Come Home to the TSC: One Corporations’ Journey in Social and Emotional Learning

 In Administrator Resources, Advocacy, Climate, Districts, Leadership Development

By Dr. BeAnn Younker, Mrs. Megan Ulrich, Mrs. Anne Marshall and the TSC Brain Brigade SEL Leadership Team

Some of the best frameworks in a school district come from moments that are unexpected. The unplanned conversations or work that turns into a comprehensive plan that changes the culture of your corporation.  This is what happened in our school district, the Tippecanoe School Corporation. The TSC Social and Emotional Journey began in 2017 after the district actively began working on an SEL framework to address social and emotional needs within our broader community.  This came on the heels of being denied the Lilly Grant, intended for funding comprehensive school counseling programs.  The blessing in this disappointment came in the opportunity to step back and take a long, close look at a framework that would be specific to our needs as a school community, evidence-based and sustainable.  A comprehensive needs assessment was developed to inform our action plan and was distributed to school-community stakeholders. A town hall meeting took place to more deeply understand and assess the social emotional needs of the TSC.  The conversation continued (as it actively does today) as we saw an urgent need for addressing social and emotional needs to effectively educate the whole child and support our adults.

Where does a school corporation start? We had to take a look at what our stakeholders were telling us. Based upon the items identified in the comprehensive needs assessment, TSC funded an inaugural behavior instructional coach position (Neuro Educator).  The goal of a Neuro Educator (a.k.a. TSC’s Brain Teacher) is to apply focused preventative applied educational neuroscience strategies to the classroom setting. A Neuro Educator delivers professional development to all stakeholders as a TIER ONE framework connected to the 4 pillars of applied educational neuroscience: educator brain state, attachment, regulation, and teaching neuroanatomy.  A Neuro Educator aligns to social-emotional learning as it relates to coaching TSC parents, students, and teachers on building a regulated community of care. 

Why did our district decide this was the start or foundation of our SEL work? We were fortunate to have Dr. Lori Desautels, an expert in the field of Applied Education Neuroscience, and Butler professor, speak to our staff in a welcome back to school program. Quite frankly, that moment changed our lives, and we did not even know it at the time. We started to discuss how we could make the most long lasting impact on adults and students in our district.  Who could argue with brain science?  If we adopted a lens of science as a TIER ONE preventative initiative for all stakeholders, could we build a foundation for Social and Emotional Learning in our district?  Year One included working with corporations that have gone before us in this work.  We also recognized the need to give our Neuro Educator time to engage in professional development in order to be ready to roll out, train and share the Applied Educational Neuroscience Framework.  In October of our first year, we rolled out the AEN framework to our schools by way of the structure of our professional development time, daily, or weekly, led by our Brain Teacher.

We certainly were “building the airplane as we flew it” as we worked through year one.  In this first year we offered each of our nineteen schools time with our Neuro Educator and specific professional development based on individual building needs.  In the end, our schools were actively engaging in the framework and wanted more–more time, more strategies, more professional development! We evaluated how to share the AEN framework.  Our survey after year one provided data that 97% of the staff and students who received professional development of our AEN framework began  utilizing tools and strategies immediately. We knew our one human in the Brain Teacher role was making a significant difference with our staff and students.

We also needed Year One to recognize the PBIS programming and frameworks that many schools utilized.  What we did not want educators to say was that the AEN framework was just one more thing to do or one more program to implement.  This is a framework about people, not programs. As we explained to our stakeholders, there is a place for this framework in any model of PBIS you utilize.  AEN is brain aligned, TIER ONE supports and strategies for all. PBIS is the model for behavior while AEN offers the tools and strategies that create brain-aligned and adversity-responsive classrooms. What began to grow as a common bond for our corporation is that our Applied Educational Neuroscience framework was one that provided immediate results for staff and students because the lens is science and science alone.

As we rolled out this TIER ONE framework, the importance of branding became paramount to our journey as well.  We needed our stakeholders to be able to visibly recognize the work of our Neuro Educator by seeing a visual prompt.  Because our TIER ONE was brain science, we needed to create a brain logo.

