Building Belonging into the System


An effective approach to trauma-informed, social-emotional-academic learning (SEAL) includes providing space for students to develop and practice key SEAL competencies. This approach contributes to the creation of safe, predictable learning environments where students are empowered and supported to manage the adverse effects of trauma. Adults’ awareness and sensitivity help avoid the perpetuation of trauma throughout the school day.

Moore (2021a) reframes this relationship, suggesting when SEAL competencies are positioned as learning objectives rather than necessary prerequisites, access to more equitable learning opportunities become available to all students. This design case highlights how Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding allowed a K-12 public school district in southeastern PA to prioritize two initiatives as students returned from emergency remote modalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four specific design considerations inspired by Whitbeck’s (1996) conceptualization of ethics as design, are described. Documenting design cases allows for a rich explanation of design practice in authentic environments (Smith, 2010) While not intended to be generalizable, design cases present practical application precedent (Gray & Boling, 2016) and make explicit ways in which core values influence design decisions.

The focus of this design case is on how centering equity as a core design value drove the development, implementation, and planned evaluation of opportunities for SEAL competency development over the course of a calendar year. Our design team consisted of two Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funded individuals. ESSER funds were awarded by the US Department of Education to a variety of educational agencies to address the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on various educational programming.

The nature of funding is relevant here as ESSER funds stipulate schools have three years in which to use the funding, throughout which documented steps need to be provided on how district initiatives are being made endemic to existing systems. Using this revenue stream for positions provides an interesting perspective to district initiative planning. Anything we built needed to be fully developed at the end of three years and sustainable, possibly without continued direction from the individuals responsible for design.

Notably, in the return to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, 130 CSD students chose to remain in a virtual placement. CSD has expanded their counseling team to include two certified mental health counselors. As we move to an increasingly endemic phase of the pandemic, approximately 60 students, Grades K-12, have chosen to remain completely virtual for the 2022-2023 school year. Additionally, in response to growing demands for students who want virtual opportunities without being siloed into a completely virtual pathway, a blended schedule pilot for Grade 12 students only was offered this year.

Seniors can take up to four credits virtually, with the remainder of their required credits being offered via traditional face-to-face modalities. Fifteen students have chosen to take part in this blended learning pathway. CSD teachers are responsible for the facilitation of courses for our Grade 12 students, both those involved in our blended schedule pilot and those remaining in a 100% virtual pathway. Curriculum continues to be provided by a third-party partner but is aligned to district standards and level of rigor. This shift has allowed us to use our own learning management system (LMS), Canvas, for course delivery.

Social Emotional Academic Learning (SEAL) is a position dedicated to social-emotional learning. CSD created the initiative title “Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning’ or, “SEAL” Conceptually, this addition was to position social, emotional, and academic skill development as all being equally important. In practice, this title set the trajectory within the district for prioritizing classroom practices that integrate social- Emotional learning into academic content instruction.

The results of this FEA directed the SEAL Coordinator to first ensure a common mission and vision for SEAL implementation district-wide. Prioritizing a distributive leadership model, a district SEAL team, including seven building-level faculty liaisons, was convened. Together, these individuals conducted stakeholder surveys, a climate and culture survey, and a review of discipline referral data. Triangulation of this data identified implementation and outcome goals aligned to four identified district priority areas.

For the 2021-22 school year, both the Online and Digital Learning coordinator and SEAL coordinator worked within the vertical structures of their respective departments. This intradepartmental focus, while necessary to some extent, can create initiative silos defined by myopic focus on departmental goals. In our case, continued development within our individual silos as we entered year two of our tenure, would have perpetuated inequities wherein students in the brick-and-mortar setting would be given access to opportunities for SEAL skill development and belonging, while those in the CVLA program would not.

CSD’s mission, vision, beliefs, and values (CSD, 2022) set the intention to support and prepare all students for post-secondary college, career, and life-readiness. In-person elementary students began to participate in a daily Morning Meeting and in-person middle school students participated in regular SEAL activities during a new “What I Need’ time. The high school established a schoolwide focus on building positive relationships along with clear shared expectations.

