for each of their goals during their end of year implementation survey.
District Reported Results
The AISD Research and Evaluation Department, which includes three staff members dedicated to SEL, regularly issues SEL reports, and leaders and staff use them to guide campus SEL planning.
AISD’s embarks on phase two of social and emotional learning by moving from implementation to integration. Known as SEL 2.0, Austin ISD is focused on these five priorities: