The State’s First Social Emotional Framework
New Mexico's Public Education Department is prioritizing SEL in response to COVID-19
“The pandemic shined a bright spotlight on what research has already shown: that positive relationships are the most impactful thing on a child's life.”
In January 2020, I became the first ever Behavioral Health Coordinator for New Mexico’s Public Education Department. This innovative position was created in order to prioritize social emotional wellbeing across the state.
As I began holding workshops in SEL with educators statewide, I heard consistently that teachers feel powerless and helpless at times trying to connect and engage students. They know how important relationships are with students, other staff, families, and community—but often felt they didn’t have the tools, training, or ability to support them in a virtual environment.
I also heard from many educators about their own social and emotional wellbeing. Adults are struggling also. I saw firsthand the great need to prioritize supporting our teachers, school leaders, and school staff in their own social and emotional wellbeing. After all, most of our youth are in the care of adults—if the adults aren’t ok, how will our kids flourish?
The First Statewide Social Emotional Framework
My first task as Behavioral Health Coordinator was to create the New Mexico Social and Emotional Learning Framework. The behavioral health needs are many in our state and the task became even more critical, when in March 2020, all PED employees, as well as students statewide, went home to work and learn remotely.
COVID-19 put educators, parents and students in a situation they had never experienced. All were forced to teach and learn in an environment that was totally or mostly virtual, not knowing how long it would last. The pandemic shined a bright spotlight on what research has already shown: that positive relationships are the most impactful thing on a child's life, and creating, building, and maintaining these relationships virtually was imperative but very difficult.
In response to this imperative, we gathered a wide variety of education specialists, teachers, school leaders, legislators, union leaders, Native educators and leaders, parents, and students to create the NM Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) work group and advisory group. Input from Future Focused Education gathered by implementing SEL practices at their Leadership High Schools Network over the last 10 years provided critical expertise to the group. As a result, after over six months of work and collaboration, the NM SEL Framework was created and released in January 2021.
The framework is rooted in whole child education, brain science, trauma informed care, restorative justice practices, social and emotional learning, and developmental relationships and assets. We believed that a SEL Framework addresses all the issues that are current challenges in New Mexico schools and communities:
- Intergenerational trauma from culturally non-responsive educational practices
- Generational cycles of poverty and violence
- Inequities of opportunity for our students stemming from geographical isolation, issues of funding, or racial or cultural disparities
- The profound mobilization needed to holistically meet the aims of the Yazzie/Martinez v. The State of New Mexico decision
- Increasing rates of incarceration and the expanding New Mexican population caught in the criminal justice system
- An educational system from the past that was largely driven by standardized test performance and narrow definitions of achievement
- The staggeringly low rates of teacher retention coupled with alarmingly high rates of teacher vacancies
- The added stress, anxiety, depression, isolation and loss all New Mexicans are experiencing due to the pandemic
What Does COVID Recovery Look Like?
The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented for the state, nation and the world, and it became immediately clear the social and emotional needs of students, staff, families, and communities needed to be urgently addressed.
The PED is releasing a Recovery Toolkit for district leaders, and SEL is one of the three components in the toolkit. The draft toolkit aligns with the roadmap from The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—the nation’s leading SEL research and policy organization. Our toolkit focuses on five areas to assure SEL is at the forefront of the districts’ re-entry plan:
- Data – Use data to understand and prioritize the social and emotional needs of students, staff, school leaders, families, and communities.
- Curricula & Instruction – Adopt an age-appropriate, evidence-based SEL curriculum and integrate SEL content and objectives into rigorous instruction
- Professional Development – Provide adults with professional development on the five core SEL competencies (i.e., self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making).
- Personnel – Hire additional school counselors, social workers, psychologists and/or social emotional learning coaches to support students, staff, and families.
- Partnerships – Contract with community mental health providers to meet anticipated increased needs for behavioral health services.
- Central Office Expertise – Hire a districtwide SEL Coordinator to ensure that implementation is intentional, coordinated, and comprehensive.
We must pivot from our traditional educational constructs. The emphasis on academic gains measured only one way, testing, seat time, grades, and traditional discipline practices need to shift. When safety, belonging, relationships, equity, culturally relevant practices and student voice are the priorities, the space is intentionally created for embracing learning, student success, teacher retention, graduation and beyond.
Leslie Kelly has been an educator, counselor and behavioral health specialist in New Mexico for more than 30 years. She is a strong supporter of whole child education, and social and emotional learning as the pathway toward equity, access, and success in education for all students and adults. She currently serves as the manager of SEL programs at the NM Public Education Department.