Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Ferndale Schools, like our communities, are diverse. When we interview alumni, the most frequently cited aspect of their education that helped them succeed is the range of human experiences and perspectives among their peers. Our students are multicultural and multilingual, coming from diverse social and economic backgrounds. This is increasingly representative of the real world. Serving this diverse student body means adapting our educational model to a spectrum of students with different ways of engaging in learning, different levels of academic performance, and different motivations for behaving positively. One of the most useful tools we have developed for overcoming these challenges is our Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) framework. SEL provides a foundation for safe and positive learning, and enhances every student’s ability to succeed in school, in a career, and in life.

SEL is rooted in our ‘whole child’ philosophy. What does it mean to educate the whole child? It starts with recognizing that learning is about more than reading, writing, and arith-metic. Ferndale Schools teachers and administrators are dedicated to educating and nurturing the entire child so each student grows into a purposeful, lifelong learner. Our talented educators have developed a guiding framework that is integrated into the classroom every day. This framework teaches social and emotional development skills and the benefits are clear: academic achievement increases, students feel more confident, and teachers have more time to teach. 

Our K-5 Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) framework teaches children to acknowledge, understand, and regulate their emotions so that they know how to respond to life’s daily ups and downs. Each student learns that every brain has both an ‘emotional’ and a ‘thinking’ response to challenges and problems. They learn how their emotions trigger their brain to work before they are in control. Then, they are taught skills to manage these emotions, including how to set achievable goals and how to show empathy for themselves and others. This helps them to build supportive relationships and make responsible decisions. And the curriculum is spiraling, meaning that the different aspects are reinforced through circular repetition. As each student begins to better understand and integrate the principles and procedures, they are presented with new opportunities to use those skills and to teach their classmates how to use them as well. K-5 teachers at our upper and lower elementary schools use the SEL framework to guide their classroom through techniques and activities that strengthen student relationships and behavior. The result is a stronger sense of community and a place where all children can and want to learn. 

Socialization and relationship building continue to be key areas of children’s lives as they transition into adolescence. At the secondary level, we have designed a curriculum to support this stage of development, including Impact Hour. Impact Hour is a daily class in which students learn ‘soft skills.’ Soft skills are those desirable qualities that apply across a variety of jobs and life situations—traits such as integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, professionalism, flexibility, and teamwork. In order to support college or career readiness, our students strengthen these skills while learning to manage time better and meet deadlines. They also are encouraged to develop strategies to deal with setbacks and build on their ability to get along with each other. Students develop soft skills and begin to understand their importance through socialization, learning core values, attitudes, and actions with their teachers and peers. By adding this important curriculum element for our secondary students, we are empowering them with essential practices needed for success after graduation. 

Ferndale Schools has been at the forefront of the movement toward SEL for years and has been recognized by both the State of Michigan and national organizations for its SEL curriculum. The American Institute of Research has also visited Ferndale to learn about our approach as it supports districts throughout the country in their own efforts to match our success. Many of our neighboring school districts have also requested training from our staff in the Ferndale SEL curriculum. This interest is a testament to the incredible work done by our staff in their continued focus on educating the whole child. 

SEL Basics

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitutudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy towards others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. (Casel, 2017)

SEL is not a program or method, but rather coordinating framework embedded into schoolwide practices and policies. Understanding the impact that social emotional learning has on the adult, child and environment - it is a driver to provide a safe welcoming environment for everyone.

Our social and emotional learning plan focuses on five core competencies that support everyone to be able to navigate their daily life with both their heart and mind: 

  1. Self awareness
  2. self management
  3. social awareness
  4. relationship skills
  5. responsible decision making

As children go through Ferndale Schools they will continue to gain a clear understanding of the specific competencies that will support them now and in the future.

The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain, so the goal is to be able to recognize, understand and regulate that emotional response first so your thinking brain can engage and control your response.

“I’m so STUPID!!!” Anton cried in frustration, throwing the box of crayons across the room.

Upset by his outburst (but not surprised because it happened a lot), his friend and next door neighbor Sarah asked him, “What are you trying to draw, Anton? Can I help?”

“No! You can’t help! I’ll never learn to draw a bird. NEVER! I just can’t draw! That’s it!”

Calmly, Sarah walked over to her Saturday playgroup bucket and brought it to the table. She began bringing out pieces of paper, one by one, laying them in a row facing Anton. Through his fingers, Anton peeked at what Sarah had brought over. “You kept all my stupid bird drawings? Are you trying to make me feel bad? Look at them! They’re so ugly! It’s like a 5 year old drew them instead of an 8 year old! Put them away!” Crossing his arms on the desk, he slammed his head down and started howling.

“Anton.” No response but the crying. “Anton!...ANTON! THESE AREN’T YOURS! THEY’RE MINE!”

