Jared Braun, a fifth grade teacher at Spring Branch ISD, has noticed a measurable shift in the mental wellness of his students in recent years.
"Leading into the pandemic, our kids had the best mental health that they had had," Braun said. "Coming out of the pandemic, things have changed quite a bit."
He sees a lot more students that are apprehensive to take risks, like speaking up in class or trying to make friends.
"On the severe end, I definitely see larger outbursts — throwing things, pushing, shoving which wasn’t normal for our school," Braun said.
He believes isolation from the pandemic set his students back in terms of social skills. His students also went a year or more without social emotional learning.
Spring Branch ISD has taught these lessons for many years, before elements of SEL education became required by state law. Last legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 123, which requires schools to teach self-management skills, interpersonal skills and responsible decision-making. The bill added to character traits like courage, trustworthiness and integrity that were already part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).
Last April, the State Board of Education integrated these new skills into the TEKS and this 2022-23 school year is the first that all schools need to teach some version of it.
With the push to address child mental health, some advocates say that increasing the number of on-campus counselors, social workers and psychologists is not enough.
"It’s going to take a two-headed approach," said Jeff Temple, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. "We need to prevent the mild cases from becoming severe and the low cases from becoming mild."
Preventative efforts like social emotional learning is part of that approach.
"Everyone should be on the same page with social emotional learning and competence," Temple said. "What that means is being able to solve problems, able to manage their emotions, able to not solve conflict with violence. To realize that conflict is a normal part of relationships, but that it’s how you resolve that conflict that’s important."
Hundreds of school districts in Texas are now forging their own path to fulfilling these SEL state requirements.
Spring Branch ISD, for example, uses a program called Character Strong, a grade-level specific framework used in classrooms nationwide.
These are daily lessons in Jared Braun's fifth grade classroom.
"We come up, and we sit in a big circle," Braun said. "The first thing that we do is we do an emotional check-in. Something like 1-5, how are you feeling? Five being the best day of your life, one being the worst day of your life."
Students sometimes fill out cards taking note of acts of kindness in the classroom and discussing their value.
"If there has been an issue with a friend, we'll use pictures of situations and then the kids and I will walk ourselves through that scenario and ask ourselves, how would we solve that situation?" Braun said.
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD was considering adopting Character Strong in 2021. Parents came to school board meetings in protest. The room erupted in applause after some of these testimonies.
"Social emotional learning and critical race theory, whatever you want to coin it, is just the cover story for hate," testified Donna Stallone.
"Social emotional learning, like Character Strong, fundamentally transfers teaching responsibility on these issues from family, civil and religious institutions to the school or effectively the government... We ought to focus on genuine academic achievement," said William Ely. "Our children are not lab rats, stop the experimentation."
This is the climate that some Texas school districts are operating in while trying to comply with the new law.
In the end, CyFair created their own program made up of 10-15 minute lessons every month — much shorter than Character Strong. The program covers 8 character traits for the year.
In recent years, parents across Texas have loudly opposed any curriculum that might suggest their kids are being taught critical race theory.
"In the supercharged political environment, I think it was serendipitous that we were able to move it when we did, because things only got worse," said Bill-Author Senator Nathan Johnson. "I don’t think any bills of this nature will pass this session."
In 2021, there were lawmakers that supported the legislation, but were hung up on one phrase in the bill.
"The concern I have is adding the (phrase) ‘social emotional learning' because it carries its own baggage out there," said Republican Senator Bob Hall, during a Senate Education committee hearing. "Don't disagree with any of the items in there being taught."
Language in the first draft referred to this education as "social and emotional skills," but the final bill settled on "personal skills."
Lawmakers passed the bill hoping that it would have a positive impact on academic achievement, suicide prevention and general mental health.
For school districts that haven't received as much community backlash, like Spring Branch ISD, students have made strides after SEL lessons, according to fifth-grade teacher Jared Braun.
"I remember conversations with my students' parents," Braun said. "‘In the beginning of the year, my child would come home and not want to help out with doing their own chores' and then as the year goes on you hear the conversation go to ‘oh, wow, like they come home and they’re doing these different things.'"
If you or your child has a story about mental health in Texas, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter @sarawilla1.