Social Emotional Learning Specialists (SELS), explained

Additional mental health support for Jeffco students is in the works due to funding from 5A, the mill levy override approved in November. The district will use some of that funding to expand mental health support by adding a half-time Social Emotional Learning Specialist (SELS) to every elementary school.

The goal of adding SELS is to provide students more preventative mental health support and strategies, explained Kevin Carroll, Jeffco Schools chief student success officer.

Why add SELS rather than more full-time school psychologists and social workers?

“Traditional psychologists and social workers are assigned to schools through the special education department for the express purpose of meeting the needs of specifically-identified students as defined in their IEPs,” Carroll said.

“SELS serve all students in a preventative, proactive manner using evidence based strategies aligned to the CASEL [Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning]  model,” Carroll said. “Their efforts are directly connected to positively impacting school climate and culture and work in concert with existing mental health resources.”

The move is also partly in response to the School Safety Task Force 2018 recommendations, which noted, “Behavioral health specialists be available for the entire school population, not just students using special education services or with known circumstances or diagnostic criteria indicating mental health need.”

Erin Sullivan, Jeffco’s social emotional learning specialist coordinator, said there are five reasons she recommends keeping the SELS position separate from the work done by a school psychologist or social worker:

  1. SELS focus on prevention for all students rather than only select populations like special education and students with Individual Education Plans.
  2. The jobs can be very different and may require different skill sets and training.
  3. Having two school mental health providers increases prevention and intervention efforts for students.
  4. Having two professionals allows students and families to have an additional adult available for support.
  5. SELS also support teachers by working with all students in all classrooms.

What does a Social Emotional Learning Specialist do?

SELS use a variety of approaches to teach students social and emotional skills and behaviors that they may not have learned yet.

They help students learn to identify emotions and to apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills to understand and manage emotions. In addition, SELS helps students set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

For example:

  • Children can to be taught to recognize how they feel or how someone else might be feeling through SELS modeling and coaching.
  • SELS can prompt the use of a conflict-resolution skill and use dialogue to guide students through the steps to helping them apply this skill in a new situation.
  • SELS work to help students practice group decision-making and set classroom rules in a class meeting.
  • Students can learn cooperation and teamwork through participation in team sports and games.
  • SELS might use a problem-solving model to help students deepen their understanding of a current or historical event.
  • Cross-age mentoring, in which SELS pair a younger student with an older one, can be effective in building self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and enhancing academic skills.
  • SELS can teach reflective listening by having one member of a pair describe a situation to his partner and then having the partner repeat what he or she heard.

SELS target preventative mental health support

Jeffco’s SELS focus on providing preventative services. These services are targeted to address specific needs of an individual school based on responses from that school’s Climate & Culture and Make Your Voice Heard survey data.

SELS also consult with the school’s principal and staff to address additional issues in their school population. As a result, their work is uniquely targeted to the needs of an individual school population.

For example, at some schools SELS may:

  • Help to provide a positive school-wide learning community
  • Help to facilitate a student led Kindness Committee
  • Be the lead instructor for a school-wide preventative program like Brain-Wise or Second Step

Due to the flexibility of their roles, SELS can also be available to the child who has lost a pet, whose parents are going through a divorce, who needs help navigating a friendship, or who is just having a bad day.

Some SELS also work with students in small groups to target a specific skill or goal.

For example, a SELS may work with a group of students who struggle with anger to help them identify signs of anger (physical changes within their bodies), red flags, what causes them to be angry, and other feelings that anger might mask such as fear, sadness or jealousy.

SELS help students identify the problem causing these feelings and think about how important this problem might be in a hour, day or a year. They also help the students identify and practice ways to calm down like deep breathing or asking for help. They also teach students mindfulness techniques, help students identify their triggers, and encourage students to identify the people they can rely on for help when their self-coping skills are not sufficient.

All SELS are also nationally-certified Mental Health First-Aid trainers. Any SELS can train any district employee how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness or substance use disorders in schools. This in turn allows schools to respond more quickly to struggling students and implement appropriate resources more quickly.

Social Emotional Learning Specialists added to schools in 2016-17

In 2016-17, Jeffco School Board members allocated an ongoing $2.78 million to provide additional mental health support for students. The money was specifically targeted to hire SELS, and district staff were tasked with determining how and where the SELS could have the biggest impact, Carroll said.

Staff from multiple departments, including Student Engagement, Healthy Schools, Gifted and Talented, Crisis Response, Health Services, and the Homebound and Student Services, were invited to participate in the process.

Jeffco Schools staff analyzed district data from threat assessments, suicide risk assessments, truancy and attendance records and course completion.

They determined that the best place to focus these dollars was working with middle school students, Carroll said. Middle school is an ideal time for providing both proactive and reactive services to students to prevent dangerous and at-risk behaviors.

One SELS was added to each school that serves middle school age children in the 2016-17 school year.

In addition, five articulation areas that demonstrated the highest need were also allocated one SELS. In turn, articulation area staff worked together to determine how best to use and allocation their SELS to the schools in their areas.

Funding from a three year School Health Professionals grant received in Fall 2017 is currently funding additional SELS in Lakewood, Wheat Ridge, and Jefferson articulation area elementary schools.

Additional funding in the 2018-2019 budget provided money to hire six additional SELS to serve 12 elementary schools. Current SELS positions were also reconfigured to serve schools in the Arvada West and Pomona articulation areas.

How have SELS improved education in Jeffco?

“SELS honor the whole child by recognizing and addressing critical social-emotional needs that must be in place before the important process of learning can begin,” said Heather Perrie, a Jeffco middle school learning specialist.

Bell Middle School principal Michele DeAndrea-Austin said that the person filling the SELS position at her school has “worked to carve out his role where he can make the greatest impact.” DeAndrea-Austin described it as a “dynamic position and process.”

DeAndrea-Austin’s SELS works with students at all levels. Although many of the school counselors are tied up with responsibilities related to 504s, scheduling, and counseling, the SELS position can focus on doing a variety of things to address social-emotional development for ALL kids.

At Bell, the SELS frequently presents to classes and arranges presentations through Kaiser Permanente and other groups. These presentations are tailored to meet the needs of students in general or targeted to a group of students with more specific needs.

Last fall, Bell seventh grade students completed a Signs of Suicide training. Their SELS also taught lessons about the dangers of vaping to Bell science classes when students were learning about the human body.

SELS also provides mental health support when other counselors are busy with other students.

DeAndrea-Austin explained that because SELS are frequently in classrooms, students are more likely to approach the SELS for help. “He has created a lot of relationships with kids who go to him for needs because of this,” she said.

“I think this position is crucial in helping kids recognize things within themselves or in their friends that they would otherwise gloss over, like signs of depression and anxiety,” DeAndrea-Austin said.

Karyn Peabody

Karyn Peabody

Karyn Peabody, a parent of two Jeffco students and Jeffco resident since 2001, graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in Neuroscience and Behavior and a minor in Education and then went on to combine these two passions by pursuing an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology at the University of Colorado, Denver. In her freer time, she can be found on her bike, her horse, her skis, or her own two feet exploring and enjoying all that is Colorado. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Karyn and our other writers.