SHU Education Doctoral Students Present to National School Superintendents

FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Four Sacred Heart University doctoral students from the Isabelle Farrington College of Education presented their research in social and emotional learning (SEL) to the SEL cohort of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) November 7 in a virtual meeting. Emily C. Daigle, Greg Hatzis, Kemen Holley and Karolyn Rodriguez are part of Sacred Heart’s inaugural education doctorate (Ed.D.) class and will graduate in spring.

Miguel Cardona, U.S. secretary for education, opened the session with an introductory video about the need for SEL at the national level. “I’m excited about the groundbreaking research you’re doing to contribute to our knowledge base on social and emotional learning,” he told SHU’s students. “Each of you presenting today—Emily, Greg, Kemen and Karolyn―knows that teaching success begins with relationships.

“Supporting our educators, our administrators and our students has never been more critical than it is right now,” he continued. “Rates of depression and anxiety have doubled, notably among children and youth from underserved communities that have borne the brunt of the public health and economic crisis.” 

Cardona went on to describe the importance of children’s need to feel welcome, safe and included. “That’s why support for social and emotional well-being and culturally and linguistically responsive instruction is foundational to academic success,” he said.

According to Maureen Ruby, assistant superintendent for the Brookfield public school system and an adjunct professor in Sacred Heart’s Ed.D. program, SHU has the country’s only social, emotional, academic leadership (SEAL) doctoral program. She had pitched the idea of her students speaking about their research to AASA members, describing them as “the rising experts in their field.” She also arranged for Cardona to make his video appearance. 

“This presentation also gave the students in the dissertation phase of their program the opportunity to practice their presentations on a national stage,” Ruby said. “And this was before an audience of practitioners, so they were able to get down to the essence of what’s really important and extract the practicality of their work. What’s important if you want to be a changemaker and support the SEL initiative is that it has to be practical.”

Michael Alfano, dean of Isabelle Farrington College, said seeing Cardona acknowledge the doctoral candidates by name was extremely gratifying. “His acknowledgement of the importance of their research was a testament to their work and a tacit endorsement of the focus of our Ed.D. program on social, emotional and academic leadership.”

Researching collaborative, professional development

Rodriguez, principal of Middlesex Middle School in Darien, presented “Put Your Own Mask on First: A Supportive Group-Based Experience for Teachers Developing Competence in Employing SEL in the Classroom.” She is researching ongoing, collaborative, professional development. Teachers in the study have an eight-week cycle that they begin by receiving training on a strategy based on trauma-informed practices and then implement that strategy in the classroom.

“Then they come back and discuss what worked and what didn’t before learning another strategy,” Rodriguez said. “Working with the smaller study group enables me to work through and reflect on the process with the teachers before implementing it with a whole school. It’s a restructuring of the traditional, professional development model that allows for teachers to really understand social-emotional instructional practices and the benefits of integrating them into the classroom. This process also lends itself to allowing teachers to become experts and work through any barriers we might encounter before implementing new practices school-wide.”

She was excited to present at the AASA meeting and receive feedback from attendees. “I was happy to find that this was a need and a want from some of the superintendents in other districts. Social-emotional practices are a vital need in schools and how we prepare teachers is definitely something that’s worthwhile to keep researching.”

Reducing students’ stress levels in classrooms

Hatzis, who is head principal of Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, spoke about “Teacher and Staff Training to Reduce Student Stress for High School Students.” Though the focus of the AASA meeting was on adult SEL, the techniques that Hatzis discussed were highly applicable for both adults and high school students. “Teachers have to learn how the intervention applies to themselves in order to pass it on to their students, which helped with their own social and emotional learning.”

Hatzis is studying the use of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for high school students. While DBT originally was developed to support people who were suffering from serious mental health issues, it proved to be highly effective in adolescents. “The basic elements of it were shown to help students regulate their emotions,” he noted. Students spend most of their time in high school feeling invalidated, Hatzis said, “and DBT is all about validation.” Additionally, research has determined that the instructors who teach students these skills and tools also incorporate them into their own lives.

“I’m so grateful to the University and to Dr. Ruby for affording us the opportunity to speak at this level,” said Hatzis. “Plus, because everyone was there to learn about adult SEL, I felt very supported, and I knew that the people there cared very deeply and wanted to know more about something I am passionate about.”

