One School District’s Approach to Providing an Equitable Multi-Level System of Support Model for Social-Emotional Learning

By Duane Woelfel and Caitlin Zozakiewicz (published in the January, 2020 issue of AC&E)

Historically, as educators, the bulk of our students came to our classrooms with varying academic needs. When it came to solving those academic puzzles there seemed to be a plethora of tools and resources available for us to utilize.  However, as society has changed, we are now seeing students coming to the schoolhouse doors with the added burdens of emotional needs and traumatic experiences that are reflective of student challenges and circumstances outside of school.

Our school district’s journey to try and find a way to address those social-emotional student challenges began five years ago.  As a mid-sized suburban school district, we were seeing a large increase in student mental health needs across the district as reported by staff.  In addition, we were experiencing more and more challenging behaviors at a younger and younger age, and our staff told us they felt ill-equipped to effectively manage those behaviors.  As we began to have some preliminary planning dialogue with our administrative team, we knew student mental health and academic success were connected.  If we wanted students to achieve at their very best, we needed to find a way to support their emotional needs as well.  Furthermore, we knew research has found that one in four students across the country will have a mental health issue sometime prior to their 18th birthday.  We had to find a way to make this work a priority.

To begin, we asked ourselves some critical questions

What are we currently doing in our buildings to address student mental health needs?

What else should we be doing to address mental health needs?

How do we distinguish between developmentally appropriate behaviors and behaviors that are symptomatic of mental health concerns?

How can we give staff the tools to help and support students with mental health challenges?

Supporting the work with foundational structures

First, we have a District Mental Health Steering Committee that is chaired by the Director of Special Services. The committee is comprised of the district’s school psychologists, a middle school counselor, a high school counselor, a social worker, a representative from County Social Services, a representative from County Family Services (a local non-profit agency that supports families in need), and the CEO of a local mental health agency that provides individual therapy to our students within the school setting.  This committee meets monthly and is charged with coordinating all of the mental health systems within the district, to ensure that no matter which of the five schools our students attend, they have equal access to the same type of supportive services.

In addition, we meet with our collaborative partners every other month.  This team is made up specifically of all of the therapists who provide individual therapy to our students within each of our five schools, the CEO or Executive Directors of those agencies, and the building principals, school psychologists, and school counselors for those buildings.  The purpose of these meetings is to make sure our systems are operating efficiently in terms of student referrals and monitoring the caseload for individual therapists.

Our district has made a very conscious decision to put a high quality, knowledgeable school psychologist in each of its five buildings.  Each school psychologist works in partnership with the building principal to coordinate the building’s three-tiered social-emotional work, which is described in more detail below.  In addition, the school psychologists meets weekly with the Director of Special Services during a designated time every Tuesday afternoon with a weekly dedicated theme.  The first Tuesday of each month is for social-emotional learning and mental health.  The second Tuesday of each week is reserved for Response to Intervention (RtI) and academic conversations.  The third Tuesday of each month is dedicated to Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and the fourth Tuesday of the month is to discuss and further coordinate special education services.  This system works very well for us to manage and prioritize our work, so that it is coordinated in an efficient manner.

We also did a series of trainings and professional development centered on giving staff members background knowledge, tools, and strategies to better support students with social, emotional, and behavioral needs within the classroom.

The Superintendent, Director of Special Services, and the Director of Curriculum co-taught an optional graduate class to nearly 100 faculty members that utilized the book, The Teacher’s Guide to Student Mental Health by William Dikel, MD.  The goal of the class was to provide an overview of the significance of mental health issues with students, examine various mental health conditions in youth, and learn strategies for working with students who have mental health conditions.

The district also committed to providing all staff members with “Youth Mental Health First Aid”.  This approach identifies common mental health challenges experienced by youth, distinguishes between typical development vs. signs of mental health needs and teaches a 5-step action plan for helping and supporting young people in crisis and non-crisis situations.

Finally, all staff members received comprehensive professional development in the area of understanding the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) when working with students in a manner that is consistent with being “trauma informed.”

Providing social-emotional learning (SEL) to all students

To ensure all of our students receive direct instruction in these skills, we utilize many different resources and supports at the “Universal” or Tier 1 level.  At this time, our services vary based on grade level; however, we are working to create a cohesive system of social emotional learning K-12.  At the district level, all schools participate in a character education initiative in which character traits are directly taught, reinforced, and recognized at a school-wide level.

