The Heart of Engaging

Social Emotional Learning


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” In line with this philosophy, the schools that genuinely inspire us nurture children’s self-awareness and ability to interact constructively within a community.

The schools that inspire us integrate social-emotional learning into daily routines, fostering environments where children can thrive. Students start their day with options for morning greetings, engage in shared acknowledgments of effort, and regularly express gratitude. Such activities are more than rituals; they are crucial building blocks for developing essential social-emotional skills like recognizing and managing emotions.

Ana Trevino-Godfrey of Prelude Music, who partners with Farias Early Childhood Center, highlights the importance of these practices: “To be in a prime state for learning, children must feel respected and seen.” Her collaboration brings music and movement into the classroom, enhancing learning by making it dynamic, inclusive, and emotionally supportive.

Through intentional practices and collaborative efforts, these inspiring programs aim to educate and develop well-rounded individuals equipped to face the world’s challenges with intelligence and character.

What Makes For An Inspiring Social Emotional Learning Program?

 The four pillars below outline the components of schools dedicated to fostering well-being through Social Emotional Learning.

The first emphasizes that adults need to care for their own emotional and physical wellness to effectively support the children and families they serve, encapsulated in the phrase: “If the adults are well, the children are well.” The second pillar, “We All Have a Place, and a Voice, Here,” reflects the inclusiveness and commitment of learning communities. The third, “Skillbuilding Tools and Resources,” provides practical methods for implementing well-being principles. Finally, “I Got My Person” highlights the crucial attachment relationships that form the foundation for emotional security and enable trust-building and learning.

If The Adults Are Well, The Children Will Be Well

Impact Leadership Academy Principal Kegler says, “If the top is not panicked, the rest of us won’t be.

As the airplane service announcement reminds us, adults must take care of their own masks before they can others- a mindset encapsulated by our 2024 Schools That Inspire.

Data from 2023 indicates some improvement in teacher satisfaction from historic lows, yet much effort remains to ensure that the adults we entrust with our future citizens thrive in their roles. The effectiveness of any educational organization leans heavily on its teachers, who transfer knowledge, cultivate culture, and engage with families. Teachers’ job satisfaction plays a critical role, and research confirms that teachers who feel cared for and possess ownership and agency in their work tend to achieve better student outcomes.

Nurturing Impact Through Emotional Resilience

At Impact Leadership Academy, Principal Kegler emphasizes, “If the top remains calm, the rest of us will too.” Preparing adults to maintain composure involves providing numerous opportunities for connection and mutual emotional learning. For instance, the art teacher hosts staff paint nights, while teachers participate in school-wide book studies that foster best practices and enhance community bonds. Moreover, replacing traditional faculty meetings, staff assemble for “Solution Session Wednesdays” to focus their energy on problem-solving.

Cultivating Calm and Community Through Music and Joy

Through a partnership with Ana Trevino-Godfrey at Prelude, The Farias Early Childhood Center utilizes the joy of music to help teachers center themselves and their classroom.

Each year kicks off with a new song composed by Principal Solis, sometimes to tunes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, encapsulating the mission “to develop children who are caring, creative, collaborative, confident, and capable critical thinkers.

Beyond Ukuleles and music together,  team-themed swag, notes of affirmation and signs of gratitude adorn the walls and doors across the school.

At the heart of it all, the school puts its families first with  a coffee corner for visiting parents, complete with toys to entertain their children, and a quiet workspace equipped with a computer for parents to access online school enrollment and other resources.

The Ripple Effects of Continuous Learning

You can’t give what you don’t have.” This maxim captures the sentiment at YES Prep Airline Elementary, where the emphasis on continuous learning fuels a vibrant educational environment. When asked about her experience, one of the founding teaching assistants expresses her appreciation for the school’s commitment to professional growth: “We are always learning.” This ethos not only enhances the skills and knowledge of the staff but also enriches the learning experiences of the students. At YES Prep Airline Elementary, the belief that educators must evolve alongside their teaching practices ensures that they remain equipped to provide the best possible education, demonstrating the school’s dedication to excellence and innovation in teaching

We All Have A Place, And A Voice, Here

When we feel like we are a part of something that we love and that loves us back, we are able to grow and learn. 

