Program helps schools deal with stress

Photo Courtesy of Gary Miller
First-graders at School No. 10 in Linden play board games as part of the district’s SELebration Day, which allowed students and staff a day of fun to focus on social-emotional learning.

LINDEN, NJ — The students and staff of the Linden Public School District unwound on Friday, Dec. 10, with SELebration Day, a day focused on social-emotional learning with creative games and activities. The district plans to observed this day once a month in all 12 of its schools as a way for students to relax, connect with one another and focus on their own mental well-being.

Linden Superintendent Marnie Hazelton said she adopted this idea from a colleague at a professional development session during a National Superintendents Forum in early November.

“The motivation behind SELebration Day is to support the mental health of students and teachers,” Hazelton said on Friday, Dec. 17. “Teacher morale is at an all-time low and students are struggling to reacclimate themselves to pre-COVID classroom routines. The soft, necessary skills like student collaboration, conflict resolution, critical thinking and team-building activities have all been hampered by students spending close to two years isolated by remote learning. We wanted to create a day that was completely student centered — allowing students to engage in project-based and/or game-based learning activities.

“We have decided on the once-a-month model to encourage proper planning to maximize outcomes like full participation and meaningful engagement,” she continued. “This is not a free day to play games and watch movies. Every activity must be inclusive, student centered, based on social and emotional learning, and aligned with NJ Student Learning Standards. For example, I always reference my favorite childhood game, jacks. There are so many ways to reinforce mathematical concepts while playing jacks and still allow students to have fun while learning.”

Linden has eight elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school, and one alternative school, and all 12 schools participated. Hazelton, who visited 10 schools to interact with students and teachers, detailed why a day such as this is needed.

“We must support our teachers professionally and emotionally. It is extremely difficult for a lot of us to manage a healthy work–life balance,” Hazelton said. “Students can’t learn if their teachers are too stressed to effectively deliver great content and instruction. People are leaving the teaching profession in droves. Adding more requirements and expectations for our teachers does not drive efficiency and effectiveness. Teachers are trained professionals; they know what works and what does not work in the classroom. Studies have shown that allowing teachers to be creative and daring drives teacher self-efficacy and enhances student outcomes.”

At the high school, a teacher had students make scented soap, said Hazelton, adding that students at School No. 6 participated in a tower-building competition using spaghetti and marshmallows. Students also practiced yoga, meditation and worked out using power bands. Some students put on classroom plays, and others played games such as chess and Monopoly. At School No. 1, students helped paint a new mural and played traditional board games.

“I was truly moved by the success of our first SELebration Day. The number of thank-you emails I’ve received from teachers and parents solidified the success of the day,” the superintendent said. “Being able to validate and celebrate the brilliance and dedication of our teaching and support teaching staff is why I do this work. I not only work to serve the students of Linden, but it is also my responsibility to support teachers. When we talk about supporting teachers, both professionally and emotionally, I often think about the safety protocols that airlines review prior to flights. If oxygen masks are deployed during your flight, we are instructed to place our masks on first and then place the mask on our children. It is the same concept. Teachers cannot effectively pour into students from an empty cup.”

Michelle Rodriguez, the principal of School No. 8, led her school through the districtwide event and said one of the biggest stressors to alleviate was COVID-19.

“The stress that COVID has put on staff and students in the school setting is almost unexplainable in words. It impacts staffing, instruction, social interactions, activities; you name it, it has been impacted by COVID cases and guidelines for how we must operate,” Rodriguez said on Friday, Dec. 17. “A SELebration Day helps to ease the stressors, because it is purposely designed to allow us to stop, have some fun and get to know each other, build relationships, basically reset and recharge. It allowed us to engage with students and for them to engage with each other in a way that typically, pre-COVID, just happens in the classroom during group work, clubs, proximity, recess, etc.”

Rodriguez said she was grateful for the SELebration Day because, she said, it gave her a chance to put some life back into the school.

“It helped staff and students have fun and laugh,” added the principal. “Students and staff were dressed up in school spirit wear. We had pictures with Santa, painting projects, music therapy exercises, crafts, games, as well as yoga and meditation. Staff appreciated the grab-and-go luncheon, raffles throughout the day, as well as a contest and scavenger hunt for prizes. For the first time in a long time, everyone had a good day.”

Annabell Louis, Linden School No. 1 supervisor of student services, said she was thrilled to hear laughter and joy throughout the halls of the buildings on SELebration Day, as it was evidence of its success.

“Social emotional learning has always been an area of focus in Linden schools; however, the stressors of COVID have certainly reinforced the need for a strong SEL presence in schools,” Louis said on Friday, Dec. 17. “It allowed them to engage in games, team-building exercises, build upon critical thinking skills, collaborate with peers, and, most importantly, be children and have fun.

“It was beautiful, seeing the smiles on the faces of students and staff as they enjoyed the time to decompress and focus on their social-emotional well-being. SELebration Day being celebrated in Linden is aligned with our mission of educating the whole child and ensuring personal success for all students,” she continued. “SEL is not just an initiative, it’s a practice that is embedded into everything that we do as educators. It allows educators to create a space that promotes learning beyond academic achievement and reinforces the critical pro-social behaviors, such as empathy, compassion, conflict resolution and communication skills. It speaks to the relationships that we build with our students and our school community. By providing SEL support aligned with the five core competencies, we are cultivating a climate where we not only inspire but help our students to find their voice to grow and become their fullest, authentic selves.

“SELebration Day was a celebration not only for our students, but for our staff as well, who have also encountered numerous challenges related to COVID,” added Louis. “Our staff were active participants in SELebration Day, with raffles, games and a ‘Tiger Chase’ scavenger hunt throughout our schools, allowing staff an opportunity to deviate from the rigor of curriculum and celebrate alongside our students and help them feel supported and valued. I am confident that the benefits of SELebration Day do not end when the school day ends, but will continue to sustain us throughout the year.”