All schools K-8 have been trained in Tier 1 Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and implement systems at the Tier 1 level.  For example, all K-8 students receive a weekly “Cool Tool” lesson taught by their classroom teacher.  These lessons are about five minutes long and are used to teach specific behavioral rules aligned with the school-wide expectations. All three elementary schools will be trained in Tier 2 PBIS and are working towards implementing both Tier 2 and 3 support school-wide.

Screening social-emotional skills

All students’ social-emotional skills are screened using the Devereaux Students Strengths Based Assessment (DESSA) Universal Screener.  This assessment is given twice a year and is comprised of eight online questions answered by the teacher (very non-intrusive for student).  If the rating of a student falls into the assessment’s “needs” category, the teacher completes the DESSA-Full with 72 items.  In addition, all schools conduct a Connections Survey to screen for students who feel disconnected from peers and adults.  The information from these screenings are used to determine which students may be in need of additional SEL intervention supports.

At the elementary level, each classroom receives a weekly 30-minute lesson based on one of the following topics: expected behaviors for students, empathy, emotional regulation, social problem-solving, bullying prevention, and personal safety. At the middle school, our district has partnered with a local non-profit agency, Ozaukee Family Services, to provide 6 weeks of lessons teaching appropriate relationships, social skills, and resiliency in both 5th and 7th Grades.  Mental health topics are covered in both middle and high school health courses.

Meeting students’ individual needs

When students require additional instruction and support, our district works to provide a continuum of services to meet each students’ unique needs.  At the Tier 2 level, Check-In Check-Out (CICO) is used both as a stand-alone intervention and a way to help students generalize skills learned in groups or counseling while monitoring their progress.  CICO provides increased specific positive feedback on behavioral goals and works to build stronger connections between students and staff.  The elementary and high schools have peer and adult mentoring programs that also work to increase a student’s connections within our school community.  The elementary schools provide small group social-emotional instruction in addition to the guidance curriculum that all students receive.  The purpose of these small groups is to provide further instruction in emotional regulation and social skills.

When students have more individualized needs, a team is formed to begin planning specifically for that student’s needs.  These teams include parents, classroom teacher, principal, and school psychologist.  In addition, interventionists, special education teachers, and community support personnel (e.g. social worker, counselor, etc.) are invited as needed.  This team collects information needed to create a comprehensive, individualized support plan for the student.  Interventions provided at this level include: functional behavior assessment (FBA) and behavior intervention plan (BIP), counseling, or referral to counseling or other community-based supports.  This team monitors the student’s progress and makes adjustments as needed, including adding other services or referring for a special education evaluation.

As others may wish to embark on this very important endeavor, we would like to offer a few thoughts and suggestions from lessons that we have learned:

  1.   This work is not something to be “added to the plate.” It is the plate.  As stated earlier, if students are not in a good place socially-emotionally, they will not be in a good place to learn academically.
  2.   Take the time to build a strong foundation (The Why?) for this work within the District and utilize common language to help with understanding the purpose behind implementation.
  3.   “Win-win” partnerships are crucial.  This is difficult and costly work to go it alone.  Work with all reputable agencies, be it county services, non-profits, and/or for-profits that have a collective vision to help and support students in a nurturing and caring manner.
  4.   Have interventions and support agencies in place before implementing a SEL screener, so that once students are identified as having a need for help and support, systems are in place to provide that service in a timely manner.
  5.   Hire strong staff that place an emphasis on building strong relationships with students.  None of this work is possible without having staff members who are empathetic and care about students at the deepest level.

The new reality is that students are coming to our classrooms with a number of stressors- family issues, trauma, and anxiety to name a few- which are affecting their ability to learn. It is important for schools to help staff develop the skills to handle these types of challenges. Schools can do this by creating or participating in robust, comprehensive community-wide programs that help to identify, address, and support student mental health and social emotional competence.  Through this process, our students are the real winners!

Duane Woelfel has over 29 years of experience in the field of education and is in his ninth year as the Director of Special Services for the Port-Washington-Saukville School District in Wisconsin.  He has a passion and personal mission for “providing a nurturing and caring learning environment, so that all students, regardless of circumstance, have equal access to opportunity so that they graduate ready for college or career, and life.”

Caitlin Zozakiewicz is a school psychologist working in a suburban school district in Wisconsin.  This is her eighth year practicing school psychology.  She has a special interest in working to implement equitable multi-level systems of support to meet each students’ unique needs.  She is proud to be a fourth generation public educator.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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