SELS program to expand in South-Western City Schools

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By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

A program that aims to help children develop healthy coping skills, enhance their emotional resilience, and reach positive conflict resolution is expanding in the South-Western City Schools District.

At its meeting on Sept. 13, the board of education approved an agreement with the YMCA of Central Ohio which allows the organization to provide a Social-Emotional Learning Skills (SELS) specialist to assist at each elementary and intermediate school for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year.

Under the terms of the agreement, the specialists will be present at the schools Monday through Friday and work anywhere between 15 to 32 hours per week or pending the needs of the individual building. The district will pay the YMCA approximately $490,000 for the services of the SELS specialists.

The elements within the SELS program are not new to the district – officials say the lessons featured within those standards have been folded in throughout years of intervention and instruction. The elements within the SELS program are also not new to the YMCA – the organization and the district have been working together for decades to meet the social and emotional needs of children through a variety of programs such as Head Start, after-school care, and Positive Alternative Learning for Students (or PALS).

The only difference about this program and this partnership, said representatives with the district and the organization, is that funding opportunities have allowed them to focus solely on helping struggling children build life skills during normal school hours to help them at home, at school, and throughout their lives.

“We are very excited to see the expansion of the SELS program at all of our elementary and intermediate schools,” said Dr. Brian Bowser, the assistant superintendent of curriculum. “We feel that we could not have found a better partner than the YMCA to provide these services and we feel that this program offers us another tool to help enhance the school experience for our youngest learners.”

For the last three years, Elana Lenihan has been supervising the SELS specialist pilot program at Highland Park Elementary. Lenihan, the YMCA’s regional childcare director for the district, said each year the school focused on a different strategy that aimed to help children regulate their emotions to make for a more positive learning experience.

For instance, one year they implemented calming activities such as yoga after recess to help them decompress from the frenzy of free play before entering the classroom. During another, they included conflict resolution activities to learn empathy and build friendships, and in another they focused on “forward thinking,” or the act of sharing with others what they look forward to in the future.

Lenihan said the strategies that will be implemented during the SELS program expansion would be entirely up to the individual school building. But that does not mean the specialists do not have to follow SELS standards set by the district.

Jimmy Lewis, the SELS program director for the YMCA, said there will be five main focus areas of social-emotional learning skills development. They are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

Each area will focus on building the skills necessary to help the student analyze their behaviors – “Why are they upset? Why are they feeling this way? What can they do to regulate their emotions?” he explained – and apply that understanding within the classroom and beyond.

Bowser said the K-6 age range is the target for this program because the district believes they need more “support and instruction” regarding social and emotional learning skills development.

He said these specialists will be trusted adults that “act as a bridge” to help students develop healthy coping skills when emotions run high.

“It will help them learn how to work through those difficult times so those feelings do not carry over and negatively impact their ability to focus within the classroom or connect with others,” said Bowser.

Though most children in grades K-6 will have exposure to the strategies and initiatives within the SELS program, some children will receive additional assistance through one-on-one instruction or group setting instruction.

Becky Ciminillo, the vice-president of youth development for the YMCA of Central Ohio, said the organization will work with the school staff and use data compiled through Panorama surveys to determine which student may need additional social and emotional support and instruction.

SELS specialists will begin to assist at the district’s 16 elementary schools and five intermediate schools starting Sept. 20.

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