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Ten Ways SEL Helps Students Meet the Challenges of 2020
Judith Worrall, middle school writing teacher & communications team member

At Nueva, social-emotional learning is embedded in everything we do and is the foundation of the Nueva culture. It is during usual times and unusual times—like the one we find ourselves in—when SEL is on full display. Yet, the Nueva SEL team has had to reimagine the ways in which our educators approach SEL, since  so much of the learning happens in the little moments.   

“SEL is one of the hardest things under present circumstances to teach,”said Lisa Hinshelwood, lower school SEL teacher. “So much of Nueva SEL is integrated into the daily lives at school—it happens in the hallways, the playgrounds, the conversations, and the cafe.”

SEL is taught across PreK–12 in dedicated classes (known as Science of Mind in the upper school) and is throughline in all courses offered. SEL teachers bring research-based practices to their classes and to their colleagues, and these practices create the foundation upon which all learning at Nueva sits:

  1. Learning is a process of cognition, and is also social and emotional in its origin.
  2. SEL tools help with students’ well-being and increase their academic achievement.  
  3. SEL practices help students persevere and enhance their academic stamina, so that they can continue to learn despite external circumstances.

The beauty of SEL as a pillar is that it is integrated into the ways we teach and learn here at Nueva. So, from SEL classes and advisories to math, humanities, and electives, here are ten ways that SEL supports Nueva students emotionally, at a distance and when adapting to new social norms in the classroom.


1. Establishing a sense of belonging, even in remote settings

The goal for lower school SEL during remote learning has been to keep things light, fun, and connected. Through division-wide community meetings and class-wide SEL games faculty have found ways to help students remain connected to one another.  Sing-alongs, read-alouds, and themed dress-up days have been some of the highlights for lower school students.

Lisa explained, “All of these activities aimed to build a sense of community and continuity, even in a time where things seemed different and perhaps strange for our youngest students.”

2. Exploring “emotional granularity”

In the middle school school, seventh-graders have explored emotional granularity—a phenomenon whereby people can learn to understand emotional experiences more fully to help them deal with the challenges around them. They were asked to consider how they could clearly identify their feelings or recategorized these feelings in order to reduce suffering and increase well-being during a difficult time.  

Drawing on work from neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, Nueva middle school SEL teacher Alison Williams asked students to create mood meters in efforts to deepen their emotional vocabularies.

Alison believes “one of the best things middle school students can do for their emotional health is to develop their concepts of emotions.”

Therefore, she strives to provide students with the tools to have more flexible emotional responses, and one of those tools is the Mood Meter. This meter helps students deepen emotional intelligence over time, as students learn to identify and label their emotions.

Emotional granularity is so incredibly important to building emotionally resilient young adults that it is revisited when students reach high school.

3. Giving students control: the Open Session

The Open Session is an approach to SEL that is utilized in all three divisions at Nueva. Open Session is a tried-and-true Nueva SEL experience that asks classmates to respond to student-generated issues through a supportive exchange of listening and ideas. This collaborative problem-solving process aids students in developing empathy and active listening skills, building trust, establishing and deepening connections, and addressing challenges. Students see the power of collective empathy, recognize how much they have to offer each other, support each other and feel supported, and are empowered to take thoughtful action to deal with challenges.

Recently Open Session has allowed students to talk about the topics that matter most to them, such as anxiety, peer pressure, and stress.

SEL and Science of Mind teacher Sean Schochet said, “Open Session provides a safe place for students to discuss current topics of vulnerability as classmates can validate each other's feelings and give advice to their peers.”  

Recent middle school Open Sessions have centered around concerns about safely returning to campus, as well as the election.


 4. Fostering authentic expression through art

Another way SEL helps students explore their emotions is through art. In the eighth-grade, Alison asked students to write song lyrics as a way of expressing their perspectives and emotions of their lives right now. Students explored topics ranging from remote learning and the quarantine to politics to planning for high school.

Processing emotions through making music (and other creative outlets) has proved very useful for students so that they can work through complex thoughts and experiences about the present moment. And the work is not isolated to SEL classes.

In eighth-grade writing classes students explored complex emotions and social issues through analyses of song lyrics: for example they analyzed a section of Kendrick Lamar’s song “DNA,” in which he raps, “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA.” Students examined the significance of his complex reactions to the injustices Kendrick Lamar encounters. Students expressed diverse reactions to his lyrics:

  • “Kendrick Lamar writes about how complex the Black experience is, from the poison and pain that is caused by racism, but also the joy and power from being a human who can change the world.”
  • The power of perseverance through the struggle of the Black experience. The pain of the ancestry that was ripped from us. The pain of our ancestors. The pain of systemic racism. The joy of Black power and Black beauty. All of these are real and raw.
  • “Lamar's use of juxtaposition and alliteration in his statement further expresses the complexity of the Black experience in America.”
  • I can't not hear it in a rhythm ;) The more I think about this line, the more I can relate and the more sense it makes. It is so beautiful how one line of writing can carry so much knowledge and many, many years of life.
  • “Lamar splits up his experience into four parts: the alliterative power, poison, pain, and the non-alliterative joy. Poison, power and pain represent the racism and discrimination against Black Americans: it is very important for everyone to see the systemic racism every day based in the history of our country. Joy represents how even though there are many struggles, he still enjoys his life and feels empowered.”

