The first-graders formed a circle in their classroom inside the Leadership Academy at Como Elementary.

“Our hands are paint brushes,” Ashley Parrish, an intervention specialist in Fort Worth ISD, explained to the children. Every time Parrish said a color, the children dipped their hands into that hue. This time it was red.

“Then we breathe up — breathe in,” she said, inhaling to show her students what to do. “Put our hands together and way above our heads.”

“And then you breathe out and put your hands down,” Parrish told the children, moving onto another color and restarting the process.

The exercise, called rainbow breathing, doesn’t actually involve real paint. Instead, Parrish was helping the young children learn how to focus their mind on school. The breathing technique is part of Fort Worth ISD’s effort to put social-emotional learning at the forefront of its classrooms after the pandemic disrupted every piece of life.

Many techniques used in social-emotional learning have long been a part of education and predate the term, which was created in 1994. Regardless of what it’s called, students learn life skills that help them control emotions and how to interact with other people, things that educators and experts agree will help children when they eventually enter the workforce.

“It’s the thing that we learn like good social skills, how to be friends, how to self regulate, how to keep your cool when everybody else is losing theirs, and it’s how to resolve conflicts,” said Becky Taylor, a professor of counseling in Texas Christian University’s College of Education. “It’s all the non-cognitive things that we know make people successful.”

Taylor breaks down social-emotional learning into the in and the out. The in piece is how people regulate their emotions and persist when a situation is difficult. The out part is how people conduct themselves around others.

Experts and educators say children need these soft skills more than ever because many students are frozen in the grade in which they were enrolled before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Texas Education Agency has not adopted any standards for social-emotional learning in K-12 education, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. However, the state requires students to learn positive character traits, according to TEA. In the 2022-23 school year, TEA is expected to roll out revised standards addressing mental health, according to the agency.

The state does have social-emotional learning standards for early childhood learners and pre-kindergarteners

Only 20 states have guidelines for social-emotional learning for students in kindergarten and higher grades; all 50 have standards for pre-kindergarten.

“From the time we’re born, we’re doing social-emotional learning,” Taylor said. “It won’t matter what profession we’re in, if we don’t have social-emotional skills, we don’t have very much. It makes us more human.”

Parents looking out for children

While educators, administrators and experts widely agree students need social-emotional learning, some parents don’t see it as the school’s job to provide that. Some have attempted to link it to critical race theory, an academic concept that looks at how racism has shaped government and society in the United States. Like critical race theory, many refer to social-emotional learning by its initials, SEL.

Some parents have spoken out against social-emotional learning at Fort Worth ISD school board meetings. 

What is social-emotional learning?

Social-emotional learning is a relatively new term in education. Its origins can be traced back to 1994. Students learn social skills and emotional intelligence.

Texas does not have any standards for social-emotional learning. Fort Worth ISD has emphasized it since students returned to classrooms after learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the district does not have a set curriculum. Instead, it is infused into lessons.

Parent Hollie Plemons voiced opposition to social-emotional learning. She was concerned over Fort Worth ISD sending her children a survey asking them questions about whether they mattered at school.

“You are not trained psychologists, and neither are our teachers, who will be the ones to pick up the pieces from this disaster,” Plemons said at an Oct. 26 school board meeting.

Taylor attributes the rise in opposition to schools not communicating social-emotional learning to parents. 

“It just became a part of the school without going through parents,” she said. 

Parents are looking out for their children and ensuring they are taught what they are required to learn, Taylor said. Social-emotional learning, she said, is something that is taught regardless if it is intentional or not. Students have to learn how to get along with each other and figure out how to keep up with their mental health, she said.

News coverage that shows only the extremes of social-emotional learning also hasn’t helped, Taylor added.

Michael Steinert, Student Support Services assistant superintendent, thought part of the misunderstanding some parents have is that they think schools are teaching their children morality or beliefs, decisions that are specific to each family.

“That’s not what it’s about,” he said. “It’s about helping kids understand how to successfully navigate social situations, how to deal with frustration, how to communicate with each other when you’re anxious, how to develop friendships and relationships.”

“We literally cannot run a school successfully without these things,” Steinert said.

Fostering better relationship-building skills

Fort Worth ISD has built social-emotional learning into its curriculum, according to administrators. However, it is not like math or reading. Social-emotional learning has no set curriculum. Instead, it is infused into lessons through fun activities appropriate for each grade level. 