District leaders are collaborating to integrate SEAL into existing systems. Staff are encouraged to choose a SEAL focus for their evaluation pathway. Online learners, by nature of their chosen learning pathways, are often assumed to already be proficient in various SEAL competencies. Growing body of research on K-12 SEAL competency development focuses primarily on in-person learning.

A growing population of online K-12 learners from developing these career-ready skills creates an inequitable learning environment. The need for virtual learners to have equitable opportunities to develop SEAL competencies became our design opportunity. A priori theoretical and conceptual frameworks may not actually be appropriate for design cases. However, within the real-world context of a school system, policy often drives the need for design.

True et al.’s (2007) punctuated equilibrium model suggests that policy change is incremental and arises when new understandings, theories, or ways of thinking about policy problems come to light. As such, sharing theory that shaped the policy driving the need for this design case is relevant. Venet (2021) conceptualization of trauma-informed education suggests a focus on the educational ecosystem instead of the individual classroom or, worse, a need to “fix” the individual student. District policy, school climate, and classroom practice should all be aligned to provide a trauma- informed environment (Venet, 2021)

In Fall 2021, the CSD school board adopted a policy to direct district staff to develop and implement a trauma-informed approach to education. Special attention was called to reviewing procedures on attendance, opportunities for relationship building, and opportunities for curriculum and instruction development with embedded social emotional learning. This reminder that resiliency is a systems issue, as opposed to a trait we seek to develop in individuals, allowed for an important reframing of our design opportunity (Svhila, 2020).

Instead of suggesting students’ trauma was a problem that needed fixing, we sought to develop a system that would not perpetuate traumas. Restorative practices, culturally responsive practices, and embedded SEAL opportunities are all mentioned within the policy as tools for reviewing current district practice. Embedding a trauma-informed practice into the domains of SEAL is common practice for public school systems across the nation.

Some educational leaders have suggested a focus on trauma-informed practices is distracting from the need to engage in larger-scaled equity work within public school systems. In Spring 2022, CSD also adopted an educational equity policy, with the directive that CSD students should be provided with equitable access to educational opportunities. With district policy in place, but perhaps a lack of an operational implementation plan for a trauma- informed approach, we made the decision to center equity as the core design value.

Centering equity as a core design value to our growing conceptualization of a trauma-informed approach led to the realization of a need to build a resilient system that would be flexible enough to adapt to individual needs. Infusing equity throughout the design process required our team to look outside of traditional instructional design models for our process.

Our team had concerns that traditional prescriptive design models would fail to honor our commitment to our core design value. Whitbeck’s approach to ethics as design provided us with four broad considerations guiding constant reanalysis of systemic constraints at multiple points of our iterative design process. These considerations encouraged us to: 1.) embrace uncertainty, 2.) iterate, 3.) develop ongoing feedback loops, and 4.) balance flexibility with fidelity.

Consider: Embracing Uncertainty While designers go through multiple processes to help resolve uncertainties that surround design opportunities, Whitbeck (1996) suggests waiting to act until one is certain is a “license to avoid action” Strategies such as reflection-in-action can help designers mitigate uncertainty and continue moving through the design process. One of the major sources of uncertainty surrounding our design opportunity was selecting the correct localized context of use within our system. Our objective was to create opportunities for students to practice SEAL development– but who would support these opportunities? Should students need to self-regulate and reflect–two skills we were hoping to develop but not require as prerequisites?

Should faculty collect and analyze data on student progress on top of navigating content dissemination and course facilitation in a new modality? Could we embed opportunities for SEAL competency development directly in the virtual curriculum or course design? External representations can assist the design team to engage in reflection in action while undergoing a fluid design process, capturing their (perhaps varied) interpretations of how the design is progressing (Stefaniak et al., 2021).

A persona of a virtual learner from the Centennial School District had been developed (see Figure 1). This persona suggested a typical virtual student who was juggling school, work, and home responsibilities. A discussion board for faculty in response to a summer professional development on how the district envisioned the intersection between equity, SEAL, and digital learning provided a second external representation.

