The Office of Child Development helps spread SEL through educator community of practice

Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 1/3/2024

A graphic displaying a schedule for the SEL community of practice


The 3Rs (Reading, Racial Equity, and Relationships) Initiative is an ecosystem-based program that aims to improve early literacy outcomes for kindergarten-third grade students in Allegheny County by working with families, classroom teachers, community organizations, and local leaders. A foundational tenet of the 3Rs is that high-quality literacy experiences are inextricably linked to living in an equitable society and having strong relationships between children, adults, and organizations. The 3Rs team believes that enhancing children’s literacy experiences begins with partnering with adults to develop their knowledge and practices around reading, racial equity, and relationships.

The 3Rs Classroom Strand, led by Drs. Caitlin Forbes Spear & Jennifer Briggs of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development Literacy and Learning Division, aims to integrate the 3Rs into classroom literacy practices.

Toward this purpose, the 3Rs Classroom Strand has been running a community of practice with teachers from seven different schools in Allegheny County for the past four years. Each year centers a different element of the 3Rs (reading, racial equity, relationships) using picture books, and working with teachers to shift perspectives to improve their ability to address high quality reading, racial equity, and relationship-aligned goals in their classrooms.

This year’s focus is relationships, and the social emotional learning (SEL) that is at the heart of all relationships.

With support from 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 — the 3Rs Classroom Strand has been able to expand their communities of practice, creating a larger cross-district model, as opposed to past years, when separate meetings occurred for each district in the 3Rs Initiative.

“Up until this year they would be at their own school and we would have professional development with them and only teachers from that school and district would be in the smaller groups. This year, with the focus being on relationships and trying to think about the county more broadly, we’ve brought the teachers togethers, so we’ve got these cross-school communities of practice,” Spear said. 

“And we’re trying to help them build relationships. With the 3Rs when we talk about relationships, we’re thinking about teacher-student relationships, of course, but we’re also thinking about relationships between teachers and families, with colleagues and administration, and teachers' relationships with the content that they teach. And SEL is at the heart of all those relationships, focusing on teachers’ abilities to navigate all those relationships in healthy, equitable ways.”

The meetings bring together teachers from Urban Academy, Manchester Academic Charter, Park Elementary, Barrett Elementary, Edgewood Elementary STEAM Academy, Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy and Wilkins Elementary STEAM Academy. Participating teachers usually teach in the K-3 grade levels, targeted grade levels in the community of practice.

“That age range is critical for early reading development, but relationships are also really important, too. Kids’ relationships with schools matter greatly for literacy development, and later learning, and how they respond to questions like, ‘Do I feel good when I come here?’,  ‘Do I feel like I belong?’, ‘Do I feel like my teachers love me and support me and believe I can be successful?’ — a lot is happening developmentally in that age range that matters for learning,” said Spear.

The Community of Practice consists largely of teachers that have participated in the meetings for several years. Since switching the topic to centering relationships and focusing on SEL — and making the meetings cross-school — teachers have lauded the effectiveness of the work.

“I think it’s important. You always look at communities and neighborhoods and school districts, and it gives you an opportunity to see what others are facing inside their classrooms or schools. I think this project that we’re doing is wonderful because you get to see people’s ideas and also struggles as well. And it allows us to share and it gives you a sense of comfort knowing you’re not alone in this,” said Terry Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Wilkins Elementary Steam Academy.

“I know a lot of the practices that we discuss, I try to implement as much as I can in my classroom because I like to see how students and families respond.”

Smith said focusing on SEL is especially important, noting how young learners tend to be lacking in social-emotional skills more often than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Alexandra Freyvogel, a 3rd grade teacher at Urban Academy, echoed those thoughts.

“The main takeaways — and I’ve learned this from being a teacher for six years — sometimes learning about social emotional health and taking the time to teach that as a lesson is almost — if not as equally important — as teaching my curriculum,” said Freyvogel. 

“And I feel like since COVID, we’ve really been able to see that come together, and we’ve seen our scholars talking more about their feelings, and we’ve noticed different types of frustrations that we can look back at from COVID. 

Books used in the community of practice were carefully curated by Spear and Briggs, who use a specific formula — whittling down from a large selection to choose their books — and weighing key factors such as representation and social justice orientation. This time around, Spear and Briggs ensured that the books centered relationships and provided opportunities to explore SEL themes more deeply with adults across all the various Communities of Practice ran through the 3R’s initiative. Among other Communities of Practice, the 3R’s run groups that focus more with families, community members and higher education leaders.

Freyvogel said her students have engaged well with the books, giving them an avenue to learn about tougher SEL topics through a classic early childhood tactic — reading picture books.

“They need the time to talk about their experience, and doing these read-alouds, their engagement goes up 115 percent because they recognize people that look like them and they also recognize the feelings that the people have,” Freyvogel said.

“When they’re reading about harder topics they’re a lot more interested. Like when we’re talking about grief or depression, it does not feel like I’m teaching third graders, it feels like I’m talking with young adults.”

Smith shared similar experiences, noting how the books have given his students a sense of belonging. 

As teachers return to the community of practice meetings and share their experiences with the books, Spear said she’s noted lots of valuable discussion and collaboration.

At its core, that collaboration is a key component of the community of practice, as teachers work together to push students forward, and past barriers to learning.

“I really have an interest in the SEL and the Pitt program because it gives people an opportunity to share experiences and learn. Whether it’s topics that people don’t typically want to discuss or topics where they haven’t had a chance to be in that situation, I’m all about learning,” Smith said.

“It’s a really great program. I think it does make a difference within my classroom.”