5.  Building community: Brave spaces and affinity groups

Whether online, in the classroom, or in a hybrid environment, a focus on SEL helps teachers and students to create a supportive environment so that all students can participate equally in challenging dialogue. This has been particularly important during this time, as students are able to have sensitive and civilized political discussions in person and online. Alegria Barclay, PreK–12 equity and social justice director, calls this environment a “brave space,” one with “space for people to disagree,” politely and in a safe environment.

Another opportunity in which brave spaces are cultivated and in which SEL tools are utilized by students are in affinity groups. Affinity groups are times for people who share common identities—race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.—to meet in a safe space and share similar experiences, in order to feel more connected and comfortable.

These spaces and groups have allowed students in the middle and upper school levels in Nueva to set aside time, online and in person, for healing, reflection, and processing the pain of the moment we are in.

6. Engaging in self-reflection

During remote learning, it was especially important to Lisa that she help her lower school colleagues maintain an important SEL ritual of checking in with students, in which they think about how they are feeling on a daily basis.

Middle school SEL teacher Nicole Miller began “SEL Corner with Nicole” as part of the sixth-grade Dean’s Daily, providing students the opportunity to reflect on their feelings and reach out to her with questions or concerns. An example of an SEL Corner with Nicole is below:

“What does it mean to be authentic as a person? Being authentic celebrates being clear, honest, and kind. So, when you find yourself worrying about speaking your truth, or being genuine in all of who you are, replace that negative self-talk with positive self-talk! You are PERFECTLY PERFECT just as you are!”


7.  Nurturing equity and inclusion

In the upper school, SEL becomes Science of Mind (SOM), but the goal of the program remains the same: to support the students during difficult times and teach them the tools to successfully navigate their feelings and relationships with others. In their freshman and sophomore years, students explore issues of equity, inclusion, power, and identity. The 2020 U.S. election exacerbated deep fragmentation in the nation; Science of Mind aims to help students engage in dialogue and readings across this difference, exploring how students can listen to those with whom we might disagree while remaining open to ways to best balance wellness. Davion Fleming, ninth-grade SEL teacher, asked students t to present their answers to the question, “If you could take the class anywhere, to teach us about your family, culture, or passion, where would you take us?'' There was an astonishing diversity of answers, including the library, cookouts, Korean pop music, and many more, allowing the students to insight into the diversity of their peers and some consideration of how interesting their differences made them.


8. Promoting optimism and resilience

In Grades 10 and 11, in their later years of Science of Mind, upper school students pivot to explore optimism and psychology of happiness as a way of developing resilience. Teachers focus on key questions such as, “How do we cultivate optimism and resilience while staying grounded in reality?”

Students are given opportunities to refine the emotional granularity they developed during their earlier years, and they spend one week plotting their emotions three times a day to help them think about when they are feeling most stressed.

For upper school SOM teacher Sean Schochet, the key message he wants his students to takeaway  is, “We can influence happiness, by learning positive psychology.”  

It is clear how invaluable SOM has become particularly during this pandemic, as one 10th-grade parent said, “Thanks, Sean. With the stress of COVID, your class is more important than ever.”


9. Exploring neurophilosophy

During their junior year, students research  emotions and apply their findings to current events and their individual situations.

Upper school Science of Mind teacher Olivia Barber offers 11th-grade students three strands: a foundational unit, “Your Brain on Emotion,” which focuses on neurophilosophy and neuroscience, and a second unit, “Feeling All the Feels”, in which students learn about shared emotions.

The third part of 11th-grade SOM challenges students explore emotions in one of  three areas to consider in particular: politics and power, art and music, or sports. Students research how people in those specified areas communicate their emotions and needs, and how those people can use non-violent means of communication and strategies for self-regulation to avoid the vitriol which currently exists in these areas.

One eleventh-grader recently said of the course,“Everything in SOM this year feels relevant and meaningful to me. I am learning so much about my brain, the world around me, and how I can be empowered by being connected to my emotions."


10. Assessing social and emotional needs

Finally, SEL helps teachers to assess students’ emotional, social, and academic needs and thus create individualized support plans for students. When necessary, SEL teachers can recommend opportunities to build and deepen relationships with mental health professionals within and outside the school, including counselors, and psychologists. Teachers then serve as liaisons with health care professionals to support students who may need additional counseling support. At a time when students have struggled with many challenges including social isolation and uncertainty about the world around them, SEL tools learned in the classroom and professional support provided outside the classroom can be exactly what students need to help get them through this difficult time. 


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