In January 2020, William Blair was promoted to the newly created position of Wellness Coordinator at the Mountain View Los Altos (MVLA) Union High School District in California, with high hopes and a deep sense of mission. For nearly a decade beforehand, Blair had served as a teacher, and had recently transitioned to district administrative work, eager to strengthen community within classrooms. He felt proud of his forward-thinking district for creating this new position to address social-emotional learning and school climate. And then ....the pandemic obliterated everyone's carefully laid plans.
Suddenly, no amount of proactivity was sufficient to meet the extreme impact of Covid-19 in the school community. Some districts already had plans and resources for addressing students' social-emotional needs, and others just hadn't gotten there yet. But all districts were like individual boats tossed around in the same raging storm.
"In some ways it was good because districts who hadn't previously been focusing on the whole child quickly woke up to the need to support these students with all the parts of their lives," says Blair. "I'm an eternal optimist and I'm hopeful that this experience is going to change the charge of public education."
It has definitely sparked a renewed focus, but in spite of the current SEL frenzy, this data and these strategies aren't new. Up to twenty years ago, many schools and districts added an "advisory" or "home room" to students' secondary schedules for the purpose of creating community, connection, and delivering what was then called character education. For many schools, those class periods gradually evolved into study halls or flex time due to a lack of teacher training and prep time, a lack of quality resources, and the prioritization of academic rigor and test scores above all else.
"Students are engaging in fewer clubs and sports," Blair says. "They just can't because the academics ramp up so quickly and steeply in high school, and we're seeing the fallout in the soaring depression and anxiety rates. Kids start falling apart and by necessity we end up putting our time, attention, and funding into clinical services. Of course those are essential, but we need to be working further upstream to help kids build the social and life skills they need."
As holistic humans, we are only as strong as our weakest link, so even if a student is maintaining acceptable grades, they may not be thriving without attention to their social, emotional and physical welfare. High schools have a particular challenge in creating the space for this holistic support because of the increased academic requirements.
Blair's charge is to design and integrate Tier 1 preventative services and programs across the students' whole school day to minimize the need for the more intensive clinical Tier 2 and 3 responsive interventions. It's the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If nothing else, investment in SEL is wise budgeting.
Here's how William Blair and his district are doing that:
Step 1: Clarify Terms
Wellness services can easily become an umbrella for everything from equity, to sports, to the number of AP classes. Blair started by shoring up definitions to ensure that educators at all levels weren't just reciting buzzwords without everyone agreeing on the content and intentions.
Step 2: State Your Mission
Blair and his team created a Wellness and Clinical Services brochure that included the mission and vision statement to serve as the roadmap for building a comprehensive infrastructure. He started by identifying what he considers the pillars of wellness that include prevention, intervention, social services, staff wellness, and of course curriculum resources. They used CASEL's five core competencies as a guide.
Step 3: Flexible Training and Support
To be most effective, SEL has to be integrated into every single class, every single day. This requires teachers who have little or no experience with, or training in, SEL to provide it. This will likely be new learning for many of our students as well. Training and support have to be ongoing, consistent, and, above all, flexible for both staff and students.
In choosing resources, Blair immediately disqualified any tool that required full or multiple day face-to-face training. To succeed, he knew he needed to minimize demands on teachers and maximize support.
He found this flexibility with the imSparked© SEL program for middle and high school students, by Vivensity. Various levels of professional learning are provided, and teachers can choose to implement lessons using imSparked’s detailed facilitation guides, or offer a more open-ended experience in which students use the intuitive app to guide their own learning.
With nothing more than their login credentials, students can use the app in class to elevate independent and collaborative work, as well as outside of class, on their own time (from their computer, tablet, phone, or other device). Both the classroom learning units, as well as the 24/7 Web App, each cover all CASEL core competencies and offer students varied opportunities for life skills growth, allowing imSparked to meet Blair's district-wide Tier 1 program goals with fully adaptive support.
Step 4: Relevant Resources
Due to the academic shift mentioned earlier, there are fewer high quality SEL programs for high school students than in the lower grades. When Blair took over as Wellness Coordinator, there were a number of programs being implemented somewhat inconsistently by a smattering of teachers. He knew that in order to get everyone on board he needed a versatile platform that required little extra time for teachers and that could be accessed 24/7 by students.
"I went to tons of workshops and looked at so many SEL resources. Vivensity’s imSparked Program by Vivensity was the best fit for us for multiple reasons," reports Blair. " It was so simple for teachers, even my reluctant teachers. It fit into all the content areas and kids having 24/7 access became so important during Covid. We had a lot of kids depressed and disengaging. Being able to put these curated videos, already aligned to CASEL, and at their fingertips was exactly what was needed."
Blair was further encouraged by the impact that Vivensity's imSparked program is demonstrating in other schools. After 10 weeks using imSparked, 75% of students reported being aware of more decision-making strategies, and 60% felt better about handling stress. (Source: Vivensity) Furthermore, in a 2020 trial at MVLA, 70-90% of students said they wanted imSparked in their school program.
Blair has been collaborating with the Vivensity team on upgrades and the release of version 2.0 of imSparked. In the coming school year, Blair anticipates increased SEL buy-in among teachers, and expects that teachers will appreciate the student-centric platform from Vivensity as a core component of the Mountain View Los Altos District's SEL plans.