SEL Ambassador Spotlight: Sarah Gaw from Distinctive Schools

Distinctive Schools have made the social-emotional needs of their students and staff their top priority. It’s highlighted in their Strategic Plan, and it’s visible daily in classrooms across their campuses. With the implementation of SEL, they have been able to create and maintain a safe, happy and close-knit community. We spoke with Sarah Gaw, Distinctive Schools’ Director of SEL, about how her community is prioritizing the work of social-emotional learning.

“SEL is essential to the future of our students.”

-Sarah Gaw, Director of SEL, Distinctive Schools

MTW: What does SEL look like in your community?

Sarah Gaw: We’ve integrated Move This World into our daily Community Gathering time. Every day, our classroom communities come together to start their day sharing with each other and building their SEL skills and their relationships with each other. SEL does not live solely in Community Gathering, but lives and breathes in the classroom’s conducive environment, in teachable moments, among practice opportunities, and thoughtful modeling by the adults in the building.

MTW: How did you know your community needed the support of an SEL program?

Sarah Gaw: We had strong practices throughout the Network at different Campuses, however none of them included the explicit instruction of SEL skills throughout the school year. With slightly differing practices and without the constant of one SEL curriculum, we knew we would be best served if we researched SEL curriculums and chose one that would best meet the needs of our communities. We knew our staff, students and families were dealing with the hardships the Pandemic brought forth, and an SEL curriculum helped support our communities to build SEL skills while also nurturing a space to begin to heal.

MTW: How has SEL impacted your community

Sarah Gaw: At the beginning of the last school year, as we entered a fresh school year in the middle of a pandemic, as a Network, we built our year around building a sense of belonging, safety, hope and joy for all members of our community. Move This World was foundational in those efforts, as our community started to build a shared understanding, language and skills as they relate to SEL. Given the impact that COVID had on our community, it was paramount that our students, either in our buildings for our Community of Care program or learning from home, felt our love and support. SEL became a critical part of the conversation in how we best support our students and families, where previously it sometimes came as an added element.

MTW: Why is SEL important to you?

Sarah Gaw: SEL is important because of the influence SEL skills have on the individual lives and futures of our students. SEL is the vehicle in which our students’ hopes and dreams can be reached. I often tell students that even if you’re the smartest person in the room, if you can’t work well with others and navigate through challenging situations, your knowledge and other skills won’t be used to their full potential. These SEL skills are so important for our young people in becoming happy, successful and contributing members of our community. To me, SEL skills are absolutely essential for the future of our students.

MTW: What advice do you have for schools that are new to implementing SEL?

Sarah Gaw: Having a shared understanding and value of SEL within your school community is so important. You have to start there, and that can take some time. Also, starting small is critical. Begin with adding SEL into one part of the school day and as capacity is built, add on and encourage staff to try new things and build on the successes that they have. Lastly, celebrate when things go well and find solutions together when adjustments need to be made.

We’re inspired by the ways that Sarah Gaw has contributed to the success of SEL throughout her district, supporting educators, students, and families to navigate the turmoil of the pandemic and come together as a community to heal. She has played an important role when it comes to creating a culture of mental wellness and positivity throughout her district and we hope the vicinity of her contributions expand!

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