It was very important that our process started grassroots and worked its way up the district organizational structures. The next logical step was to create a stakeholder leadership team from all grade levels in order to continue our social and emotional learning work.  The TSC Brain Brigade was created as our corporation’s Social and Emotional Learning Leadership Team. This group was tasked by our leader, Dr. Scott Hanback, to move our social and emotional journey forward for the Tippecanoe School Corporation. One of the first efforts was writing the North Central Health Initiative Grant to support  future SEL work. 

This leadership team started to examine the important work of looking at our existing frameworks, partnerships and see where AEN  aligned or partnered. We had a very successful health initiative taking place in TSC called INtegrate.  We saw an obvious place for our TIER ONE in SEL to match and align with our wellness initiative.  Staff wellness is one of our 4 AEN pillars and a major emphasis in our SEL journey. “Dysregulated adults can not regulate dysregulated students.” For our Welcome Back Meeting in year two, our superintendent, Dr. Hanback adopted the theme “TSC State of Mind” focusing on mindfulness, brain science, and wellness for staff.  During the kickoff, our SEL journey was described as detailed in this article.  Staff were reminded that taking care of themselves is the first and most  important step in order to best serve our students. Staff were given glasses to fill with water and encouraged to adopt a mindfulness commitment. Leadership in changing a culture begins bottom up and top down.  Our superintendent and assistant superintendents were key in promoting and understanding the need for our AEN framework as part of our social and emotional journey.

In the summer of 2019, TSC was notified that we were recipients of a $1.1 million grant from the North Central Health Services (NCHS)/Resilient Youth Initiative.  This grant provided us with additional tools to support our AEN framework. It gave us the opportunity to research and roll-out a like-minded framework, nestling beside our TIER ONE initiative of Applied Educational Neuroscience in supporting and educating our stakeholders. We had the opportunity to obtain and implement the Conscious Discipline framework district-wide, and Real Prevention lessons (secondary) as well as hiring a district-level NCHS Grant Coordinator/Mental Health Liaison.  The goal of the Mental Health Liaison/NCHS Grant Coordinator is to provide Mental Health resources, information and accessibility support to the TSC students, families, staff and community.  Accessibility grows through community collaboration and partnerships, professional development for staff, consultation with staff, and consultation with families as needed to connect to services. In year two, we were ready to position our social and emotional journey beside our academic journey. We created a TSC Social and Emotional webpage to house our resources provided by our Neuro Educator, along with our Mental Health Liaison. If you think of our Social and Emotional Learning foundation as a three legged stool, one leg is our AEN framework, another leg of the stool is our Mental Health supports, and our third leg of our stool is community and family partnerships.

As we embark on the 2020-2021 school year, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to provide professional development, resources and supports in the form of: the 4 Pillars of Applied Educational Neuroscience, Conscious Discipline, the addition of Conscious Discipline Building Champions in each TSC School Building, the Conscious Discipline Book Study, ACES Training, Mental Health/Intensive Supports for our students and staff needing services beyond foundational level supports, Resiliency Team Trainings for individual school buildings, the TSC SEL Re-Entry Plan to support Staff and Stakeholders and the first TSC SEL Orientation Day Training. 

Our theme for year three of our social and emotional journey is “Come Home to the TSC.” We wanted to share that TSC is a community cultivating healthy, safe, and caring support for staff, students, and families. Our TSC Brain Brigade worked on an SEL-Re entry plan that gave our stakeholders access to tools and strategies as we came back to school in the fall. Our goal is for all stakeholders to be “home” or regulated.  In year three we want to reach deep and wide in our TIER ONE supports and grow our Tier 2 and Tier 3 Mental Health supports.  We believe we are still in the beginning phase of this journey, and yet the enthusiasm, capacity and sustainability within our corporation continues to grow exponentially! We are purposeful and intentional in our training, research, and listening to the voices of all stakeholders.  Our airplane of social and emotional learning is far from built, and will never completely land.  It will continue to be a growth process, and one that we will return home to for years and years to come.

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