Aperture Partner Case Study: Increased Student Engagement through Strength-Based SEL

Situated 17 miles northeast of downtown Houston, Humble Independent School District (ISD) is home to 48,000 students that make up 30 elementary schools, nine middle schools, and six high schools. Humble ISD is among Texas’ top 25 fastest growing school districts in the state and is the 26th largest district in Texas. The district is known for its strong commitment to excellence in education through school, parent, and community partnerships that have lead to innovation designed to strengthen student achievement. 

The Challenge

Years ago, Humble ISD recognized that some students were coming to school with strong behavioral and academic skills that helped them to be successful, and some students were coming without these skills. For those without, school had often become a struggle. District and campus leaders knew that targeted interventions and support was needed, but it was difficult to know where to begin. When they looked at these different groups of students, they wanted to compare student’s academic achievement when they experienced time out of class due to in and out of school suspension. After completing the comparison, what was suspected became very evident. Time away from class and the curriculum due to behavioral challenges resulted in lower passing rates on state assessments. 

The district also had concerns over mental health support. There have been a lot of traumatic events over the past few years and they were feeling the impacts not only with students, but adults, too. 

“We know that students are struggling, grownups are struggling, that health care costs with meeting those needs are tremendous, and many students who struggle go untreated,” said Matt Smith, elementary counseling & behavioral services and PK-12 homeless liaison for Humble ISD. 

Matt Smith shared that, “For many students, the only access they may have to mental health support is through a strong SEL curriculum provided by kind, caring adults at school.” 

This began a journey towards greater access to social and emotional learning (SEL) endeavors that would help to create behavioral learning opportunities for students, resulting in spending more time in class with their peers and the academic content.  

The next step for the district was to review what was currently in place for students. They found that SEL curriculum was often led by the school counselors at each of their campuses, but there were inconsistencies in how the SEL curriculum was being delivered districtwide. The team at Humble wanted to organize their efforts so that they were more intentional and effective. This meant finding a program that aligned with their pre-existing frameworks — the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), something that was CASEL-aligned, and that incorporated the skills children need to be successful as identified in Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.” 

The Progress

“We were so pleased to come across Aperture Education as we were researching different models. The DESSA, [the strength-based SEL assessment provided by Aperture], aligns perfectly with CASEL, with Paul Tough’s book, and the skills we wanted to teach our students,” said Matt. “It’s important to reflect on our own strengths. We wanted our kids and adults to know where they’re strong and how they can use these strengths to develop their weaknesses.” 

With the guidance counselors first teaching SEL skills using DESSA strategies to the teachers, and then partnering with teachers to present the skills to the students, Humble saw drastic results. They were able to decrease disciplinary action significantly in many schools, because the staff were now viewing behavioral disruptions as learning opportunities. Not only did this shift impact the overall feel of the school and classrooms, but the district believed it would have academic outcomes as well. 

“Students who stay connected to curriculum and content do better,” said Matt. “Once we showed this to the campus community and other district leaders, more schools wanted to come on board with this whole child approach to learning. It answered the question of what we could be doing to keep our students better connected to the classroom, their teacher, and the content they’re learning.” 

Watch this video or keep reading to learn how Humble ISD: 

Strengthened teachers’ understanding of SEL 

Empowered counselors through data utilization 

Built out their SEL framework 

Used restorative practices at all levels 

Gaining Teacher Buy-In 

Early on, Humble ISD wanted to better identify students who were in need of SEL skills. They believed that if every elementary student wasn’t taught these skills and if the learning wasn’t measured they could potentially miss students who were in need.

“We have found the DESSA to be a very valuable tool on our campus,” said Jennifer Egan, elementary counselor in the district. “There was some hesitation on our end initially when we rolled it out because we didn’t want it to be viewed as just another thing teachers had to do. But once we got into it, we saw that it’s very user friendly. Teachers don’t see it as a burden, but as something that provides valuable information to them.”

Teachers in Humble log in to the Aperture System at the beginning and end of the year to do ratings with the DESSA-mini [Aperture’s research-based universal screener], which takes about one minute per student. The DESSA-mini is the only SEL screener to meet the rigorous standards put forth by the World Health Organization.

Matt Smith shared that, “Having conversations about what we were wanting to do was important [for buy-in]. I mean think back to how we were launched into a pandemic world. Wouldn’t it have been nice to get a three-month warning? Instead, we were doing things instantly which is not ideal. So, for us it was seeing the need for a strong SEL framework, looking at the journey our community wanted to go on as a whole, and then planning our next steps. The process could look different for you, but discussing and creating a plan ahead of time can shape your path and make it easier to act on the next steps that makes the most sense.” 

Empowering Education Through Data 

Humble ISD saw great success integrating and teaching SEL within their pre-existing structures. 

As Paul Tough’s book reminded them, “If we are to be successful in teaching SEL skills, we must use the same MTSS structure that has been used successfully to address academic skills.”

Frameworks gave every staff member and student the same base layer, then students who needed a bit more, another layer of support, and then those who needed intensive supports, a third layer. “The MTSS model can be applied to support SEL which is what we’re doing now,” shared Humble ISD district leaders. 

The full DESSA is used when the DESSA-mini raises a flag that a student is in need of additional support. Counselors in the district take the in-depth data from the full DESSA to help plan which students may need individualized counseling or small group counseling. The DESSA takes 5-7 minutes to complete per student and provides in-depth data into the social and emotional strengths and need for instruction for students in need. 

