Jared Braun, a fifth grade teacher at Spring Branch ISD, has noticed a measurable shift in the mental wellness of his students in recent years.
“Leading into the pandemic, our kids had the best mental health that they had had,” Braun said. “Coming out of the pandemic, things have changed quite a bit.”
He sees a lot more students that are apprehensive to take risks, like speaking up in class or trying to make friends.
“On the severe end, I definitely see larger outbursts — throwing things, pushing, shoving which wasn’t normal for our school,” Braun said.
He believes isolation from the pandemic set his students back in terms of social skills. His students also went a year or more without social emotional learning.
Spring Branch ISD has taught these lessons for many years, before elements of SEL education became required by state law. Last legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 123, which requires schools to teach self-management skills, interpersonal skills and responsible decision-making. The bill added to character traits like courage, trustworthiness and integrity that were already part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).
Last April, the State Board of Education integrated these new skills into the TEKS and this 2022-23 school year is the first that all schools need to teach some version of it.
With the push to address child mental health, some advocates say that increasing the number of on-campus counselors, social workers and psychologists is not enough.
“It’s going to take a two-headed approach,” said Jeff Temple, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “We need to prevent the mild cases from becoming severe and the low cases from becoming mild.”
Preventative efforts like social emotional learning is part of that approach.
“Everyone should be on the same page with social emotional learning and competence,” Temple said. “What that means is being able to solve problems, able to manage their emotions, able to not solve conflict with violence. To realize that conflict is a normal part of relationships, but that it’s how you resolve that conflict that’s important.”
Hundreds of school districts in Texas are now forging their own path to fulfilling these SEL state requirements.
Spring Branch ISD, for example, uses a program called Character Strong, a grade-level specific framework used in classrooms nationwide.
These are daily lessons in Jared Braun’s fifth grade classroom.
“We come up, and we sit in a big circle,” Braun said. “The first thing that we do is we do an emotional check-in. Something like 1-5, how are you feeling? Five being the best day of your life, one being the worst day of your life.”
Students sometimes fill out cards taking note of acts of kindness in the classroom and discussing their value.