• Suzanne Nason

San Diego Unified Turns Focus to SEL to Manage Stress Within Large, Diverse School Communities

One of the largest school districts in the U.S. has partnered with Pure Edge in response to an increase in stress and anxiety. Both educators and learners reap the benefits.

“I’m passionate about SEL,” said Kearny High School English teacher Daina Weber, “and I felt like this was another opportunity for students to get skills in self-discovery and self-care.” She had just finished participating, with three of her ninth-grade classes, in the first of four Pure Edge training days. Kearny is a project-based learning school in one of the largest and most diverse districts in the nation, San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), and its new students have embarked upon a social and emotional learning project. Weber’s new ninth-grade learners are the first at the school to receive the trainings since Pure Edge began partnering with SDUSD in support of the district of roughly 200 schools, over 120,000 students and nearly 6,000 teachers. With the help of advocates like Lynn Barnes-Wallace, the district’s physical education resource teacher, the impact of the partnership is permeating the school communities and beyond.

To launch the district-wide rollout, SDUSD specifically requested a focus on educator well-being, in response to an increase in stress and anxiety. After Pure Edge’s initial visits, Barnes-Wallace began encouraging other educators to regularly employ mindfulness practices. “I use the starfish all the time,” she stated, referring to Pure Edge’s Starfish Breath Brain Break. With repetition, tools like these become second nature. Educators and learners alike can learn to reset or self-regulate in any place, at any time. Barnes-Wallace knows that the essential aspect of successfully equipping her district with SEL strategies is engagement from educators and learners. As these tools become routine components of the school day, they support a strong foundation for mindfulness and stress management in the school culture. She shared that she receives regular feedback from SDUSD learners asking for more mindfulness in their schools, suggesting that their classes incorporate mindful movement and breathing as a daily expectation and excitedly sharing that they plan to teach the skills to their families. The educators she has spoken to are just as invested. “The greatest thing about this is that the teachers have just gravitated toward this; it’s amazing,” she revealed.

“We had one principal who heard about it and made the hour-long Pure Edge training a breakout session, and roughly 90 teachers showed up by choice. The room was packed.”

Pure Edge Director of Programs and National Trainer Anne Contreras used a Brain Break to set the tone for each session with Weber’s ninth-graders—the educators expect that as learners gain experience with the techniques shared in the first session, they will individually step up to lead the classes in the breathing and movements. The ninth-graders had begun exploring parts of the brain and their functions in biology class, and in the Pure Edge training, they quickly found that the science their biology teachers had shown them would directly apply to the practices they learned.

“We’re going to be activating our cerebellum later as we move,” Contreras offered to the class as an example, “because you’re going to need it to balance.”

Last school year, Kearny’s ninth-graders worked with Barnes-Wallace on a project that focused on physical health. As Weber explained, “We wanted this year’s students to feel like they were taking on their own, equally important role in addressing health needs. Additionally, we were reflecting on how many of our students have struggled with emotional issues in our past teaching experiences and felt that this project could empower students, while simultaneously providing them with tools for self-care.”

The sessions at Kearny will continue through January 2020, and the ninth-graders plan to subsequently visit elementary schools in the area to teach the practices to younger learners. Weber envisions her classes mastering the exercises and sharing them within their own communities. “Ultimately our goal is for our students to become the experts,” she explained. Throughout the district, the focus has turned to developing social and emotional skills for learners and educators. Leadership understands that educator-educator, educator-learner and learner-learner relationships all fuse to determine a school’s climate. As Barnes-Wallace tells it, the students realize the power of these skills as well.

“Kids ask for this kind of stuff now,” she said. “That’s the best part. They’re driving all of this.”

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