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Put Student Well-Being at the Forefront

By Stacey Roshan
March 13, 2023
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At Bullis School in Maryland, wellness is not just a counseling department initiative; it's embedded into how teachers structure their curriculum and plan daily lessons. Popping into classrooms, you’ll observe teachers incorporating a range of social-emotional learning strategies, from quick student check-ins and brain breaks to revamped projects and shifts in what is being taught and when. Faculty embrace holistic wellness and the integration of social-emotional learning, both inside and outside of the classroom, with an eagerness to learn and do more.

This is not easy work, but Bullis is dedicated to the wellness of its students, faculty and community, as evidenced by the creation of the director of wellness position. This role oversees the counseling, health, social-emotional learning and parent education programming for the Bullis K-12 community.

Building new skillsets

Sitting down with Jenna Borrelli, Bullis’s director of wellness and health education, one essential question that kept coming up was, “How do you give teachers the skillset to really see and know the students in their room?”

One of her department's major goals is to empower teachers with the knowledge and confidence to holistically support all students. By equipping teachers with these skills, they will be able to guide students in the moment, rather than having to send them out of class to meet with a counselor. While the counseling team is always on hand, the larger goal is to give teachers the skills and vocabulary to feel confident handling and de-escalating situations that can be addressed without additional intervention. In this way, students build valuable skills and trust with their teachers.

At Bullis, the counseling office is not just a place to go to talk out personal issues. There is ongoing collaboration and coaching between counselors and teachers as they work side-by-side to plan lessons, particularly those in the English and social studies classrooms where challenging topics are embedded in the reading and curriculum.

Students may feel uncomfortable during these conversations, but one topic the counseling team works with teachers on is helping identify the difference between feeling discomfort and being triggered. It is in moments of discomfort that we grow and learn, but there are also situations that might be triggering because of a student’s personal experience. At times, these conversations have led to shifts in the curriculum; other times, teachers are equipped with new vocabulary and resources to help them facilitate powerful discussions and foster growth in the classroom. By providing teachers with the tools and resources, Bullis is helping to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all students.

Brad Oremland, upper school English teacher, said that information was invaluable. “The counseling team is a fantastic resource to help teachers understand students' reactions to potentially upsetting material that arises in our readings or class discussions. It's also great to be able to remind students that if they are triggered by something they encounter in class, we have counselors available for them to speak with."

Supporting social-emotional learning

One new initiative at Bullis is the use of #WinAtSocial to support student wellness and social-emotional learning. This platform is designed to help teachers and parents have meaningful conversations with students about using technology responsibly, ethically and for good. Rather than taking away devices and technology, the goal is to help students in grades 4-12 use it more effectively. #WinAtSocial supplements a cohesive advisory curriculum across middle and upper school, and parents can use it to engage with their children about technology use.

The #WinAtSocial program guides students through live lessons that include prompts, conversation starters and real-time feedback. During advisory periods, students log into the #WinAtSocial platform and all advisers guide students through the same lesson for the day. The lesson is projected in the room and teachers have talking points to guide the activity. For example, a lesson might start with a research-based article or short video clip on the topic of how young adults are leveraging social media to raise awareness and enact positive change in their communities. After reviewing the resource together, students are prompted to answer questions from their phones or computers on the #WinAtSocial platform. These responses are then anonymously projected for further discussion.

The feedback from students has been positive. Faith, a ninth grader, said, “I like Win at Social during advisory because it brings our community together by providing space for the people in our advisory to share their experiences."

Another ninth-grader, Zaynah, said, “I enjoy participating in #WinAtSocial during advisory because it teaches us about topics that we face as teens in an engaging way."

One powerful feature of the #WinAtSocial program is that the responses are not limited to what one advisory group is discussing; students can see how their advisory group's thinking compares to others within Bullis and even how students across the nation are responding. Sixth-grade student Casey values the collaborative and active engagement the platform provides. “I like that you can work in groups and there are so many things that you can do [to interact]. I also like that you can see what the school said, what the nation said, and what your class said."

The built-in school dashboard provides Borrelli data-driven insights to monitor how the school is doing as a whole and to get a breakdown by grade level and individual students as needed. She also monitors changes in student well-being over the course of the year to see what events might correlate with increased reports of stress, tiredness, happiness, gratitude, etc. A particular grade level might be showing signs of nervousness before the homecoming dance, for example, and Borrelli would be able to use this information to initiate programming to help students better navigate these emotions and develop coping skills.

“The topics are relevant and the students are engaging in scenarios that matter to them,” said Becca Roberson, upper school math teacher. “When we spoke about boundaries, there was a discussion about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Students shared friends and family with who they share a deep connection and talked about what makes those relationships so special. It was a warm and caring moment but also had students thinking about the importance of setting clear boundaries with peers who don’t respect them or treat them like those with whom they have healthy relationships.”

Bullis’s use of the #WinAtSocial program is part of a larger commitment to addressing the social-emotional needs of students and is helping to create a more inclusive and supportive community.

Prioritizing wellness for all

For the past two years, faculty have received the directive to focus on “connection before content” in the first few weeks of school. Students will do better if they are known and seen by their teachers, and Bullis administrators and teachers recognize and prioritize this. The impact of this commitment carries well beyond the first several weeks of classes. Teachers are encouraged to use strategies such as warm-up mindfulness activities and check-ins instead of diving straight into the topic for the day. This ongoing work is part of what students point to as being such a valuable component of their classroom experience.

“We know students find success when they feel a connection to their teacher and the material,” said Bobby Pollicino, head of upper school. “Welcoming students to class with a question of the day, wordle in English class or another warm-up activity engages the whole student. The more they feel seen, heard and valued, the more they want to engage.”

The school also recognizes the importance of faculty wellness and has taken steps to ensure educators feel supported. Prioritizing faculty wellness is key; students cannot do well if the faculty is not doing well. Professional development opportunities, after-school yoga, a walking group, all-staff gatherings and activities, and making it a priority to celebrate teachers are just some of the ways that Bullis leadership has shown a commitment to prioritizing faculty wellbeing.

“The wellness of our students and faculty is of the utmost importance and is the foundation of excellent teaching and deep engagement with learning,” Borrelli said. “Students will not reach their full potential if they are not healthy, and, likewise, teachers will not deliver their best teaching if unwell."

Feeling burned out? Find balance in a connected world! Read the ISTE book Pathways to Well-Being.

Stacey Roshan is an educator, keynote speaker, TED-Ed talker, consultant, and author of Tech with Heart. She is passionate about discovering and sharing ways to leverage technology to cultivate deeper compassion in the classroom and provide each learner the optimal platform to express their ideas in a format that best fits their style.