How Schools Can Prepare to Address Students’ Social-Emotional Needs District-Wide
The development of the whole child goes far beyond the instructive curriculum they are taught in the classroom. Districts can take steps to foster psychological health and safety, mainly through social-emotional learning, by ensuring their school’s physical spaces support diverse development for all students
Social-emotional learning is an educational method that aims to empower kids to identify their emotions and develop interpersonal relationship skills with self-advocacy strategies that promote positive conflict resolution. When students are equipped with the skills to recognize their mental health needs, they are more proactive in seeking out resources and can better identify at-risk behaviors in their peers. This development can improve student achievement by 11% and can improve a student’s overall attitude towards school. Addressing social and emotional development in schools, alongside their cognitive development, is a natural step in the progression of how schools have changed over the past century. Schools used to be designed to support the work of the 20th century, often repetitive manufacturing jobs that required little creativity or imagination. A teacher would lecture to the students, who largely sat in even rows and columns with little movement or interaction. Now, schools have evolved to become more student centered and encourage the 4 C’s of 21st century learning which include critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills.
We believe that sound planning and design can play a major role in educating the whole child and better prepare students for the next stages in their lives. GMB Architecture + Engineering partnered with Grandville Public Schools and the be nice. program to build on the success of their mental health curriculum when completing the district’s original middle school renovation and new 7/8 facility. Grandville originally adopted the pilot be nice. program in 2011, which focused on bully prevention, but has shifted to address social-emotional needs. The program’s founder, Christy Buck, has more than 33 years of mental health education experience and strongly advocates for mental health education and resources in schools.
"This is a necessity because changes in mental health are very common in adolescence. One in five students will struggle with a mental health disorder in a given year, and one in 10 will be considered a serious disorder,” says Buck.
Launching a district-wide mental health program may seem like an overwhelming undertaking. Grandville’s Superintendent, Roger Bearup, shares the three things districts can do to successfully start the process. First, invest in a research-based mental health program, which is proven to be more effective. Second, the program needs to be easy to follow and should employ simple strategies that can be remembered and impactful. Third, this must be a district-wide roll out that is universal and age-specific. Lesson plans can include an introduction to mental health, decreasing stigma, signs of depression or anxiety, suicide warning signs, personal mental health changes, available resources, risks and protective factors, and an action plan.
"I learned a lot of new strategies and protective factors about depression and that it was all real-world situations. I also told some of my friends that I am here for them if they need help,” said one Grandville Middle School student of the be nice. program.
To make this educational model most effective, school design that focuses on the whole child is paramount. Methodologies for social-emotional learning supported design can include:
- Development of learning communities - Design that breaks down the scale, physically, in the building into smaller groups. This creates familiarity among students and allows them to build a rapport with staff and one another.
- Intentional and unintentional collaborative spaces - Students can come together in small or large groups for meaningful interactions, which enhance relationship building and empathy.
- Sensory for all - We can adopt an attitude that prioritizes sensory elements for all students by creating spaces for de-escalation, being mindful of lights and sounds, and other settings that could distract students from learning. Must also consider that some students need to bring up their energy levels, as opposed to those that need de-escalation.
- Accessibility to counseling - Relocate counselors to a place that is readily accessible and visible to students, to normalize its function and rebrand its purpose.
- Nature rich learning - Actively connect students to the natural environment visually and physically, which promotes physical development, encourages hands-on learning, and enhances emotional well-being.
GMB believes that designing schools for the next generation of learners is a significant responsibility and should be done through the lens of educating the whole child. Grandville’s middle school renovation and new 7/8 building designs incorporated many of these methodologies with student mental health in mind. Districts everywhere can start to implement these programs and design changes to take next generation learning environments a step further and address social-emotional needs from the earliest learners to high school graduates.
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