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A preschool teacher sits with her students on a carpet lined with green dots, holding a picture as she speaks with the children.

From left, Remi Franke, 3, listens next to Natalie Soto-Mehle, early childhood teacher, as she talks to students Genesis Martinez-Baca, 3, Morgan Lefor, 3, and Aniyah Soto, 5, during a lesson about feelings at Trevista at Horace Mann elementary school in Denver.

Rachel Woolf for Chalkbeat

‘I have feelings:’ How Denver schools prioritize social-emotional learning

The fight to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

The preschoolers in Natalie Soto-Mehle’s class have been talking about feelings lately.

“I’ve got some little cards with pictures, and we’re going to do a game with these,” Soto-Mehle, a teacher at Trevista at Horace Mann elementary school, explained to the 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds sitting on the rug. “But, before we do, we’re going to sing a new song.”

To the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” she sang:

I have feelings, yes I do. Yes, I do. Yes, I do.

My body tells me how I feel,

Feelings in my body.

Song lyrics are hung on the wall next to pictures of the alphabet, and photos of children gesturing. The song is titled “Feelings In My Body”, and the lyrics read: “I have feelings, yes I do. Yes, I do. Yes, I do. My body tells me how I feel, feelings in my body. My legs, my tummy, face and heart, face and heart, face and heart. My legs, my tummy, face and heart tell me how I’m feeling.”

Denver Public Schools is requiring each school to offer 20 minutes of daily social-emotional learning this year.

Rachel Woolf for Chalkbeat

Upstairs, the fifth graders were talking about the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions. They discussed what it means to lose control and “flip your lid.” 

“When our amygdala takes over, it’s really hard to have control over our emotions,” teacher Taylor Kalchbrenner told her students, some of whom were sitting and others of whom felt more comfortable standing. “So what we need to do is we need to take back control.”

Both lessons were what schools call social-emotional learning, which teaches students to be emotionally resilient, form supportive relationships, and develop healthy identities. As Denver Public Schools transition back to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the district is requiring each school to offer 20 minutes of daily social-emotional learning to help students face mental health challenges brought on by two years of pandemic living.

District data shows more students were flagged this fall as needing intensive mental health support on a screening tool called the Behavioral and Emotional Screening System, with elementary and middle school students needing more help than high schoolers.

When students get that support, it’s easier for them to focus on their schoolwork, said Kim Price, district social-emotional academic learning manager. That focus is perhaps more important than ever, given the prolonged interruption to student learning that occurred.

“The transition from behind a computer to back in the classroom has been different for all of us,” Price said. “That’s been a lot of the thinking behind supporting social-emotional learning.”

Most Denver schools already taught some type of social-emotional learning, though the depth differed, Price said. The requirement for 20 minutes a day ensures all students are getting the same baseline amount, she said. In line with Denver’s belief in school autonomy, the district is allowing schools to choose their own curriculum, though Price said federal coronavirus relief funding enabled the district to purchase one called Mosaic that schools can opt into.

Two young girls hold up a card as they talk during a social-emotional learning lesson. They sit on a grey carpet, and there is a drawing in front of them on pink paper that says “uncomfortable” with a drawing of a person holding their abdomen.

Genesis Martinez-Baca, 3, left, and Aniyah Soto, 5, look at a card with a photo of a child looking surprised. They decided it was a “comfortable” feeling and placed the card on the orange construction paper during a game to sort feelings into the categories of comfortable and uncomfortable.

Rachel Woolf for Chalkbeat

Trevista at Horace Mann has been focused on social-emotional learning for several years, thanks to a grant it received along with five other Denver elementary schools. Trevista uses a curriculum called Second Step, which includes the preschool feelings lessons and the fifth-grade unit on the amygdala, as well as a program called Conscious Discipline. The program provides teachers with hands-on resources, such as a set of “feeling buddies” dolls — angry, sad, frustrated, happy — that young students can use to process their emotions.

Principal Jessica Mullins was a teacher at Trevista before becoming the school leader. She said the two programs have made a remarkable difference at the school, which is located a few blocks from the city’s largest public housing site, the Quigg-Newton Homes. Even before the pandemic, many students at Trevista experienced the stresses of poverty, marginalization, and institutional racism that can sometimes manifest as challenging behavior at school.

“Before the grant, we were working from a place of compliance, and now we work from a place of student ownership and choice,” said Mullins, who has been at the school nine years. “You can see how the teachers quietly check in with students. Every student gets a greeting, and redirections come with kindness and love and are approached in a way that honors and values kids.”

In the fifth-grade classroom shared by Kalchbrenner and co-teacher Alison Yocum, students can choose to sit on the rug, at a desk, or stand nearby during their social-emotional lesson — whatever makes them feel most comfortable. When a boy answers Kalchbrenner’s question in a quiet voice, muffled even more by his face mask, Kalchbrenner leans in so she can hear him, rather than telling him to speak up, and then repeats what he said for his classmates.

One day this week, the fifth graders practiced reacting calmly to stress. The teachers gave them four scenarios — including not getting invited to a party and getting stuck on a math problem — and asked for volunteers to act out a calm response and a not-so-calm response.

A girl named Aryacelli gave it her all.

“This math problem is too hard! How am I supposed to know?” she said. “It’s so dumb. I give up!”

Aryacelli took a deep breath. “Maybe I should skip it and come back to it later.”

Her teacher beamed. “Oh, a solution with that positive self-talk!” Kalchbrenner said. 

Students said the lessons are helpful, especially the advice to stop, breathe, and name their feelings when they’re upset. Counting to 10 works well too, they said.

“When we first learned it, we tried it and it worked,” said Selemani Kheri, 10.

“I think the lessons are very helpful because you can use them in case you’re mad or when you’re upset about something,” said Mary Martinez, 11.

Despite all of the pandemic stress, Mullins said, Trevista is seeing fewer student behavior crises than it did before COVID-19. In the spring of 2019, before the pandemic, the school averaged 40 to 45 weekly radio calls for support, meaning that the school counselor, social worker, or another administrator responded to a classroom to help with a student’s behavior. 

This fall, the school is averaging 20 to 25 weekly calls, Mullins said. 

A preschool-aged boy leans against a paraprofessional while laying on the floor, each wearing masks, while the paraprofessional rests her hand on the boy’s back.

Zaiden Garcia-Shippley, 3, leans up against paraprofessional Araceli Martinez during the lesson on feelings.

Rachel Woolf for Chalkbeat

That success is not due entirely to social-emotional learning. The school also provided extra support in the beginning of the year to two classrooms that had larger class sizes than normal, high numbers of students with behavior needs or struggling with reading, and teachers who were new to Trevista. One of those classrooms was a first-grade classroom where many students had spent their entire kindergarten year virtual, as well.

A teacher coach, an administrator, or a school mental health worker spent nearly the entire day in those classrooms supporting the teacher for the first six weeks, Mullins said. 

“Teacher burnout can come hard and fast when there are disruptive behaviors and students are below grade level,” she said. “This system allowed them the support they would need to thrive.”

But social-emotional learning has played a big part, too.

“The pandemic has even more so enlightened our staff members on having compassion and empathy and coming from that place of love first,” Mullins said. “That was there, and it’s even more so now.”