Finding a way to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into a school’s curriculum is no easy task. An effective program needs to target at-risk children across all educational levels and abilities. It has to engage students, teachers, parents, and staff members. On top of that, the district has to have funding to provide specialists. If all of that is done, schools must assess if the program really worked to create positive changes for students and their families.

The Clayton School District in Gloucester County, is a prime example of a school district that deployed SEL — and saw positive results. What makes Clayton’s program unique is that students are benefitting from it in the earliest elementary years, as young as pre-kindergarten. The results were so positive that the state Legislature approved using Clayton’s program as a pilot program in the state. As of April 22, the approved legislation was on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature.

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. SEL includes individual and group counseling, as well as classroom workshops on relevant topics.

“It really fills a gap for children in school,” added Nikolaos Koutsogiannis, the district’s superintendent.

Koutsogiannis said a good SEL program has to be able to adjust to the school’s needs and the communities as it grows. Over the years, it’s done just that. The program went so well that it may now serve as a model for other districts.

Creating the Clayton Model In 2008, the district launched its SEL program thanks to a federal grant. Clayton used the money to create The Child Connection Center, an SEL program at Herma Simmons Elementary School. The school serves children from pre-K to 5th grade.

On paper, “The Clayton Model” is described as “an agile responsive trauma-informed intervention program designed to support positive youth development and improve academic achievement.”

But if you ask the school’s staff, parents and kids, SEL is something that has transformed their lives. It’s helped children learn valuable coping strategies to enhance their personal development. That, in turn, has improved their academic performance and overall well-being.

“The fundamental goal of the Clayton Model is to help children come to the classroom ready to learn,” said Lisa Twomey, a special projects manager for the district.

“They come to school with so many worries on their minds,” said Twomey, adding that the stress makes it difficult to focus on schoolwork.

That’s why the intervention has been so vital — especially during the pandemic.

SEL was crucial during the lockdowns, which is why Koutsogiannis is so glad the program was in place. It helped children deal with the difficulties of remote learning and separation from their peers. It gave them support in dealing with issues at home, which were magnified when students were forced to be home all day.

“With COVID-19, more than any other year, SEL was more important than math or reading or history,” he said.

Proactive SEL for All Students The goal of the program is to work with children before they become at-risk, Twomey said. 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.

One of the best things about the Clayton Model is that it is not “a cookie-cutter program.” It is flexible, adaptive and responds to the social emotional needs of students. This is what has made The Child Connection Center continue to work for the district since its inception more than a decade ago, Koutsogiannis said.

It delivers support to general education and special needs pupils at risk. Services include individual counseling, small group counseling, classroom workshops, teacher supports, and parent resources. Topics covered include personal and family relationships, stress management, and coping with emotions. They use tools like yoga and mindfulness practices as well.

Gaining Traction In 2008, the district received a five-year federal grant to open up the Clayton Counseling Center. They began offering individual and group counseling sessions. The counselors and teachers started holding classroom workshops on topics such as stress reduction, conflict resolution, and peer and family issues.

Toward the end of the grant period, Twomey said she knew they needed to sustain the program because it “became an embedded part of the culture and climate” at the school.

They reached out to the Pascale Sykes Foundation, which agreed to provide funding for another seven years if Clayton shared its approach with more schools. With the support of its school board, the Clayton School District collaborated with other nearby schools to share the model, and continued with the program.

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

Educators and staff members in those schools had the same positive results. Students were improving academically, had better attendance and improved behavior. There was a positive response from families, and it improved family communication and engagement. Teachers were equally responsive to it. Everyone was buying into the model, and seeing favorable results.

“During that time period, we realized that they were onto something,” Twomey recalled.

They connected with the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden, which funded an evaluation to study the model.

“They found that we were getting some really strong results,” Twomey explained.

That’s when the SEL program at The Child Connection Center became the Clayton Model.

Yet again, the district sought to continue funding, so they approached state legislators with the help of the Rutgers team.

“We finally got it in the hands of the right people,” Twomey said, citing the help of Ross Whiting, Ph.D., a project manager from Rutgers.

“They [legislators] loved the idea of what we were doing,” she added.

The project is currently funded by the CARES Act via the N.J. Department of Education. Twomey hopes to secure future financial support from the state when CARES funding ends.

A-4264/S-2486 were approved by the legislature in March, and the measures are awaiting the governor’s signature. The legislation would establish a five-year Clayton Model Pilot Program in the Department of Education to provide a social emotional learning program to elementary school students attending selected public schools. Under the legislation, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education would select three counties to participate in the pilot program in the northern and central areas of the state. Gloucester County would represent the southern area.

After each county is selected, the commissioner, in collaboration with the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden, would select a maximum of 10 schools within each county to participate in the pilot program. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Reaching Children in Need Koutsogiannis praised the program because it follows a protocol, yet is flexible. 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.

“It’s a shared service, really,” Koutsogiannis said.

The program provides a missing piece for whole-student development — one that was very much needed, he said.

“It’s a great resource for administrators and for staff, too,” added Koutsogiannis. When teachers notice a child is struggling, they can also use the resources to better support that student during classwork.

Koutsogiannis doesn’t hesitate to remind his staff that children come to school with non-academic issues — family, behavioral or emotional problems — that can affect 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 use the program for themselves and their students. They’ve really embraced turning to The Child Connection Center for support.

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

Kristen Fischer is a School Leader contributing editor.