There was silence for a few seconds, and then Anton raised his head, peering suspiciously at the drawings. “No way. These aren’t yours. You’ve ALWAYS been great at art time.”

“No, I haven’t, and yes, they ARE mine. See? This one is from our first day of playgroup this year. Here’s the next week, the next week, and here’s today’s. Look at the wings. That’s what I’ve been trying to make better since the beginning of the year. See how much better they are today?”

Anton studied the drawings, and then looked confusedly up at Sarah. “You only worked on the wings? But the whole drawing is better.”

“Well, thanks, but I think the wings just make the whole bird look better. I just picked that one thing to work on every week, and every week I got a little better.”

“But the first week’s picture is horrible. Sorry, that wasn’t very nice. What I mean is, this week’s wing is so much better. How did you do that?”

“I dunno. I just tried to do it a little different every week until something worked.  You can always get better at things.”

“Well, maybe YOU can. I can’t. I just can’t draw.”

“You’re right.”

Anton snapped his head up, shocked at this statement from his usually kind friend.

“You can’t, if you think you can’t. If you think you can, you’ll get better. That’s what I did. I really thought that I could draw a better bird. So I did.”

Thoughtfully, Anton looked at his bird drawing. He glanced over at Sarah’s drawings, and then back at his own. Quietly, he stood up, retrieved his thrown crayon box, and came back to the table. “What do you think I should work on?”

“I think you could start with the head. See here? It looks like the beak might be in the wrong place, and that makes the whole head look weird.”

Anton stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth, a signal that he was concentrating hard. He put his crayon to the paper and began to draw.

Sarah watched him quietly, and then looked at her and Anton’s moms sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the conversation. Anton’s mom looked shocked, but Sarah’s mom was giving Sarah a proud, but knowing, smile.

“What. Just. Happened?” Anton’s mother asked.

“SEL just happened,” Sarah’s mother responded.


“Sarah’s grade at Ferndale Upper Elementary is on Growth Mindset in their Social-Emotional Learning curriculum this week. Since she’s in 3rd grade, she’s learned about it every year, though, so this year is really just a review and working on some more advanced habits of mind.”

“What’s Growth Mindset?”

“How about if I let Sarah tell you? Hey, Sarah - could you come here for a minute?”

Module One - Creating A School Family

Module Two - Brain States

Module Three - Growth Mindset

Module Four - Executive Functioning

Module Five - Mindfulness

Module Six - Character & Values

After Sarah returned to drawing, her mom admitted, “I have to say, I was skeptical when I first heard about SEL. I thought it was fluff to take up the day. But when Sarah’s thought processes started changing in first grade, I began to realize that the SEL curriculum was making some positive changes. Sarah used to get as frustrated as Anton does when she couldn’t do something.”

“No way. Not the Sarah I know!” Anton’s mother said incredulously.

“Oh, yes. Before you guys moved in next door, she melted down almost every day at school. She would give up and throw herself around, and she thought she was bad at everything. Now, she realizes that she can get better at things if she keeps trying. That’s Growth Mindset.”

“Anton doesn’t believe that about himself. How do I teach him?”

“I just build at home upon the things that her teachers do in the classroom. You’ll have to ask them what they do specifically.”

“But we don’t go to Ferndale Schools. And I don’t think there’s anything like that at our elementary school.”

Sarah’s mom looked at Anton’s. “It’s not too late, you know. He could always transfer.”


What is Taught

From Module 1

Teachers teach children skills and techniques for maintaining/restoring composure, identifying emotions, keeping a positive mindset, and performing rituals, and being assertive.

From Module 2

Students will learn how their emotions actually change the way their brain works in the moment. They will learn to restore executive function through safety and connection.

From Module 3

By developing a growth mindset, students learn not to be discouraged by struggle or feel powerless. Instead, they will recognize it as a chance to grow their intelligence and expand their skill set.

From Module 4

Students will will practice organization, planning and impulse control, and develop working memory and flexible thinking.

From Module 5

Learning Mindfulness skills empower students to bringing one's attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. This “presence” leads to less reactivity, less stress, less anxiety throughout life.

From Module 6

Students are encouraged to develop their individuality guided by their own character and values of kindness, empathy and respect.

How It Is Taught

SEL is embedded into the daily structure in many different ways. At the K-5 level, students participate in a daily 'Morning Meeting' where students learn specific skills through teacher read alouds, videos, music and other sensory based activities. At the secondary level, Grades 6 - 12 students participate in a daily class titled Impact Hour at FMS/FHS and College Prep Course at UHS. During this designated class, students learn and have open dialogue about specific soft skills. Impact Hour is also a mentoring type classroom where students have the same Impact Hour teacher throughout the years so they have a mentor who can continue to check in and support each student.

In addition to the specific daily structures, it's important to note that SEL is embedded into the culture, climate and structures in each school. From the daily announcements to district character quotes shared, a wide range of  specific activities are integrated to support student success.