This artifact allowed us to reflect on where faculty were with district initiative implementation, examined on Freire’s (1970/2000) name-reflect-act continuum of critical consciousness. A trauma-informed practice requires a shift in approach from a deficit model to a more supportive model. Preliminary analysis of this discussion board uncovered that faculty were, by and large, still in the naming stage of conceptualizing an operational definition for equity at CSD and not yet ready for reflection or action.

While our centering of equity had allowed our design team to internalize this shift, examination of our second external representation suggested that perhaps faculty at large needed more time to understand and be ready to implement a trauma-informed practice. As such, we decided to narrow our focus on elements of course design that could impact virtual learning experience without necessarily requiring any additional action from either students or faculty. Literature suggests that creating and maintaining an environment of belonging can be more empowering than specific interventions that address trauma explicitly. Consider: Uncertainty has been shown to promote an iterative design process (Stefaniak et al., 2022).

Whitbeck (1996) encourages those working on ethical dilemmas to not hesitate in taking action as long as they are simultaneously willing to revise or combine design solutions. The front-end needs analysis (FEA) of past and current SEAL implementation and practice within CSD allowed us to pull recommendations from several existing frameworks including CASEL and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) With the formal adoption of our equity policy, there was a need to move beyond recommendations and into a cohesive implementation plan. Initially, we began iterating design around the CASEL framework (see Figure 3), with the goal of creating an opportunity for each SEAL competency development to be addressed at some point during the scholastic year.

Self-awareness and self-management are seen as overlapping as are social awareness and relationship skills. Responsible decision making is the fifth stand-alone section. As our plans for in-person implementation evolved, a shift from the CASEL framework to the PDE framework occurred. In considering other members of our system, such as our school board and community, grounding our implementation in recommendations from the state provided concrete alignment back to our district mission and vision in a way that using a third-party tool could not.

PDE conceptualizes social awareness as social problem solving skills and separates relationship skills. Responsible decision-making is dropped. Another area of uncertainty our team embraced concerned rollout timeline. Our high school operates on a modified block schedule with full credit courses meeting every other day for an entire year.

In-person learners would benefit from a slower rollout with larger chunks of the scholastic year dedicated to each individual competency. In wanting to align implementation timeframe across modalities, rollout for virtual learners adopted this plan. The second iteration of our implementation timeline allowed us to provide deeper engagement with each SEAL competency before moving on (see Figure 5) albeit in an extended two-year rollout cycle.

Within our distributive leadership model, our SEAL faculty liaisons collaborated with our district equity team to recommend an entire year focusing on relationship skills. Sub-focus areas, such as belonging, built off of previous district initiative work of our equity team and as such, are expected to have an operational level of understanding across buildings, departments, and students. Tying relationship skills to belonging allowed for a natural entry point into development of this SEAL competency. With a timeframe now in place, we turned our attention to artifact development.

Hanover Research (2019) suggests consistent and predictable learning environments are building blocks of trauma-informed SEAL practices. As such, it was of paramount importance that any artifact we designed for building belonging in virtual courses was both consistent across subject matter and provided predictable learning pathways for virtual students. To promote self-management and self-awareness, we developed mandatory pacing calendars inherent in our school learning management system (LMS), Canvas. These pacing calendars suggested completion dates for assignments so as to help students manage time throughout the semester but do not necessarily penalize students for late submissions.

Hanover Research (2019) recommends clear expectations for helping to promote psychological safety. A pacing calendar provides a visual of these expectations while offering more flexibility than a list of traditional inflexible due dates. Assignments are scheduled daily as opposed to weekly to further help students start to conceptualize how they may need to think about time management when developing a virtual learning schedule for themselves.

Landing pages included teacher name, course name, teacher image, and teacher contact, as well as our three school-wide SEAL goals for the year. Teachers were allowed to customize elements of the landing page to include a link to a daily agenda or a weekly check-in board. Each landing page also contained a water-cooler type discussion board where students could crowdsource answers to questions.

