5. Making the Shift: Universal Social Emotional Learning with Christopher Soto and James Futrell from Durham Public Schools

Social emotional learning is more than just a classroom practice. What can it look like for an entire district to adopt social emotional learning? In this episode, Sara speaks with James Futrell, Director of Student Services for Engagement and Access, and Christopher Soto, Social-Emotional Learning + Mental Health Coordinator at Durham Public Schools, to learn more about how they have been meaningfully – and successfully – implementing SEL in their district. 


In the Saracast, Sara uses Creative Exercises to ground herself & her guests before each interview. We can bring moments of intention and creative expression to our day in small ways, like at the start or end of meetings, or as we transition from one activity to the next, to feel centered, grounded, and present as we move through our days. 


Creative Exercise: Sound Expression

Identify how you are currently feeling. If your feeling was a sound – what would it be? If your feeling was a word or a phrase – what would it be? Share sound and mirror back to one another. Finally, share your word or phrase. 


“Just as much as we put focus on academics and all of the folks who are responsible for leading instruction around math, science, reading, social studies then we also need to have that same level of intentionality in making sure there’s folks that lead work around teaching social emotional behavior.” -James Futrell

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Resources Mentioned

Embrace Social Emotional Learning Hub from Durham Public Schools

Webinar: Evaluating & Selecting SEL Programs featuring Durham Public Schools


“Our schools are saturated with feelings and emotions. Learning in fact is unlocked when you have kids who are focused and attentive and can understand what their own motivations are and moving towards that. And that is also true for adults.” ” -Christopher Soto

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About James Futrell

James Futrell is the Director of Student Services for Engagement and Access with Durham Public Schools.  In his role within the district of 33,000 students,  across 53 schools, he leads a dedicated team responsible for the implementation of Restorative Practices, Social Emotional Learning, Comprehensive School Counseling Programming, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Mental Health.  Prior to joining Durham Public Schools, James served students, families and communities as a High School Teacher, School Counselor and High School Principal in Northeastern North Carolina.  His passion for addressing the needs of the whole child is fueled by his lived experiences and desire to ensure every student is provided an opportunity to become a productive adult regardless of obstacles or challenges they may encounter along the way. 


“Students needs were present prior to the COVID closures. Now with this being an adverse childhood experience for many, there’s even a greater need for tier 1 supports to help students navigate and manage their emotions and feelings the most appropriately.” -James Futrell

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About Christopher Soto

Dr. Chris Soto is the Social-Emotional Learning + Mental Health Coordinator for Durham Public Schools. His career has focused on the intersection of education and psychology. He is particularly passionate about educator wellbeing and will soon be a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor. He is co-author of the book Everyday Self-Care for Educators and teaches the course Leading Teams and Building Learning Communities at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He is also a proud husband and father of two boys, ages five and three.


“I think that what I would like to see in the coming years, what I believe is happening and gaining traction, is an increase in professional development opportunities for teachers at the graduate school level as they are becoming educators that there is a greater prioritization of the relationship building skills as a core part of what it means to deliver good instruction, because that is the bridge.” -Christopher Soto

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