Strengthening SEL in New Jersey
by Catherine Adelhoch
In January 2017, I began my work at Moss School in Metuchen, NJ. Moss is a public special needs pre-k and kindergarten school. My focus was helping to develop and pilot social-emotional learning (SEL) and character development curriculum for kindergarten students.
Moss was no stranger to SEL when I joined. In fact, they had long been working to integrate evidence-based approaches to teaching social and emotional skills to students, given the astounding amount of research indicating how critical these skills are to student success in academics and beyond.
Moss Overcomes SEL Hurdles
Moss was well aware of the benefits of SEL curricula, as well as the hurdles that stand in the way of successful SEL education. One of the biggest hurdles is, of course, time. When Common Core expectations are high, and so much is already asked of our teachers and students, how can we ask them to take on this additional huge task of social and emotional skills education? Moss Kindergarten Teacher Christina Spring asked, “How are we going to juggle all of this?”
Despite these challenges, everyone at Moss recognized the need to educate the whole child, even if standardized test results hadn’t yet evolved to prioritize character and social-emotional skills development. Commitment to the objectives was high, yet the question remained, how can we add yet another set of objectives to an already packed school day?
Principal Richard Cohen’s answer to this question became, we won’t add, we will integrate. Since instructional time was already so limited, Cohen spearheaded methods of integrating SEL education into the existing curricula. In fact, it proved enormously effective to transform many academic and non-academic aspects of classroom life so that they had an eye toward social and emotional concepts, practices, and objectives. Several iterations of this brought Moss to the forefront of schools providing quality social and emotional education to their students.
Using Technology to Power Up SEL at Moss
My task when I arrived at Moss was to help find and implement tools in the classroom that would allow Moss to extend and even further advance its SEL curricula from three main perspectives, 1.) making it even easier for teachers to provide SEL curricula, 2.) getting students more engaged and excited about the curricula, 3.) using technology as a tool to assist and strengthen Moss’s SEL work.
With my strong background in SEL and character education research, I was able to get up to speed quickly with the current SEL programs at Moss to really understand the elements that made them successful and what they needed to grow even stronger.
I started by working with the students bi-weekly in small groups. Relying on expression through art and situations in children’s literature, students learned about identifying emotions, emotional regulation, triggering situations and how to problem solve during emotionally stressful times. Teachers reported significant differences in the actions of even their most behaviorally challenged students. We were on the right track.
YouHue at Moss School
With such positive feedback following the piloted SEL small group instruction, Principal Cohen and I began working on another SEL pilot, one that could easily be facilitated by classroom teachers without any outside help in the future, would excite the students to increase their engagement, and would introduce a healthy technology to assist the work.
YouHue was introduced to me about halfway through my time at Moss by my Principal Cohen. YouHue is an app-based program for social and emotional learning. Initially, technology as a tool for education and health made me nervous. The current generation of youth has been raised on technology. With new innovations and more and more reliance placed on web based products, the question of how healthy technology really is for youth and young adults is readily asked.
When I was first given the opportunity to pilot YouHue as a method of daily, guided self-reflection and emotional identification, I at first thought the technology would take away opportunities for verbal openness. Despite my initial fears I had trust in the evidence and research provided by the YouHue team, as well as the great instincts of Principal Cohen that had led Moss so far already. I trusted that technology could in fact be beneficial when used in the right context. So, I led the YouHue Pilot with my SEL students.
To my surprise, YouHue was able to fill in the gaps where my students struggled the most during small group instruction. Although SEL implementation was already successful at Moss, YouHue kept students engaged, willing and excited to self reflect — something that was a struggle to maintain prior. The students were more energized in their practice of the SEL concepts they were guided to learn through YouHue — both while using the app and in real life. Plus, it made it significantly easier on me to instruct and facilitate practice. To get started, all I had to do was give students the app, and the exercise guided them in a short practice of self-reflection, emotion identification, and self-expression.
Healthy Technology to Support SEL
It was then that I realized that it is not technology that is harmful but rather the way we use it that matters most. If we teach students to utilize web-based applications that are useful for their mental health, physical health, or academics like YouHue, we are effectively adapting to better resonate and teach today’s youth — the generation of technology. There are companies, like YouHue, who take on the responsibility to design technology that helps, and does not harm, children’s delicate minds, empowering them to learn better. Such healthy technology tools advance the quality of education we can provide young people. They serve as assistants to expand our capabilities as educators.
Since the May 2017 pilot of YouHue at Moss School, kindergarten teachers and the Moss Principal continue to explore and familiarize themselves with the beneficial features the app has to offer. Because of the positive and engaging experience Moss teachers and myself had with YouHue, the principal of Moss School, who also oversees all grade-level curriculums in the Metuchen School District, hopes to integrate YouHue into the permanent curriculum at Moss next year.
Martinez, L. (2016). SEL is Good Teaching. Edutopia. Retrieved from:
Written by: Catherine Adelhoch & Kristi Kelly