Tremendous need to strengthen competencies

Holley, a K-12 curriculum specialist for world languages and English to speakers of other languages in the Brookfield public school system, presented “Teacher Training in Trauma-Informed Practice, plus SEL Using RULER Framework.” RULER stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating, which the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has identified as five skills of emotional intelligence. 

After consulting with staff and community members regarding the current SEL approach with RULER in Brookfield High School, Holley found a tremendous need for educators to implement RULER with an equity lens (implementing SEL with intentional consideration of students’ cultural, racial/ethnic, linguistic, and/or economic backgrounds). “It’s not enough to strengthen educators’ SEL, as there is an urgent need in education for all educators to implement an SEL approach that is culturally responsive and sustainable. This way, students and educators can develop authentic, mutually respectful relationships with an appreciation of their similarities and differences. These relationships empower students and educators to collaboratively identify, eliminate and ultimately resolve educational, local and societal inequities,” she said. 

Holley has teamed up with peer coaches and consultants to design a 90-day intervention professional learning series. She will be examining staff’s perceptions of belongingness, cultural awareness in action, their capacity to educate all students regardless of background and their perceptions of the professional learning experience itself and how it promoted equity.

“What I’ve learned through my participation in Sacred Heart’s doctoral program is that far too often, initiatives fall through the cracks in complex, dynamic school and district contexts because we’re not following an improvement science process model,” Holley said. “If we are going to enact a change, first we have to define the problem, and we have to be data-driven in our change ideas and then measure the amount of change to see if it’s working and adjust as needed.”

Addressing teachers’ stress and well-being

Daigle, who is department supervisor for pupil services for the West Hartford public school system, wrapped up the presentations with “The Impact of Mindfulness-Based Interventions on Teacher Stress and Well-Being.” She focused on emotional contagion and how to give teachers tools to manage stress so they are better able to support their students.

“We can’t expect teachers to teach social-emotional competencies if they have not yet developed their own competencies,” Daigle said. “The lever that I’m pulling is mindfulness. It’s feasible within the scope of a busy school day. There isn’t a lot of expensive equipment, not a lot of training, not even a big-time commitment. You can reduce your heart rate and drop cortisol in just a few minutes of practice.” 

The meeting participants who attended Daigle’s breakout group were interested in the buy-in she received from her teams and participants in the West Hartford school system. “I want to make sure people understand how powerful even brief practices can be in regulating emotions,” she said. “Teachers have to regulate their emotions in front of an audience of learners. The ability to do a three-part breath and bring your heart rate down in the middle of a lesson if things are amping up—and more importantly, being able to have your students do it—brings down the level of the entire classroom.”

Daigle shared that being asked to speak was a testimony to the program and that representing her fellow cohort colleagues was an honor.

David Title, director of the Ed. D program, said the four doctoral students “exemplify what we mean by a ‘scholar-practitioner.’ Our program, with a focus on social, emotional and academic learning, seeks to blend rigorous scholarship with practical application. These students have excelled in an academically challenging doctoral program and are engaging in meaningful scholarship that will impact public education for all learners.”

A unique program

The Doctor of Education Leadership program at Sacred Heart is unlike any other in the country.

“This particular program model is not only beneficial for the students, whom I’m trying to impact because we’re developing a method to improve student outcomes. It’s also applicable to my everyday practice,” said Holley. “I think those of us in the first cohort have realized that the professors who developed this experience have done so in a very intelligent way. Not only are we learning about it, we are living it.” 

“We have to give credit to the foresight that Dean Alfano and Dr. Title had in identifying what we are doing as a cohort,” said Daigle of the recognition the speakers received at the AASA meeting. “It was about the work we are all doing in the program to really move the needle on social and emotional learning for our kids in the public school system. The recognition goes to the work that’s being done by the University to really develop leaders who look through this lens.

“One of the best things about SHU’s program is that it’s not an ‘ivory tower’ program. Every one of our professors works in the field or has worked in the field extensively,” Daigle added. “These are not people who lack boots-on-the-ground experience. They’ve been phenomenal.”

For more information on the Ed.D. program, join our virtual information session on Wednesday, February 2, at 6:30 p.m. 


About Sacred Heart University

As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers nearly 90 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s nine colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Social Work; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis, R.N., & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 387 Colleges–2022 Edition, “Best Northeastern” and Best Business Schools–2021 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theatre. www.sacredheart.edu


Follow Fairfield HamletHub