The Clayton School District’s social-emotional learning (SEL) model has proven to be an asset in the district. A proposal moving forward in the Legislature could see more schools in New Jersey using the strategy as part of a pilot program. 

SEL fosters self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for all aspects of life. It can include teaching children about peer and family relationships, conflict resolution, self-empowerment, and mindfulness. At the Herma Simmons Elementary School, the SEL program for pre-K to fifth graders includes individual and group counseling, as well as classroom workshops on relevant topics. 

The goal of the program is to work with children before they become at-risk, said Lisa Twomey, a special projects manager for the district. Most programs in other districts focus on the special education population, but children of all abilities and backgrounds can benefit from social-emotional development. As such, Clayton’s program is open to all students.  

“It’s really a proactive approach to SEL,” she noted.  

Creating the Clayton Model  In 2008, the district used federal grant funding to create The Child Connection Center. It administers the SEL program. 

The project is currently funded by the CARES Act through the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE), but that will expire soon. Twomey hopes to secure future financial support from the state via two bills that would extend funding for The Child Connection Center.  

The measures, Assembly Bill 4264 and its identical counterpart in the Senate, S-2486, were introduced in June 2020. The Senate has already approved the proposal. The Assembly Education Committee approved the bill on Jan. 25 and referred it to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.  

The bills would create a five-year pilot program in the NJDOE to expand the Clayton Model to 10 public schools in three counties. The New Jersey Commissioner of Education will select either Morris or Sussex County to represent the northern area of the state and either Middlesex or Ocean County to represent the central area of the state.  

If passed, Clayton would serve as a model site to guide other districts in implementing the program. Clayton will design and conduct training for county-level SEL coordinators. 

The Senator Walter Rand Institute at Rutgers University-Camden, which previously evaluated the model, would create a pilot program assessment including a cost–benefit analysis. Pending successful rollout, the Clayton Model could be expanded to more schools in the Garden State. 

In addition to being implemented at Herma Simmons Elementary School, the Clayton Model is already used at the following schools in Gloucester County: Central Early Childhood Center in the Deptford School District, Aura Elementary School in the Elk Township School District, Billingsport Early Childhood Center in the Paulsboro School District, and at Parkview Elementary School in the Westville School District. Cold Springs Elementary School in Gloucester City, Camden County also adopted the model. 

Why It Works Nikolaos Koutsogiannis, Clayton superintendent, praised the program because it follows an established protocol, yet is flexible and can be integrated into other school systems.  

Teachers and families can recommend a child for any of the services, which are provided by licensed clinical social workers including clinical and behavioral counselors through the Gloucester County Special Services School District. 

Koutsogiannis doesn’t hesitate to remind his staff that children come to school with non-academic issues — family, behavioral or emotional problems — that can impact how they perform in class. If they don’t address those issues, the child may not realize his or her potential. 

Because of the positive results, the teachers utilize the program for themselves and the students. They’ve really embraced turning to The Child Connection Center for support, Koustsogiannis said. 

“Everyone’s bought into it,” he added. “We’re invested in it now.”