Ayesha Hall, the social-emotional learning coordinator for Lewiston Public Schools, sits at her desk in the Dingley Building in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Kara Boudway teaches empathy to her seventh-grade “crew.”

The literacy teacher at Lewiston Middle School has embraced a curriculum embedded with lessons on what educators call social-emotional learning, or SEL.

The middle school has adopted the SEL curriculum for its literacy instruction, Boudway said.

“Some of those practices are, instead of homeroom, we changed the name to crew,” she said in an email interview. “We are a crew, not passengers.”

Crew members help their classmates, she said.

“When we meet as a crew, we use SEL language: ‘How are things going? How can we help? I know it’s hard, but here is how I figured it out and that might work for you,’” she said.

Students will share details of their lives that are difficult for them to discuss, such as a lack of heat at home, she said.

“But with their crew mates they feel safe to do so,” Boudway said.

She said she and her crew have intentionally chosen to read books that cover global problems and have strong main characters.

“If we’ve already discussed empathy and then the main character is showing empathy, students are able to deeply understand empathy,” she said. “To push it further, I might ask students to reflect on a time when they were able to empathize with another person.”

The state’s social-emotional curriculum, called SEL4ME, was developed by the Maine Department of Education earlier this year.

SEL4ME is not a requirement in any Maine school, Kellie Bailey, the DOE’s social-emotional learning specialist, said.

It is a free, web-based curriculum open to all educators, families and community agencies, she said. DOE staff is working with teachers to help them customize lessons and add student voices, Bailey said.

“This curriculum lends itself to assisting schools in becoming trauma-informed, safe places for students to learn and connect,” she said.

Kara Boudway

She said SEL4ME is designed to meet the unique needs of the state and was built by professionals with years of experience in education, student/parent engagement and staff/administrator professional development.

“These expert-developed lessons are aligned with industry-established best practice and they are leveraged through an equity lens,” developed to meet the diverse needs of Maine students, Bailey said.

Researchers around the country have been gathering knowledge for the past 20 years about how social-emotional intelligence affects academic learning, Ayesha Hall, the SEL coordinator and equity resource officer for Lewiston Public Schools, said.

The five key elements of social-emotional learning are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, building healthy relationships and responsible decision-making, she said.

“Our students are hurting this year and we needed a way to help them talk about it,” Hall said in a telephone interview.

Many are struggling amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic. Schooling has become inconsistent, unpredictable and some say even dangerous.

The district has made morning meeting attendance mandatory as a forum to ask kids how they are feeling, Hall said.

“They take turns talking and listening with empathy to their classmates,” she said.

Teachers use a “mood meter,” a four-color quadrant of words that describe feelings, so children have the vocabulary, and common language, to talk about those feelings, Hall said.

Mood meters are based on an approach developed by Yale University to help students identify how they are feeling.

Red is for emotions that are high-energy, low pleasantness (upset, angry); yellow is for high energy, high pleasantness (excited, joyful); blue for low energy, low pleasantness (tired, sad); and green for low energy, pleasantness (calm, happy).

“We have to make sure we as a district recognize that feelings matter,” Hall said.

The Lewiston Public Schools approach has been a mind-set shift to social-emotional intelligence, she said.

“Teachers are our biggest SEL tools right now,” Hall said. “It’s very important that we have explicit skills we want to teach for classrooms.”

The district first built a foundation for staff around adult SEL, Hall said. “In order to teach it, they had to do the internal work. Teachers are the most important for modeling behavior.”

Consistency also is important, she said.

“How do we teach and what do we teach? Everyone had their own way of doing it,” she said. “One third-grade class might be getting skills, but the next-door class was not.”

Social-emotional learning is not about managing behavior, Hall said.

“It’s more about learning how we are as people and what we need to learn to manage our own emotions,” she said.

Schools have functioned on the belief that students need to be disciplined and behaviors need to be managed and punished, she said.

“That isn’t the way schools are supposed to be,” she said. “Kids need a safe space. They need to feel they belong and to feel valued.”

Lewiston schools have adopted a restorative justice approach, which ties in with SEL. Rather than using punitive discipline such as suspensions, the goal is to restore relationships, Hall, a psychologist by profession, said.

“You lean into trauma responses, being able to say, ‘This is hard for you and how you are expressing it is making it hard for the rest of us. How can we make it better?’”

In Auburn, the School Department has for years used elements of social-emotional learning in some of its elementary school programs, Curriculum Director Shelly Mogul said.

“The SEL curriculum has always been part of what we do,” she said. “It’s what good teachers do.”

But now it’s being done in a more intentional, more structured and planned way, she said. This includes incorporating SEL into morning meetings, which she described as mini lessons to kick off the day with students.

The district works with the Maine Department of Education’s SEL staff and with outside mental health agencies such as Spurwink, Mogul said. School guidance counselors also are involved.

As part of the SEL integration, teachers have been given professional development lessons on the effects of the pandemic on students, she said.

“We recognize that everyone is in some degree of crisis,” she said.

She said much of the work around SEL has been to create conflict resolution or self-regulation skills, which are a challenge for students with behavioral issues.

But SEL lessons are not only for students with such issues, she said.

“I would not say anyone is spared from those challenges,” she said. “Sometimes we assume kids just develop those skills, like everyone assumes all kids learn biology.”

Biology is taught with intention, and that is how Auburn schools are teaching social-emotional skills, Mogul said. “All students benefit from intentional structure.”

The district plans to revamp its “outdated” K-12 curriculum next year, and the update will integrate more SEL, she said.

Lewiston Public Schools also will continue to expand its social-emotional curriculum, Hall said.

She called the current social climate a triple pandemic: health, economy and systemic racism. Social-emotional learning is being used to address racism in Lewiston schools, she said.

“We talk a lot about implicit biases and systemic racism,” she said. “A lot of SEL and equity go hand in hand.”

Incorporating these new approaches in a district with more than 5,000 students and involving the community is a big undertaking, she said.

“We have a long way to go and a lot to do,” she said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Daily Headlines

  • Sign up and get the top stories to begin the day delivered to your inbox at 6 a.m.