At the end of 2019, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) began using improvement science to identify, develop, monitor, and continuously improve practices to support social and emotional learning (SEL) in their schools. Little did anyone know how much this continuous improvement methodology would soon be put to the test by a pandemic with no predictable playbook.

The SEL-focused improvement science work germinated from the district’s interest in evaluating schools’ success in improving SEL implementation, says Corey Donahue, Improvement Specialist at WestEd. “It then blossomed into figuring out which practices supported SEL in schools and learning how to ensure that staff-driven efforts could address particular problems.”

Aided by WestEd research, evaluation, and facilitation, the SEL initiative was part of a larger Comprehensive School Safety Initiative. The SEL component of this work supported a handful of Atlanta schools in focusing on a SEL-related challenge of their choice, learning what was contributing to the challenge, and testing and scaling successful strategies for addressing it.

Improvement science helps create a formal approach to collective problem-solving, says Donahue, who provided facilitation and coaching during WestEd’s professional learning sessions for APS. Designed to accelerate learning by doing, an improvement science process aims to produce measurable improvements, generate knowledge that might be shared with others, and develop the capacity to do future improvement work, he says. “Our efforts with the Atlanta Public Schools had the greatest impact in capacity-building — teachers and leaders increased their capacity to continue using improvement science with SEL initiatives beyond our involvement.”

Building Capacity by Creating Safe Spaces

While training APS school teams on improvement science, WestEd facilitators modeled the use of SEL principles such as integrating self-awareness and interpersonal relationship skills into learning. They also incorporated some of the tenets of a trauma-informed approach, such as establishing safety for all participants and their social identities, says Erin Browder, Senior Program Associate at WestEd.

A trauma-informed approach. “Whether it’s stress from an academic intervention system, the killing of a Black man by the police, or our own personal experiences, so many different forces are acting on us,” says Rose Prejean-Harris, Ph.D., SEL Director at APS. “We have to be mindful that people are experiencing trauma in many different ways and understand that there is a breaking point if we push too hard in a certain direction.” For this reason, it’s critical to move forward in a way that’s okay for all involved, she adds.

Just as teachers know that students can’t learn without healing from trauma, the same is true for adults — and one of the most effective ways to heal is through connection and trusting relationships. “Creating space for those who are hurting makes it easier for them to listen and learn,” says Tara Shelton, SEL Coordinator for APS middle schools. “Because they feel valued, it’s possible to trust you more.”

Authenticity. Another quality that allowed participants to feel safe was the example of authenticity set by the facilitators. “While facilitating, Corey shared some of what he was grappling with at that moment in time,” says Browder, WestEd’s project manager for the initiative. Prejean-Harris describes Donahue as being “so masterful at bringing his true, authentic self to the table that it seemed he was doing the work with us, not to us. That allowed for more open sharing and valuing of lived experiences.”

During the WestEd-facilitated sessions was the first time, says Shelton, that she heard people talk openly about what has worked well and what needs to improve in their schools. “But more importantly, they were being vulnerable enough to consider their own role in their school — they were talking about and seeing themselves as contributors to what’s happening.” Shelton described this experience as being in contrast to how people often talk about their school, offering a “shiny nickel” to make the school look good.

Building Capacity by Valuing Adaptability and Autonomy

By necessity, teachers have become adept at adaptability over the recent past. So, too, did WestEd and Atlanta district leaders as they navigated how best to execute the SEL-focused improvement science training.

Identifying needs. “WestEd was really intentional about asking what people needed and was as flexible as they could be under the circumstances,” says Shelton. Demonstrating one of the principles of improvement science, WestEd facilitators adapted their approaches as new problems emerged or as dynamics between participants revealed new needs. For example, says Browder, some participants were reticent about sharing vulnerabilities or needs in front of their colleagues and so were given the opportunity to meet individually with the facilitator.