A healthy sense of belonging underpins children’s trust and unity.

Our Schools that Inspire recognize the importance of celebrating children’s origins while ensuring their unique differences enhance a unified mosaic. This cohesion manifests through shared rituals, inside jokes, and a common language of learning.

Starting the Day with Creativity and Collaboration

The day at Impact Leadership Academy begins with community engagement: children roam freely, starting their morning in a gathering space where they choose from shared music, chess, and books. When the clock signals the start time, the class president stands to recite the student-developed creed. Visuals celebrating the student-chosen mascot, a goat—symbolizing the “Greatest Of All Time”—adorn the walls. In the art classroom, a student-led lesson on a material requested by students allows them to contribute to the community and expand their knowledge of art media. The art teacher emphasizes support and encouragement, stating, “I never want to discourage or say no, I want to nurture them, so I listen to them.” Staff also enjoy a say in decision-making and problem-solving, replacing traditional faculty meetings with “Solution Session Wednesdays.

Creating a Culture of Belonging and Learning Through Visuals and Play

At Farias Early Childhood Center, signs of belonging adorn the walls, including photos of children’s families, displays of “vision boards” for children’s future dreams, and “the language of learning” wall at the entrance. This feature displays essential vocabulary (in both English and Spanish) for the current month’s unit on insects. Outside during recess, a group of children take turns pulling each other in a wagon, while another group uses letter-sound flashcards, blending skill practice with play as they emulate teachers.

Exploring Identity and Community Through Interdisciplinary Learning

Kujawa Primary in Aldine ISD  opens with big questions for interdisciplinary exploration across the IB curriculum, engaging students in units like “Who We Are” and “Where We Are in Time and Place.”

These initial studies focus on student collaboration, promoting social and emotional learning while also building academic knowledge. This approach supports children’s sense of identity, enhances cultural awareness, and strengthens connections with the community.

Skill Building: Tools and Resources

“Give the boys a voice, if you take that, what do they have? Then give them the tools, a formula, to use that voice.” - Mr. Robinson, Impact Leadership Academy

Schools that prioritize well-being deliberately create environments where children can learn to support their social and emotional health. Acknowledging that self-care contributes to community care, our Schools that Inspire cultivate children’s experiences through both individual and group celebrations of emotional awareness, uniqueness, and interdependence.

Cultivating Emotional Literacy Through Creative Engagement

At YES Prep Airline, the foundation for emotional literacy is laid early with a dedicated virtue of the month that promotes positive social behaviors. This educational approach is reinforced with imaginative wall displays designed to engage and inspire students.

For example, one notable display encourages children to “Be Kind Gnome Matter What,” creatively using wordplay to underscore the importance of kindness. These elements not only enhance the school’s learning environment but also serve as daily reminders for students to practice and internalize these vital social skills.

Fostering Creativity and Mindfulness Through Literary Themes

Farias Early Childhood Center  has embraced the book Be You! as its annual theme, cultivating a school-wide atmosphere of self-expression and individuality. Teachers sport spirit shirts emblazoned with the book’s title, and each classroom greets students with a sign stating “I am…” followed by inspiring adjectives like “bold,” personalized by each teacher.

A compelling display near the library illustrates the school’s commitment to mindfulness and creativity. It explains, “After reading Hurry Up! by Kate Dopirak, we discussed strategies to calm and slow down. Students then created breath drawings as tools to relax.” These drawings, reminiscent of Joan Miro’s work, feature captions from students sharing their thoughts and feelings during the activity, like “I was swirling on the paper, and then I colored and breathed!” and “My breath drawing is a heart!

