In the Fall of 2019, I was simultaneously juggling being co-owner of a small business (and de facto janitor) with a full-time role as an Educational Counselor with Denver Kids (denverkids.org). As it turns out, side hustles are pretty standard for many underpaid educators in the US, but I digress… I remember wishing that I had more time and energy to stay connected with my students and their families. I felt overworked, disconnected from my students, and, overall, lacking time for self-care, which just amplified my stress.
At the time, I had a caseload of 48 male students across 26 elementary, middle, and high schools in Denver Public Schools. I visited each of them at least twice per month in person, which meant that I was doing A LOT of driving. A primary function of my role was the facilitation and delivery of social-emotional learning (SEL) on a one-on-one basis. In retrospect, the overall lack of training and cohesion around our SEL programs was a big part of my work-related anxiety. For the most part, lessons were piece-mealed together to the best of my ability, using various outdated tools and entirely paper-based SEL curricula and content.
I met with my students individually, around twice per month, for 20 to 40 minutes each visit. Some meetings were productive, but the time was often spent triaging and trying to debrief everything that happened since we last met. I remember thinking how naïve it was to assume that I’d be able to capture in a brief meeting everything they were doing in their lives to develop their SEL skills. Unfortunately, there was no way to see nor support their incremental improvements from a distance.
Denver Kids’ program staff are hired to fill a clear gap in the US public education system, which, in large part, is facilitating SEL. Middle & High school teachers, in particular, are hired to teach their respective subjects, but that hasn’t stopped district leadership or school administrators from mandating the integration of SEL to teachers who honestly don’t have time to teach it. Certainly not if they’re expected to teach their courses effectively — we’re not robots, c’mon! Then you have school districts across the country that don’t have their own “Denver Kids.” Not to mention the remaining 90,000+ students in Denver that still don’t have a Denver Kids counselor — how are these kids getting support in SEL?
When I worked as a counselor, I was constantly looking for better ways to support my students. I found the tools overly academic. I realized that most curricula and SEL programs took the same uniform approach to address a subject with no one-size-fits-all solution. The truth is, these skills are not learned in any one place and not learned in any linear format. We pick up these skills throughout our lives, gathered from experiences, relationships, traumas, interactions. It seems so backward to apply linear thinking to a process like SEL that is inherently messy and non-linear.
It wasn’t until a Denver Kids all-staff offsite training in September 2019, when the fire for, what eventually became Carousel, began to ignite. At the offsite, the entire organization began to ponder some big, strategic questions brought forth by the board and leadership of the nonprofit. Earlier in the year, Denver Kids hired a contractor, Steve Huff, Ph.D., to work with the program staff to develop and attempt to standardize SEL programming, ideally pushing the organization in innovation, scalability, and data collection in the area of SEL. Even though I’d heard about Steve’s creation, RellaFit (short for “Relational Fitness”) a few other times, this offsite allowed me to take a deeper dive. RellaFit, which inspired the creation of Carousel, is the basis for our SEL delivery framework. The concept had been stewing in Steve’s eccentric mind for years. After getting my hands on the paper-based tools at the offsite, I approached Steve, and in a few words, I told him, “I want in.”
For the remaining few months of 2019, I obsessed over these questions, which eventually led to the creation of Carousel:
- What would social-emotional learning (SEL) look like if it was scalable to the masses, delivered through cutting-edge technology, and data-driven?
- What if SEL programs took a youth-centered design approach, and tailored education to individual students, and emphasized personal mastery?
- What if students engaged in SEL, not because teachers or counselors told them to, but because they wanted to?
- What if teachers, counselors, mentors, and other advocates could multiply their respective impact on students without increasing their workloads?
As I researched and dug for answers to these questions, I began to understand that this challenge was not unique to the work that we did at Denver Kids. Across the country, despite the known importance of SEL, youth (especially ages 13–18) are not getting an adequate SEL education. Nearly two-thirds of educators are dissatisfied with current SEL offerings. Existing SEL curricula are static, expensive, time-consuming to deliver, & disconnected from how youth engage in daily practice. Then, throw in the fact that COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem. Youth & teachers are in a learning crisis & need new methods of content delivery.
We started Carousel because we believe that SEL skills like self-awareness, gratitude, emotional self-regulation, and so on are critical to youth development. We believe there is a better, more holistic, more inclusive solution to administering SEL programs — that’s why we’re building one. We hope you join us, and, this Summer, you can. For free. Learn more at joincarousel.io