Social-emotional learning activities

Activities teachers use to teach students social and emotional skills are fairly simple. Here are a couple you can try:

  • Need a moment to calm yourself and focus? Ashley Parrish, an intervention specialist in Fort Worth ISD, says to sit up straight, with your back against your chair. She says to imagine your spine as a straw and inhale all the air you can. Then breathe out slowly.
  • Need a group of people to get to know each other? Michael Steinert, Fort Worth ISD’s Student Support Services assistant superintendent, suggests playing a game called two truths and a lie. Each person will say three things about themselves — two are true and one is a lie. Other people in the group get to guess which statements are true and which one is the lie. “It challenges people’s perceptions about you,” Steinert said. “If you do that with a group of 15 to 20 people, we all learn quite a bit about each other.”

“They’re simple activities that are hands-on and gamelike where we’re going to do this activity with the kids and, through this activity, kids are going to learn more about each other,” Steinert said.

One exercise teachers in any grade level can use is called the snowball activity. The students and the teacher write a fact about themselves, such as their favorite food, on a piece of paper. They then crumple the sheet into a ball, and students toss the paper ball around the room. Students go around, pick up a ball and together they try to figure out which person wrote the fact. 

“Simple activities like that are fun, but they help kids to communicate in a different way than we would when we’re teaching fractions,” Steinert said.

The activities develop trust between students and their teachers and jumpstart their relationships, Steinert said. Fostering better student-teacher relationships likely means children are more engaged in discussions and feel part of their classroom community, he said.

Activities like these are helpful at the start of a school year when students are still getting to know each other and their teachers. Steinert has seen teachers use the activities throughout the year whenever students are feeling squirrely or disconnected. 

“It gives students the opportunity to think in a different way, even if it is just for five minutes,” the assistant superintendent said.

Taylor, the TCU professor, noted social-emotional learning also is about giving students a better mindset. As a teacher, Taylor saw students who would say they could not do their work and had a negative attitude. She helped them by reminding her students to change their negative statements to positive ones and encouraged them that, yes, they can do it.

Social-emotional learning isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea. Taylor said it can be basic lessons, such as reminding students to use good manners and asking people open questions to make good conversations.

These are often skills parents teach at home, but many times that is not the case. Taylor and Parrish, the Fort Worth ISD educator, have seen students come through their classrooms who did not learn manners, how to talk to other people or know how to make friends.

‘Where do you feel it?’

Fort Worth ISD focuses on the emotional aspect of social-emotional learning in elementary school. Educators teach students how their brains work, what emotions are and what they feel like.

“Listening to our body is a big subject that I teach for a while,” Parrish said. “When you’re mad, where do you feel it? Does your face turn red? Does your heart race? Do you clench your fist?”

Ashley Parrish, an intervention specialist in Fort Worth ISD, has posters in her classroom that show different parts of the brain. (Courtesy of Ashley Parrish)
Ashley Parrish, an intervention specialist in Fort Worth ISD, has posters in her classroom that show different parts of the brain. (Courtesy of Ashley Parrish)

Parish has posters on her classroom walls, showcasing cartoon drawings of the brain. Each poster shows a different part of the brain and explains what it does. One shows the cerebellum working out and tells students this part of the brain helps them with their coordination, balance and posture. Another shows the hippocampus thinking and explains it is responsible for a person’s long-term memory.

Younger students are taught about emotions using a paper plate with an arrow attached. It  looks like an odometer from a car dash. That is on purpose, too. It’s called a mood meter, and students learn that their brain is like an engine. 

“Sometimes your brain is running cool. Sometimes it’s running in that sweet spot. And sometimes it’s running hot,” Steinert said.

Some teachers use a chart with the characters from the Pixar movie “Inside Out” for their students to express their emotions. The main characters in the movie are five basic emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust — inside an 11-year-old’s brain that control her actions.

Older students will use age-appropriate activities. For example, they may use thumbs up, thumbs sideways and thumbs down to communicate how they feel on a particular day.

Teachers are asked to do these check-ins as frequently as possible to see where their students are emotionally in the classroom, so they can adjust their lesson for that day.

An open invitation

At Como Elementary, parents have not expressed concerns about social-emotional learning to Parrish, she said. 

She has built her relationships with her students’ parents. She has even started a monthly social-emotional learning class for parents, so they can learn the techniques their children are being taught and use them in their everyday lives.

Should a parent in the future have concerns about social-emotional learning, Parrish has an open invitation to her classroom. She said it would be an honor to have a parent join a lesson to understand why these skills are important.

“This is the key to our future,” Parrish said. “It was the missing link in academics for a very long time.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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