Jennifer shared that, “Looking at school wide trends over time, alongside individual student data, has been very helpful. Administrators and counselors have used the data to help plan classes for the next year — balancing DESSA data, SEL needs, and academic performance. We know that if we put ten students who are in the ‘need for instruction’ category into a single classroom that will make it more difficult for the teacher to help provide the necessary support to help all students grow.” 

At the administration level, administrators are very appreciative of the data as well. 

The Humble ISD team shared that initially, school staff would ask how SEL impacts our test scores. The ASCD outlines that strong SEL has tremendous benefits to academic learning. In a research study, the ASCD shared that by adding in SEL curriculum, the base of learners grew 11 percentile points on academic achievement tests.

“That is incredible. That’s a by-product of coming from a perspective of being whole. That’s what we believe our community deserves: a whole student, a whole staff member, a whole campus that is supported by a whole community,” said Matt. 

While the Humble ISD team admits freely that it’s not always easy, Humble’s journey has been rooted in a systematic approach through continuous movement forward toward SEL for all students. It has taken time to get to where they are today, but they believe they’re heading in the right direction, and believe that all of the effort has been worth it. 

Humble’s SEL Calendar 

When we look at Humble ISD’s 30 elementary schools, we see that each of Aperture’s eight skills are covered through a nine-week period by guidance lessons, campus PBIS activities, and community time. Those skills include Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social-Awareness, Relationship Skills, Decision-Making, Personal Responsibility, Goal-Directed Behavior, and Optimistic Thinking, and are taught in a two-year cycle. 

“One thing that is unique about how we teach SEL is that when we first brought on the Aperture model, we asked our stakeholders how to go about it. Instead of skimming the surface of the eight [CASEL-aligned] skills throughout the year, they expressed they’d rather do a deeper dive with students through explicit instruction on the skills. For example, this year we started with Optimistic Thinking. Although the strategies look different across grade levels, students across our campuses are still focusing on the one skill,” explained Matt. 

Jennifer said that because SEL has become a districtwide initiative it’s exciting because it’s not the first time students have heard these words or skills. It’s becoming a common language across campuses. 

“We teach it, celebrate the kids that are our ‘bright light bulbs’ [who have strengths] with the skills. We have teachers using DESSA strategies and other tools during community time. If we come to the end of the nine weeks and see some who are still struggling, we follow up with those kiddos who need more support,” shared Jennifer. 

SEL in Action 

What is the “community time” Humble leaders are referring to? It’s a specific time in the day where classes sit in a circle and interact and restore. 

Matt shared that ideally each community time starts with a mindful moment. This is a moment to sit in silence and focus on breathing, and something Humble ISD believes is fundamental. 

“Research tells us that our minds are wandering about 50% of the time. When I heard that study it impacted me, it let me know that students’ minds are wandering 50% of the time or more, missing what is right in front of them. Going to a place of rest and focusing on breathing may feel silly and unusual. Teachers often say they’re nervous kids will start laughing. I do this with all age groups and what I’ve seen is that usually on day one, there is laughter from a portion of students. On day two it drops to just a few, and by day three the mindful moment just becomes routine. It’s a simple reflection to come back to the moment you’re in,” shared Matt. 

In Humble, educators also do a check-in to see where students are at and how they’re feeling, which they refer to as a “Fist to Five- Self-Awareness Check In.” Educators also ask questions like, “What is a relationship you’re thankful for?” and “What is one thing you can do to support your relationships with others using an action word?” 

Matt and Jennifer said that it’s a really powerful experience, especially when guidance counselors first do the exercise with staff. 

“We broke our staff up into smaller sections and having that chance to check in and see how they’re really doing helped us identify who to follow up with and who we needed to check in on. It was also a great chance to model our expectations at the beginning of the school year. Every time we met for staff meetings, we did it in the community time format to help everyone become comfortable with this tool,” explained Jennifer. 

Humble also participates in experiential activities, shared Jason Netardus, behavioral specialist. 

“These are reality oriented physical experiences (ROPES). At the elementary level we look at fifth grade going into sixth grade, at the secondary level it may be clubs or different student groups like the football team, cheerleading squad, drill team, or science club. Sometimes we’ll invite the coaches or teachers out to navigate the ROPES course with the students,” Jason said. 

Jason explained that beforehand the student groups sign a full values contract, and he discusses the important elements like not putting others down, remembering to ask for what they need, providing when people ask for what they need, that they’re being safe when using the equipment, and that they’re paying attention to others, so we can all have a safe, meaningful experience. 

“As students participate in the experiences, they’ll navigate and reflect on what was easy and what they found difficult. Sharing in that will help define perspectives. They’ll make connections amongst themselves, engage their problem-solving skills, and retry after connecting on those things and strategizing. They see success as they re-run through the course. This strengthens their teamwork and camaraderie,” said Jason. 

State, Cross-Country, and International Connections

When asked about how Aperture and DESSA have supported the Humble ISD community, the district responded with, “The support is great! The relationships we’ve been able to build through Aperture have been tremendous. We’ve had wonderful Aperture partners with us on our journey, connecting us with districts across Texas and the world to help grow our tool belt for student success. The more people that are involved, the more energy and power there is for this work.”

Humble ISD has been able to share their SEL model with others throughout the state and the nation. This serves as a valuable time for Humble to refine their services and improve their initiatives for student success.

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