(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
In more than 20 years working with some of the most at-risk students in New Mexico, Leslie Kelly always looked for ways to meet kids wherever their heads might be on any given day.
One day, that included an arm-wrestling competition with her middle school class.
“Some of the boys were bigger than me,” Kelly said. “They really struggled, they’re sixth graders reading at a first- and second-grade level. Just the life that they live in and what they came to school with every day. And once I started to find out stuff about my students I thought I just need to be happy that they show up every day.”
The arm-wrestling throwdown earned her a level of respect, and soon, attentiveness in her classroom, she said.
“Even the ones I didn’t beat said things like, ‘Oh, Miss Kelly, she’s wicked strong.’ And so whenever there was a fight, they came and got me,” she said. They saw her as more than just their teacher. “I arm-wrestled with them, we laughed about it, then it became something I did every year with my kids. So, that is relational, as weird as that sounds. For them that was relational.”
Now, as the coordinator for behavioral health with the New Mexico Public Education Department, she is at the forefront of a more gentle teaching approach—one she says is vital to a student’s overall wellbeing but could also benefit them as adults. And it’s not just for the kids. Parents and teachers are expected to participate too.
“Social-emotional learning is really a way of doing business every day in your building,” she said. “It’s creating a climate that’s all about building relationships.”
It’s not necessarily an intervention or a program, but there are supportive elements, like evidence-based curriculum for all students and professional development for staff.
Kelly said she’s trying to help people understand how to integrate this into their everyday work.
PED describes social-emotional learning (SEL) as, “the process through which young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitude to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals.”
Its prominence in New Mexico took center stage when PED announced a new portal accessible to all school community members, including parents, which offers videos and activities to teaching and social-emotional learning models. Registration to access the portal is required and is open now for the public. Students, parents and school staff will receive specific curriculum based on their needs. People can register here.
“We all, families and educators, have a responsibility to help kids master those skills. This portal is a great place to find the resources needed to start,” Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus said in a statement.
New Mexico contacted the company 7Mindsets to create the portal. The foundations of their program are:
- Everything is possible.
- Passion first.
- Attitude of gratitude.
- We are connected.
- 100% accountable.
- Live to give.
- The time is now.
The need for social-emotional learning was always there, and like many things, the pandemic accelerated the desire to actually fund and implement these models in schools, Kelly said. She was appointed in 2019 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to create PED’s behavioral health coordinator position, and many of her duties are new to the department — like the social-emotional learning portal.
The portal does have Spanish-language instruction, and Kelly said she is in conversations with Native American school districts to help them create models specific to their community and cultural needs. She specifically wants to pursue consultation that gives tribal school districts the means to develop this with their community models.
“I feel like it is diverse enough and the concepts are universal enough that if somebody wanted to make a connection to the values that tribe has, it’d be very easy.”
Kelly also has experience working with Laguna Pueblo and noticed many of the community traditional models could be translated to social-emotional learning.
“Like how to be a part of this community and that everybody in the community matters from elders to babies, and how do you show and possess the values of this community,” she said. “It was really powerful, and I think a lot of Native communities already have that built in.”
The effects of remote learning are starting to come into the forefront. Kelly said there’s more disruption by students, more fights in school hallways and more need to create spaces where students can and should learn how to cope in healthy ways.
That's what I'm hearing from educators right now. It's bad.
– Leslie Kelly
“Really, the kids don’t want to be there. This disruption has been so difficult to acclimate. The little kids are saying, ‘I just want to go back home and I can take a nap or whatever, watch TV.’ ”
Last year, as many students were forced to remain home, some school districts created their own form of the portal. Cuba Independent School District in northwest New Mexico noticed the need for this kind of learning and created Cuba’s own website accessible for students, parents and staff.
“Of course, academics is a key component. because that’s our main purpose,” CISD Superintendent Dr. Karen Sanchez-Griego said. “But if they’re not healthy, they can’t think,”
CISD is a rural district that was unable to connect all of its students to the Internet last year. More than 71 percent of its students are Native American. Although the district population has just over 500 students enrolled, the square mileage of the area it covers is the size of Rhode Island. So the need was to not only keep connected with students Sanchez-Griego said, but also ensure their emotional and physical wellbeing was taken care of, Sanchez-Griego said.
It was an illuminating process. One of her sixth-grade students was a handful, she said, and he was in trouble sometimes for running drugs for his uncle. Both parents weren’t in the picture. He was a challenging student to have in the classroom, she said. But through the new connections made during the pandemic, she learned more about him.
“He was in charge of three younger siblings every day. He was 12, and he was a mess, but he got everybody up every day into school,” Sanchez-Griego said. “He never missed a day of school, you know, much to my dismay, because he was hard.”
Once she found out what was going on for him — how much he was responsible for — her perspective changed. “I’m like, this kid needs to be at school every day,” she said. “This is his one safe place every day. And it shifted how I thought about him and shifted how I interacted with him.”
Students are back in school in Cuba, and the SEL lessons continue. Doing this kind of social and emotional work has helped her as an educator, she said.
“I tell people it’s a nightmare in some cases. But on the other hand, it’s like an opportunity,” she said. “I tell people we’re getting a Harvard education in terms of just being able to really look at the larger holistic picture of all our kids in our community.”
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