Kids at school
Classmates at South View Elementary interact in a social and emotional learning classroom that is among the first in the MCS school district.

In times past, conventional wisdom held that when students came to school, they left their emotions at the door to focus on learning.

These days, however, extensive research shows that helping children develop emotional regulation skills can significantly improve their academic success and lifetime outcomes.

One benefit of the historic partnership between Ball State and Muncie Community Schools (MCS) has been the implementation of social and emotional learning (SEL) as an essential pillar in supporting MCS students.

Jenny Smithson is director of special education at MCS and leads the district’s focus on SEL skills, which include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The skills are part of the framework developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Thanks to the close MCS-Ball State collaboration, SEL skills are now being woven into MCS students’ daily routines and curriculum.

Smithson, a 2005 Teachers College graduate (’97 MA ’05), explains why SEL is essential for children and their families.

Marlee Frush
Maralee Frush, ’17, a behavior intervention coach at South View Elementary, teaches in a social and emotional learning classroom.

“If you ask any parent out there, ‘What do you want for your child from life?’ the first thing they say is not, ‘I hope they learn.’ Instead, it’s, ‘I want them to be happy and successful as an adult.’ Social and emotional learning definitely comes to the forefront of all of those conversations.”

The district’s SEL initiative is a multi-tiered support system that includes building-level teams of teachers, school counselors, administrators, and others. The teams meet weekly to discuss options for students who may need academic, behavioral, or social and emotional learning interventions.

In addition, Ball State and MCS kicked off an SEL Ambassador Program this past Fall that includes four University faculty who serve on the district SEL Leadership team. The team also includes Smithson, two MCS school psychologists, a Ball State school psychology intern, and a behavior specialist for the district.

Dr. Janay Sander, an associate professor and director of the doctoral program in School Psychology, serves as lead SEL ambassador. In this role, she travels each week to meet with teams at Central High and Southside Middle schools and three of Muncie’s elementary schools.

A sense of belonging

Sander said the ambassadors’ goal is to support, not criticize. She describes teachers’ and school administrators’ responses as open-minded, collaborative, humble, and grateful for the support.

The SEL initiative reflects a shift in mindset, says Smithson. For example, “instead of thinking of a child as attention-seeking, think of them as connection-seeking. They’re looking for a connection with you or others, and they may not know yet how to get it.”

“When you feel safe emotionally and connected to your peers in your school community,” Sander noted, “you feel that sense of belonging in the building.”

“Everyone has struggles. Being able to be authentic and get support when you need it really helps when students are facing stressful situations at home, or they’re facing a stressful situation in school with a task that’s really hard or frustrating.

“It just changes the whole tone—from ‘there’s something wrong with me’ to ‘I have people who can support me.’”  — Nicole Thomas, ’21