Branciforte Middle School Principal Casey O'Brien reads worksheets for a social emotional learning lesson
Branciforte Middle School Principal Casey O’Brien reads worksheets for a social emotional learning lesson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

What is social emotional learning? Branciforte Middle parents, educators and students provide insights

Education agencies across the country have been working for years to implement social emotional learning programs in K-12 schools. At Branciforte Middle School earlier this month, one SEL lesson taught students how to manage conflicts. Teachers and parents hope lessons like these will help students excel academically and personally.

In a classroom of seventh graders at Branciforte Middle School earlier this month, students spent about 40 minutes learning about major and minor conflicts and what makes them escalate.

It wasn’t a health class or an English class, but rather an entirely separate lesson from the social emotional learning curriculum, widely known as SEL. The Santa Cruz students were focused on a section about managing relationships and social conflict.

Supporters of SEL say these skills are especially important right now given the impacts of COVID-19 on mental well-being. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health due to the stress of the pandemic and the struggle for racial justice. Seeing mental health challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, local and national education officials are ramping up efforts to expand and improve SEL programs.

At Branciforte, the seventh graders read through conflict scenarios that showed people exhibiting behaviors that can often lead to the escalation of a minor conflict into a major one. Behaviors such as making assumptions, not managing emotions, jumping to conclusions or involving others were listed as common reasons for escalation.

If I’m self-aware of what my strengths are and what things might trigger me or bother me, or what things I really love, then I’m better at managing myself.

Filling in as a substitute for Jana Peale, Principal Casey O’Brien first gave the students a reminder of the basics of SEL. He told them he thinks these skills are so important that he has SEL goals posted on his fridge at home.

“Remember, social emotional learning is a combination of things. But I always think self-awareness and self-management are the foundation,” he said. “If I’m self-aware of what my strengths are and what things might trigger me or bother me, or what things I really love, then I’m better at managing myself.”

He added that once people become better at self-awareness skills, they can improve their relationships with their peers and family members. O’Brien then began the lesson by defining major and minor conflicts before asking the students to think about examples.

Branciforte Middle School is in its third year of offering SEL lessons for its students and now offers it to all grade levels — sixth through eighth grades. Santa Cruz County public school districts are all using SEL in classrooms. Some, such as the elementary schools in the Santa Cruz City Schools district, have been following a curriculum called Second Step since 2010. While explicitly labeled SEL programs are relatively new in schools, many educators would say the same social and emotional concepts have always been a priority of teachers to instill in their students.

Currently, the California Department of Education doesn’t require schools to use a specific curriculum but rather includes SEL as a foundational part of a holistic education. The concepts are being taught in schools across the state, but school districts have the authority to decide how to teach SEL and how to measure its effectiveness.

A student fills in a worksheet at Branciforte Middle School on Jan. 14, 2022, in Santa Cruz.
A student fills in a worksheet during a social emotional learning lesson at Branciforte Middle School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

The state recommends that educators monitor school climate surveys and track the availability of SEL opportunities for students in order to help students progress, according to a list of SEL Guiding Principles developed by CDE. School climate surveys are schoolwide reviews that measure a variety of wellness factors such as whether students feel they belong at school or whether they feel safe at school, among others.

While there is no data on the effectiveness of SEL programs at Branciforte or in Santa Cruz County public schools, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and O’Brien report that county officials, parents and teachers say it is positively affecting student health and point to social emotional health surveys and school climate data.

“I’m really glad that as a school we’re now focusing on our kids’ social, emotional well-being — particularly given all the stress and anxiety that comes with having a pandemic,” said Joe Hedgecock, a parent and teacher at Branciforte Middle School.

One of his kids, 13-year-old Zable Oatey, is one of the seventh graders who was in O’Brien’s SEL lesson.

“Emotions in the classroom have such a big impact on the class,” Oatey later told Lookout. “And if you have a pretty calm class, that class will probably be better off, and be able to progress through the years better.”

He said he feels SEL has helped him to think more about what he’s going to do. For example, when he thinks he might be feeling angry, he tries to calm down and keep his distance from other people. His dad said he has noticed Oatey and his younger brother resolving conflicts on their own, and that they regularly talk about SEL at home.

At Branciforte, Hedgecock teaches physical education and English language development for students who have recently arrived in the U.S. Not only is he seeing the impact of SEL on his own children, but he’s also providing the lessons to students at the middle school.

You want kids to be able to work through stuff. And you don’t always want adults or some other authority figure to have to get in and resolve every minor dispute.

“You want kids to be able to work through stuff. And you don’t always want adults or some other authority figure to have to get in and resolve every minor dispute. I think that’s one of the good things about SEL,” he said. “Having that be a focus, it teaches kids and gives them the tools they need to be successful for managing their stress and their conflict and avoiding it and how to advocate for people when they’re in a vulnerable situation.”

The Second Step curriculum used by Branciforte Middle School is just one available curriculum among many. It was developed by Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children. The group says it has focused on creating SEL programming since 1979. One study conducted in 36 schools in the Midwest found that the Second Step curriculum had a significant impact after sixth grade students received 15 weekly lessons.

After one year, students in schools with the lessons were “42% less likely to self-report physical aggression than students in control schools,” according to a study published in 2013 in The Journal of Adolescent Health.

In a report carried out by the CDE and several organizations in 2020 aimed at figuring out the best way to provide SEL programs across the state, officials made four major recommendations: make SEL a foundation of the state’s education system; emphasize training for the adults providing the programming in schools; align SEL efforts among state, county and district entities; and engage communities to develop SEL programs.

In the Santa Cruz City Schools district, DeLaveaga Elementary School has been teaching SEL for years, and many of the students are now at Branciforte, where they continue to receive SEL. Hedgecock and another parent, Reedie Durst, both have children who are currently at or went to DeLaveaga Elementary.

Durst has two kids who went to DeLaveaga and are now attending Branciforte Middle School. So for them, SEL has become the norm. Durst recalled when her daughter was part of playing out skits about resolving conflicts at DeLaveaga.

“I think it can be really powerful and more attainable,” she said. “I think what they came back with was how to deal with a conflict. How to stop and breathe.”

Durst said her kids, now in middle school, are working on SEL goals. Her sixth grade son is focusing on being more organized, while her eighth grade daughter is working on not being offended if someone says something that doesn’t make her feel good.

She appreciates that these lessons are being taught in school — as opposed to happening only at home, where it could feel more judgmental between parents and their kids.

“It also can open up the conversations when it is addressed in school,” Durst said. “It can be hard for parents to just say, ‘Hey, you know, you can be a little more responsible.’ But if you’re in a class, and you’re thinking, and you’re there, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, actually, I could.’”


  • The California Parent and Youth Helpline: 877-427-2736
  • Teen and Youth Hotline: 800-TLC-TEEN (800-852-8336)
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990 (TTY 800-846-8517) or text TalkWithUs to 66746 for 24/7 support
  • Crisis Text Line: Text NAMI to 741741 for 24/7 crisis support
  • National Suicide Prevention Line: 800-273-8255 (TALK)
  • The Trevor Project Lifeline: 866-488-7386
  • CalHOPE Peer-Run Warm Line: 916-567-0163 or email
  • California Warm Peer Line: 855-845-7415 for 24/7 for non-emergency support to talk to a peer counselor with lived experience

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness