The Clarkson Recovery Mission post-COVID-19 - Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in a Professional Learning Community

At Clarkson, we began to conceptualise how to lead our school out of this crisis situation.
John Young, Principal
Jun 5, 2020
A way forward

2020 has been a watershed, a change that has been unforeseen and dramatic due to COVID-19.

At Clarkson, we began to conceptualise how to lead our school out of this crisis situation.

First, we must have recovery. We viewed a networked approach within our professional learning community as the best way of identifying and dealing with the school’s recovery mission.

Where we started
There has been an on-going investment in human resource capital at Clarkson through a model of distributed leadership, with key staff preparing position papers on aspects of whole-school improvement as a means of determining where and how we should concentrate our efforts. We measure our on-going attainment within our established Invitational Education framework. As part of our distributed leadership and invitational education processes we expect to see on-going teacher authorship of strategic essays and practical program to support Learning Journey 5 and to build a team vision and a framework to help enable the recovery.

What we learned
It is this approach that will be the mainstay of our COVID-19 school recovery. One of the position papers adopted at Clarkson is the work of Professor Janet Clinton, concerning supporting vulnerable children post COVID-19. Clinton’s work has been invaluable to our recovery and our engagement strategy at Clarkson. She emphasizes in her research (p18) the need to ensure schools are not uninviting (Purkey, 1996); that schools need to be safe; schools must have an effective communication strategy; and that Social Emotional Learning (SEL) be a part of the school curriculum augmented by a system-level, interagency support structure that works.

Clinton also spells out the emerging role for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) on-line that help deliver on SEL, and better cater for students at educational risk (SAER) thru digital inclusion. With a diverse range of ethnicity at Clarkson it is vital that cultural safety is a clear priority and essential that our school provides an environment that is safe in a physical, social, emotional and cultural sense.

Clarkson has fostered all of these areas over a period of years, inviting students to engage and learn.

As our school went into lockdown the emphasis for digital inclusion and connection in an online learning community became imperative. ‘Connectivism’ provided insight into the learning skills and the tasks needed by learners. This was essential for students to better adapt to more effective learning from home. The spectre of worsening student detachment from school altogether was a potential outcome to be avoided. During the lockdown Clarkson teachers used ICT ‘connectivism’ to improve both student and teacher-to-teacher engagement. When implementing the digital platforms, it was quickly apparent that parents were more than capable of home schooling students who are self-motivated and intellectually agile and generally capable of self-regulation. Teachers also love that they are intellectually able and generally capable of emotional regulation. A valuable lesson from Hattie’s Visible Learning research is that teaching self-regulation is even more important for all students post-COVID-19. Dealing with disengaged or disruptive students via ICT connectivism was a much more difficult situation for teachers and parents. Provision of ICT connectivism in itself is obviously not a magic bullet for student engagement. Engagement in, and a sense of ownership of, the learning process is still the main factor for successful student outcomes.

Where we are heading
Low Index of Community Social Economic Advantage (ICSEA) schools such as Clarkson have a greater incidence of teacher dependent students. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 situation.  Lower income students in residualized schools have fewer educational resources. Again, this has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 situation. Prof Clinton’s research underscores that schools must be safe havens because some homes are not so. This can result in more stress without the outlet of a school environment, made worse by a significant increase in mental health issues currently emerging across Australia. To address these issues we must re-build at Clarkson a culture of safety and support with physical, social and cultural dimensions that are augmented by the routines of the school structure. These routines provide students with a sense of safety and predictability and thus make learning possible. The provision of ICT alone is demonstrably not an alternative to a supportive school structure, it is merely a support tool for teachers and students to accomplish this goal. Also, the predictability and the consistency of schooling are important factors to consider in a student’s life experience. Re-instating positive connections with adults and peers is also an urgent, strategic priority. The need for students to improve self-regulation and self-engagement is central to successful schooling and is key to Clinton’s research findings about the importance of Social Emotional Learning.

So what is self-regulation and how do we teach it? Self-regulation is a specific skill that requires practice and then, application to real-life situations. Self-regulation is not something you learn from reading. It is most effectively developed through guided mindfulness experiences.  For example, by using a simple “anchor,” such as following our breath, we can learn how to be present. When experiencing a strong emotion, we learn to first notice our thoughts and feelings, then calm our minds by redirecting our attention to our breathing, which is something we don’t have to control.  We may notice other thoughts, but redirect our attention back to the breath.  Being present in this way, allows our minds to return to a calm state, instead of being anxious about the future or ruminating about the past.  Once calm, our minds are better able help us make more thoughtful choices of behaviour. When teachers undertake this practice themselves, they will then be better able to introduce self-regulation skills to their students.   A central motif of the work at Clarkson is teachers understanding that improving the school starts with improving self, which starts with understanding self. As Hattie (personal communication) has said –

“…thinking about self, thinking about thinking, thinking about learning is indeed the meaning of ‘self-regulation’ and all three can and need to be taught in every lesson.”

Our work on personal safety and well-being plans for individual students at Clarkson is well underway. Positive self-concept helps to enable (i) self-management, (ii) social awareness skills, (iii) relationship and (iv) decision-making skills. The articles in Learning Journey 5 reiterate that improving school climate and social-emotional skills is essential when mitigating mental health issues. Staff research findings make clear that interdependent school climate goals at Clarkson must overlap and reinforce the vision and its implementation. Invitational Learning Theory, and Visible Learning research and Social Emotional Learning, shape our school vision.

To achieve these changes, we must understand that the most significant driver of school reform is teachers' thinking. It is teachers' understanding of intentionality that will foster change. It is the self-reflection of teachers as learners of Social Emotional Learning that will help them to better appreciate students' needs. When teachers reflect on their own words and actions, they become more aware of aware of the feelings and needs behind their actions. Learning to reflect inwardly helps us to connect our feelings to our own needs, instead of blaming our feelings on the actions of others. For example, instead of saying to a student, “I’m frustrated because you didn’t study for the test,” we might say instead, “I’m feeling frustrated because I really want you to do well on the test.” This is a vital skill in self-awareness. We can then focus on listening empathically to others—to listen to their words and observe their facial cues, in order to attempt to identify the feeling and needs they may be having, and most importantly, to ask the person we are communicating with if we are current. Once we listen and validate the needs of others, they will be more willing to reciprocate and more willing to accept an invitation to try an alternate behaviour or approach to a situation.

We are now working towards the re-engagement of students whose learning is significantly disrupted by COVID-19. Excellent diagnosis and open eyes are key during this phase. Provision to support a diverse range of students' needs is well underway. We are focusing on positive engagement, the factors that influence attendance, identifying individual students at risk and vulnerable groups. The strategy is to apply a framework, 3 Pillars of Safety by Howard Bath—safety, connections and coping—to identify opportunities for re-engagement and recovery.

How we will measure our progress
We must ask: are we inviting; are we safe; do we have an effective communication strategy that engages our students; is Social Emotional Learning an integral part of our Invitational Education learning? Are we having an impact and thus fostering our students?

We must ask: is leadership at Clarkson a shared responsibility as a part of a professional learning community? Are we self-reflecting as teachers and leading through authorship of strategic essays and practical program to support Learning Journey 5? Have we built a team vision and a framework to help enable the recovery? Are we as a school leadership team optimistic about the fact that we can help make good things happen by focusing on the notion of meliorism?

We were making great progress in all of these areas before COVID-19. Our challenge is now to work in a more focused manner to rectify the problems created by the lockdown and to support our students to develop and engage through Social Emotional Learning aligned with Invitational Education theory and practice.

Read Clarkson's Learning Journey 5 here


See CASEL SEL Competency Chart in this Dropbox folder:

Professor John Hattie, personal email correspondence 26/05/2020

Pictureby  Garry Knight Dome Climbers under flicr cc attribution license