By Corinne Saunders | Outer Banks Voice on January 14, 2023
The “umbrella term” of social and emotional learning (SEL) runs the gamut from teaching children to take turns on a swing to teaching adolescents about body odor to assisting a child in crisis, the Dare County Schools’ director of exceptional children’s services told a gathering on Jan. 13.
Dr. Reida Roberts, who came to Dare County in 2019 from Bladen County Schools in southeastern North Carolina, spoke at the “Lunch and Learn” event hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Dare County. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
In the polarizing battle over school curricula that has developed in recent years, SEL has become a target for some parents and politicians who assert they want more control over that curricula.
Roberts alluded to that dynamic by noting that “Prior to COVID and all of the politicized energy that’s been put out there, social and emotional learning is just a blanket term that meant anything you do that’s non-academic to help kids in their emotional well-being.”
Roberts told about two dozen attendees at 3 Tequilas Mexican Restaurant that she gave nearly the same presentation publicly at the Dare County Schools Board of Education meeting on June 8, 2021. Every school district in the state had to submit its “mental health plan” that had been approved by its respective school board by July 2021 to the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Roberts said the Dare County Board of Education considered and voted on its plan at the same meeting as her presentation.
Roberts explained how the school system uses a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) to address the needs of “the whole child,” from their attendance to their academics to their behavior, “before they reach a crisis level.”
Every student is considered Tier 1 and receives some wellness instruction at the elementary school level. Tier 2 students may need a daily check-in by the guidance counselor. Tier 3 students may need a referral to special education or outside mental health support.
“Our elementary schools are really good about having wellness lessons,” Roberts said. “They have a calendar of wellness lessons that they wrote themselves based on what they think the kids need: How to play nicely on the playground; how to take a breath when you’re feeling angry—those types of things.”
Guidance counselors pull resources and teach whole classes on a rotating schedule, which could be weekly or every other week, Roberts said, noting this instruction is “probably more basic than what people imagine.”
After elementary school, she said students don’t receive regular wellness lessons except as part of health and physical education in high school.
Roberts said that to address higher-level social and emotional student needs, the school system relies on help from outside agencies. After getting parents’ permission, students can be referred out, with some agencies coming to campus to provide services during the school day.
“We’re not designed to be a high-level mental health provider, and so we rely on the experts for that,” she said. “We have a number of memorandums of understanding with outside agencies.”
These agencies include PORT Health Services; Integrated Family Services; Pathways to Life, Inc.; Getting Ready, Inc. (day treatment); and the Dare County Collaborative on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, of which the school system is a part.
The day treatment program—a dedicated space in First Flight High School last year where students could get higher-level help from a psychologist—was free to the school system, as it was funded by Trillium, Roberts said. The space still exists, but the psychologist position remains unfilled at present.
Similarly, the school system secured funding for five school psychologists, but has only been able to hire three to date. Roberts noted that a school psychologist staffing shortage extends to the state and national level.
During her presentation, Roberts took questions from attendees, including one from LWV Vice President Ginger Walters who asked, “Why is what you’ve spoken about today a political issue?”
“During COVID, our country just became more polarized than ever,” and “I think some of that energy has carried over,” she responded. She added that some packaged SEL curriculums “have equity strands,” that address social justice and racial equity, which some people view as politicized curriculum. She stated that Dare County never adopted any packaged SEL curriculum, adding that, “To me the equity strand is more of a curriculum need. That’s another department. It’s an important conversation, but one I haven’t felt the need to weigh in on in my work.”
LWV President Laura Singletary said the topic for this event came out of a summer brainstorming session where their members discussed what may be of interest. While most of the organization’s work centers on voter registration efforts, standing committees generally organize one learning event per committee topic each year, including their education committee.
“The whole point of this is to help us understand, [and] help us learn what these policies are in the schools,” Singletary said.