One artifact shelved for later iteration was the use of an optional LMS feature that would create student profile pages, to help promote social awareness. As this design element would require engagement from students, it was ultimately decided that this feature did not belong in our initial rollout. An initial feedback loop came from a design reveal with members of both building administration and central administration. Open-ended feedback was solicited for each design element. In response to a request for more tools to promote self-awareness and self-management, sequential ordering was shared. In particular, the administrative team was very supportive of the pacing calendar with suggested due dates.

Students cannot jump ahead in the assignment sequence. This feature was ultimately left off, as it was determined that such a granular level of assignment management would actually hinder learners from developing SEAL skills in self-management. Hanover Research (2019) supports the idea that students benefit from some choice which allows them opportunities to develop self-control over their environment. Due to our school calendar, our primary source of student feedback came once courses had started, as there was not an opportunity to pull a focus group together over the summer months. Students were asked a series of Likert-style questions (delivered via Google Form) to determine the extent to which various elements of course design led to an increased perception of belonging.

Students were explicitly directed to consider their online learning experience holistically so as to avoid specific reactions to one teacher or course. We visited hybrid classes at the beginning of the semester to inform students about the intentional design elements of the course. Wildman and Burton (1981) contend informing participants about the purpose of design elements ahead of asking them to evaluate the impact of those elements can actually lead to more accurate feedback.

Our survey was distributed via school email to all virtual learners, both full-time and blended, at the end of the first month of virtual classes. Virtual students and their families participate in our annual Climate Survey. Such data provides broad stroke feedback on learner sense of belonging and can point to directions for future collaboration. A broader scope for community feedback on culture and climate is also planned for this scholastic year.

The iteration of this design is specific to our current context, in which we are continuing to use a third-party digital curriculum to facilitate virtual learning. As our district seeks to develop and digitize its own digital resources, there may be additional avenues through which SEAL competency development can be embedded within our very curriculum.

Continuing professional development in both digital course facilitation and SEAL may allow our faculty the opportunity to develop greater agency and ownership of trauma-informed course design. While the scope, design team members, and points of access to our audience may change as both our digital learning and SEAL initiatives continue to evolve, what endures is our commitment to designing for equitable SEAL competency development regardless of modality.

Despite our commitment to de-siloing our roles as a unified design team, we still felt the need for additional perspectives that could contribute to both richer front-end design and increased feedback loops. As we were still developing an understanding of the district’s intentions to operationalize a trauma-informed approach, we chose to center equity as our core design value. A key perspective missing from our design team was the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a position that was vacant within the district at the time of this design. While it was reassuring to realize a commitment to equity lives within our school systems as opposed to any one individual, including those with a formal background in inclusive educational practices would have benefited the initial framing of

A richer approach to design and feedback would include the perspectives of district teacher leaders, the Superintendent's Parent Advisory Council and the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. Centering equity as a core shared organizational value also safeguards the system against varied levels of individual commitment. Surveying our faculty to capture their personal conceptualization of the intersection of equity, SEAL, and digital learning, uncovered a group that was open to learning but not yet ready to implement change.

Although we desired increased participation at the design table, understanding faculty needs allowed us to approach their reticence with a trauma-informed lens ourselves. By being open and transparent about our “top-down’ design plans, faculty who were ready to participate ended up adding their own unprompted elements for SEAL competency development to courses. When working within a system with so many components, it is essential for communication to be clear and for what is being communicated to be reflective of the audience’s background knowledge and implementation readiness.

For example, in sharing our ideas for a common course landing page design, we discussed how accessibility considerations led us to use text to direct students to common navigation paths instead of a series of buttons. This discussion led the central leadership team into a rich discussion of their understanding of accessibility, ultimately expanding it to include elements of digital accessibility. This was an important reminder that for us to increase opportunities for students to experience belonging, we needed to ensure all members of the system felt as if they understood our vision and belonged to it first. As K-12 learning modalities expand beyond traditional face-to-face classroom offerings, systems must be redesigned (or designed anew) to provide places of belonging for online learners.

The purpose of this design case is to help begin establishing precedent on how a trauma-informed approach can inform online course design. Centering equity as our course design value, we turned to the field of ethics to help guide our design process. In explicitly breaking down this process to highlight both challenges and opportunities encountered during design, this case adds to the growing body of practical application research on trauma- informed approaches.

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