Studies show that when students are more emotionally grounded and supported, they are able to engage more effectively with their learning. That’s the charge behind social-emotional learning (SEL), rolling out in academic and after-school programs around the country.

Some schools in Boulder County have already woven mindfulness-based SEL into everyday life. In Alexander Dawson’s lower school, for example, homerooms start with a morning meeting based on an approach known as the Responsive Classroom. “This helps build a strong learning community while setting up all students for success on a daily basis,” says Lower School Director Dr. David D’Ercole.

Additionally, a full-time counselor teaches weekly lessons on prosocial behaviors, conflict resolution and the Dawson virtues: respect, compassion, courage and integrity. “We have found that intentional SEL efforts, along with our small class sizes and extra attention placed on student wellbeing throughout the day, lead to confident, kind and well-adjusted children who feel safe and trusted as members of our learning community,” says D’Ercole.

Dawson’s upper school has its own SEL programming. Each school year begins with four-day, grade-level excursions designed to help students learn more about one another and to promote student engagement in the school’s virtues.

SEL is also built into core classes. Freshmen take a human development class that integrates decision-making, health education and team-building into their first-year experience. Juniors and seniors take a weekly college counseling course. “This is part of our dynamic college counseling program that sets Dawson apart from other schools as we support students on their journey to being creative, resilient problem-solvers who bring their best to the world,” says Upper School Director Anne W. Hecox.

Boulder’s PK-8 Friends School has implemented its own SEL program led by Krysten Fort-Catanese, an SEL expert. After living in Thailand for seven years and becoming the founding director of mindfulness-based SEL at an international school, Fort-Catanese brought the MindWell Education SEL model back to Friends School. “I’m committed to supporting children with finding their spark and joy in learning through inquiry of the world around them,” she says. But MindWell Education focuses on taking care of school leaders too, asking important questions like:

• How can a coherent focus on wellbeing become a transformational factor in the overall development of school culture and ecosystems?
• What are the potential benefits of cultivating wellbeing and mindful awareness for students, teachers and leadership skills and qualities?
• Why is taking care of ourselves, as leaders, an essential aspect in this process?

Social-emotional learning is also showing up in after-school programs like the YMCA of Northern Colorado’s Pop Culture Hero program, which uses relatable stories from TV, comics and film to teach real-life heroism and mental health skills. “It’s all about empowering our kids to be leaders and teaching them skills to cope with adversity by using examples and role models from entertainment, media and cartoons,” says Dawn Debois-Weber, executive director of school age programs for the YMCA of Northern Colorado.

Activities, videos and discussion questions are used in daily after-school programming, alongside snack time, homework help, STEAM projects and physical activity. “We see that Pop Culture Hero positively impacts kiddos’ behavior and helps with their communication, conflict resolution and self-acceptance,” Debois-Weber says. “It also encourages inclusivity and kindness, which is amazing, and that influences the culture of each after-school program site.”

From morning homeroom to after-school fun, there’s no doubt that SEL is becoming a powerful part of children’s development as strong students – and kind citizens.

By Julie Kailus for Raised in the Rockies