Enhancing Emotional Learning Through Strategic Play and Prosocial Messaging

At Impact Leadership Academy, children adopt “The Impact Way,” a unique approach to social emotional learning that incorporates chess as a foundational tool. This method encourages students to pause and contemplate their actions, fostering thoughtfulness and extending the time between stimulus and response. “Thank God it’s Monday!”—a phrase popularized by Eric Thomas—reflects the academy’s enthusiasm for starting each week with positivity. This approach includes prosocial messages that inspire confidence, kindness, and advocacy among students.

The academy’s environment itself promotes collaboration and community engagement, notably through a 10-foot canvas where multiple students work together, using art as a release tool for social emotional learning. As they paint, they listen to vinyl records of Miles Davis, encouraged to reflect on the emotions the music evokes.

Building Self-Management Skills Through Career Education

The initiative to develop students’ self-management skills extends into high school at C.E. King in Sheldon ISD, known for its strong focus on Career and Technical Education. A cosmetology student shares, “I’m learning self-regulation and time management.” This regular and integrated exposure to career-preparation experiences enhances students’ social and emotional toolkits and broadens their career opportunities after graduation.

I Got My Person

C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship begins when one person says to another, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one…

“I Got My Person” highlights the joy and connectedness that define our Schools that Inspire. These schools make belonging visible through school-wide visuals, showcasing culturally relevant representations, family photos, and community celebrations.

Cultivating Creative Problem-Solving and Engagement at Impact Academy

Adults at Impact Leadership Academy passionately engage with students, consistently using the prompt “How might we…?” to encourage children to think creatively about solving problems, establishing new norms, transforming ideas into art, and more. This focus on problem-solving carries over to “Solution Session Wednesdays,” which replace traditional faculty meetings, and extends to extracurriculars like the chess club, which boasts 70 active members. Additionally, “Fired Up Friday” small groups offer mentorship, collaboration, and fun, fostering an environment of support and engagement.

At YES Prep Airline Elementary School, teacher assistants and leads train together to lead small groups so that class time maximizes the smallest possible student-adult ratios for individual attention and personalized lessons. The pairing between teacher assistants and leads also loops when possible, deepening the relationship between teacher collaborators. Children are unabashed about their feelings of connection with their teachers, and during morning meeting one boy calls out, “I LOVE you, Ms. Toya!”

Farias Early Childhood Center welcomes a small army of parent volunteers to help with greeting children and opening car doors in the morning, assisting with breakfast, and offering regular tutoring in-class to help all children achieve their Houston ISD goals of letter and number recognition. One of the parent tutors shared with us, “The kids all know they will get time with someone special to them.” No wonder Farias’ children are able to warmly include peers with exceptional learning and physical needs, and have been achieving academic success as well as contributing to a community that feels incredibly warm, welcoming, and productive.

Community Organizations

MOVE: Strengthening Resilience through Physical and Emotional Wellness

MOVE champions a holistic approach to social and emotional learning, integrating physical fitness with counseling to equip students with the skills to understand and regulate their emotions. By focusing on the connection between physical and mental health, MOVE helps students from all backgrounds tackle unresolved stress, conflict, and trauma. These efforts enhance their overall well-being, prevent behavioral issues, and improve academic outcomes.

In addition to their work with students, the MOVE team extends its impact through comprehensive training to provide teachers and caregivers with the tools that help empathy, build positive relationships, and implement restorative practices. MOVE seeks to create communities where the students and caregivers are 

This year, we are honored to acknowledge the MOVE program for its pivotal role in creating inclusive educational environments. These environments are not just safe and welcoming but also brimming with potential, fostering a sense of belonging among all participants. 

MOVE Organization Logo

To nurture the future, we have to tend to the present. Caring for the children in our community, necessitates caring for the adults who shape them. If we really want to make changes within our communities, we have to provide social emotional learning across all the generations in the household. MOVE believes in collective growth of the students, staff, and the families we serve.”- Megan Wilburn, MOVE founder

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