Duquesne University students implement SEL curriculum in three school districts

Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 11/27/2023

When Greg Paul thinks about the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools, he likens it to other, more stereotypical core subjects.

“These resources to put into public schools are essential — just as essential as a reading or math curriculum. These things are very important,” said Paul, an elementary school counselor in the Cornell School District.

“I definitely see a great need (for SEL) since the (COVID-19) pandemic, but there was a need prior to the pandemic. This is the evolution of education.”

As school districts reckon with the importance of implementing SEL — especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic — many districts have found it tough to find a seamless way to fit it into the school day. Necessary resources like funds and qualified workers can often be tough to come by.  

But thanks to a grant partnership that has placed Duquesne University masters and doctorate students in their schools, three local school districts are seeing the benefit of SEL. Project SEEKS SES — a grant partnership between the AIU and ACHD that supports school districts in addressing social and emotional health and looks to bolster a local pipeline of professionals to supporting fields — has enabled these aforementioned students to implement the Merrell's Strong Kids SEL curriculum in the Cornell, West Mifflin and East Allegheny school districts.

Each district is being supported with multiple students, generally for two days a week. At Cornell, these students are working with grades 5-9, with a plan to expand to the 10-12 grade levels around mid-year. At East Allegheny, students are working with grades 7-10. 

The Strong Kids curriculum focuses on lessons like understanding your own and other’s feelings, dealing with anger, and conflict resolution. In addition to implementing the curriculum, Duquesne students are compiling pre, mid and post-test data on students’ social and emotional functioning.

“The idea is we can use this as a pre- and post-test, but we can also use this to identify who might be in need of more intensive interventions, like a tier two intervention,” said Jered Kolbert, a Duquesne University Professor in the Counselor Education Program.

Counselors in the three districts overseeing the partnership have lauded the effectiveness of Duquesne University students’ work.

“The kids are responding very well. They’re engaged, they’re participating,” said Gina Walter, a high school counselor at the Cornell School District.

“The kids want to learn, and they’re excited to learn these skills because I think they’re recognizing that they need to learn how to express emotions appropriately and to identify feelings and how to handle conflict resolution and anger management.”

Paul added similar thoughts, noting that it’s a breath of fresh air for students to hear a new voice preaching these sorts of lessons.

“Students are engaged and they’re sharing. I’m really happy they’re here,” said Paul. “I think it’s important for students to hear youthful voices and other voices than mine or their teacher’s.”

Emilia Mattucci Peiffer, a school counselor at the East Allegheny School District, said that having student placements isn’t new, but having students that function so autonomously is. Mattucci Peiffer noted an instance of problem-solving, when one of her student placements suggested that they move the lessons to Google Classroom instead of traditional pencil and paper. The student created the Google Classroom, and now the lessons are getting even better engagement.

“When I hear that we’re gonna have extra people coming in to help, my initial thought is that it’s probably gonna be extra work for me,” said Mattucci Peiffer. “But these students come in on their own, they don’t need to check in with me and they go right to the classroom. It’s great.”

That level of freedom is by design, but not typically ordinary, Kolbert said. School psychology students and counseling students typically work under the supervision of a counselor or school psychologist. This partnership, though, has allowed the students to get hands-on experience that more accurately emulates their future careers.

“They’re leading the implementation of a social-emotional curriculum that’s an additional program than the school is providing students, which would most likely not be done without this grant,” Kolbert said.

“It’s helpful for our school psychology students, given that school psychologists are oftentimes seen as leaders of the social-emotional curriculum in school districts. It’s exposing them to an evidenced-based SEL program, and it’s giving them the opportunity to actually work with administrators and teachers and discuss SEL. I can see it being pretty beneficial.”

Kolbert noted that he can see how beneficial the partnership is for the districts, too, given the ever-present need for additional personnel. Mattucci Peiffer, Paul and Walter all agreed that they hope this partnership is the starting point of something more systematic, where they can regularly have Duquesne University students placed in their schools.

“I would love that. It’s such a huge help. Sometimes our best resource is people. We can get curriculums and activities and programs, but we need people to help implement them. So having that as an extra resource has been fabulous,” Walter said.

"I’m very, very impressed with them and the job that they’re doing as professionals in the field.”