Battle Ground Puts Social Emotional Learning on Par with Academics

November 12, 2015 Rita Sanders

Battle Ground Puts Social Emotional Learning on Par with Academics

November 12, 2015

It would seem that Battle Ground Public Schools is taking a cue from the popular animated movie "Inside Out" in its push to bring social-emotional learning to a level that is equal to academics, but in reality, the concept of social-emotional learning has a history in the world of education that goes back several decades.

Social-emotional learning is a new Battle Ground school district focus prescribed by Superintendent Mark Hottowe. A large part of its impetus is Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), the $2.5 million federal grant that Battle Ground is receiving over five years to improve overall school climate and increase awareness of youth mental health issues and access to mental health services.

Social-emotional learning is the process by which children and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Experts in social-emotional learning say that risky behaviors such as drug use, violence and bullying can be prevented or reduced when multiyear, integrated efforts are used to develop students' social and emotional skills. "The cognitive centers for learning are easily hampered by stress or impaired by substances," said Sandy Mathewson, the district's director of social-emotional learning. "If the cognitive centers are impaired, then it's much harder to learn. Our goal is to create an environment that is conducive to learning." Research shows this is best achieved through student engagement in positive activities and broad parent and community involvement.

To that end, the school district has hired Sandy Mathewson as the director of social-emotional learning to guide the district in accomplishing three goals over the next five years. Her position is funded in part by the Project AWARE grant. 

First, the district is working to improve school climate and safety. It is implementing a district-wide Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program and installing software for data collection so that staff can make informed decisions.

Second, Battle Ground is working to increase mental health services to students. The district has hired five prevention/intervention specialists to work in the middle and high schools supporting the implementation of additional mental health and drug prevention services for students.

And third, Battle Ground is partnering with the Educational Service District (ESD) 112 on an effort to build and expand the capacity to increase mental health services in the community. This includes the training of staff, parents and community members in Youth Mental Health First Aid, a course that teaches people the skills to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use. The effort also is examining how to connect families with community-based mental health services by bringing those providers into schools so that a student's whole family is supported.

Mathewson, who has worked in prevention and youth services for two decades, has a history of implementing successful support systems. She overcame the challenge of living in an at-risk family to graduate with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Whitworth University in Spokane. Her first job out of college was with the North Idaho Children's Home in Lewiston, where she helped teach cooperation and behavioral skills to kids who needed intensive emotional help. "I quickly learned that a relationship with a caring adult made a huge difference in a child's ability to turn things around," Mathewson said.

Next, Mathewson moved to Clark County and worked with Battle Ground High School and Amboy Middle School for a short time to build prevention and intervention services for at-risk youth. It didn't take long, however, for the Camas High School principal to recognize her talent and offer Mathewson a full-time position as a prevention/intervention specialist. She worked with the community, parents and law enforcement agencies to prevent and intervene in substance use.

At Camas, Mathewson realized that if she could help kids help themselves, they learned a resiliency that would carry them through most challenges. "If you address the problem, such as alcohol and drug use, and then provide support groups and allow the students to concentrate on school work, they'll have a better chance at educational success," she said. "Our job was to get every kid in the chair every day and ready and able to learn."

After a few years, Mathewson took this knowledge with her to the ESD 112, where she developed a system-wide approach to drug and alcohol education for school districts in southwest Washington and simultaneously earned a master's in education degree in guidance counseling. 

As the leader of the ESD 112's Prevention and Youth Services department, Mathewson's team wrote a grant for six school districts in Cowlitz County to implement behavioral and social-emotional supports in the districts. Hottowe, who worked in student support services in Kelso, helped write and implement the grant. It was one of Mathewson's largest grants: $5.6 million from the U.S. Department of Education. At the end of the grant's four-year implementation, the team had built a system of mental health services that used data to drive decisions and effectively reduced alcohol use among Cowlitz County's 10th graders, among other accomplishments.

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