Flexing based on needs. In the spring of 2020, APS’s SEL team (Prejean-Harris and district coordinators) reached a crossroads: They needed to decide whether or not to continue the WestEd training, given the exhaustion and “fire-fighting” challenges precipitated by the pandemic. “Although we canceled some meetings,” says Donahue, “we decided to continue with the liaisons of four middle schools, shifting from a heavily facilitated improvement science process to a much more flexible period where we began sessions by simply asking, ‘What are you facing this week?’”

WestEd facilitators slowly began to introduce more structure to the improvement science training and to develop cycles of improvement on a very light, low-stakes scale, says Donahue. Instead of trying to pin down all specifics in advance as they normally might, they asked questions such as, “What could you try in the next couple of weeks? And based on what you choose, how will you know whether or not it works?” After a couple of weeks, the facilitators checked in by asking, “How did it go? Is this something you think other people can try? And what might you try next?”

Giving participants the time and space to go at their own pace was critical, says Prejean-Harris, lauding this “people-driven approach.” It sent an important message: We will support you and move forward based on your current needs, not on a prescribed process. In the past, Prejean-Harris admits, she probably would have been more rigid and not flexed from a preset focus or schedule.

Giving participants the time and space to go at their own pace was critical…. It sent an important message: We will support you and move forward based on your current needs, not on a prescribed process.

Facilitated autonomy. Too often, agrees Shelton, district leaders assume they know best when rolling out a program like this, “and then we take charge, as opposed to having a conversation with the end users so they can help shape the work and the process. It works better to let schools drive their own ‘bus.’”

With this SEL work, leaders used “empathy interviews” to find out how given problems present themselves differently to different people, which helped empower the leaders to better understand their system and therefore be able to improve it. Although participants initially were reluctant to go along with the interviews, says Shelton, “getting these interviews to happen was a real game changer.”

Understanding the school’s circumstances from different perspectives can help people make changes that may lead to better outcomes. The people at the school have to be involved, agrees Prejean-Harris: “Acting as true facilitators, WestEd staff asked the right questions, but allowed us to guide the conversation.” She describes this approach as helping school staff to better understand what support — not takeover — looks like.

Expanding reach, depth, and confidence. During fall 2020, WestEd continued the SEL-focused work with three of the four middle schools and three elementary schools joined the initiative. Each school decided its own problems of practice, goals, and change ideas to pursue through the improvement science process.

Helping participants identify achievable goals that can create a series of small wins using a continuous cycle of improvement helped them visualize the potential impact they could have at a larger scale in their schools, says Prejean-Harris.

Now, with the grant that funded training on improvement science having ended, Donahue says the real impact is evident in the schools’ and district leaders’ increased ability to continue their own SEL-focused improvement efforts into the future. A core element, according to Browder, is their knowledge of how to “determine the right problem” — an often-overlooked but key step toward achieving the right solutions. The APS participants have learned ways to identify and unpack the most pressing challenges to their SEL implementation.

The first year of training (2019/20) was more of a learning-through-shadowing process, says Shelton, and “I felt like I would never be able to take this work on myself because it was so much information supplied in a short amount of time without any real practice in between.” But after continuing to learn about and use improvement science a second time (starting in fall 2020), Shelton feels she has the capacity to lead the work. “Now I can replicate this because of the resources provided and the way I was trained.”

Investment and Buy-In

“In many ways, we were set up for success by having the investment of both the district and the schools,” says Donahue, describing the promising degree to which district coordinators say they benefited from the improvement science approach and wanted to continue. In fact, Shelton now sees using some piece of improvement science in all the work she does. And at the district level, the SEL team has become more strategic, as evidenced by, for example, building a logic model theory of change, says Donahue.

The district lead, Prejean-Harris, had a clear commitment and clear vision about how to position the work, adds Browder, which was also facilitated by relationships between the district and schools. “These conditions mean that even in the midst of the COVID pandemic and racial unrest, the work has moved forward because of deep relationships and clarity of purpose.”

Note: The Comprehensive School Safety Initiative was supported by Award Number 2015-CK-BX-K001, granted by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.