Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

As pandemic continues, Canyons School District navigates students’ social-emotional learning

Feb 03, 2022 10:16AM ● By Julie Slama

Former Alta High Principal Brian McGill, who was named Utah Principal of the Year 2020-21, will head Canyons School District’s student services and oversee social-emotional learning for students. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

As Brian McGill comes into the position of student services director at Canyons School District, he sets foot into a heated issue at school board meetings for the past several months: social-emotional learning.

A whirlwind has risen over the use of third-party social-emotional curriculum and not being able to control online material or additional resources.

“Most school districts have offered social-emotional learning in schools for decades, but part of the issue is what some districts have run into is some have adopted and used third-party curriculum; it’s hard to control the internal measures of content that arises unless you’ve got somebody just reviewing it day in and day out and checking every little change, which doesn’t happen,” McGill said. 

Looking back

Canyons was one of those districts that used a third-party curriculum. Second Step, which was introduced in the elementary schools in 2018, came in a three-ring binder, so there was not an issue with content changing online. For the most part, teachers and principals’ reviews were positive, and they supported the curriculum.

More recently, when Second Step’s online curriculum was being added into the middle schools, it came under fire. It became a public debate after the Draper Park Middle choir teacher sent a letter to parents and quit, citing his refusal to teach the curriculum. The controversy continued during the Superintendent’s listening tour, where he invited the community to weigh in on issues related to the schools.

The high school curriculum called School Connect had not been rolled out.

Parents, teachers, principals all weighed in on the debate at school board meetings until Supt. Rick Robins said it would be reviewed. Eventually, the school board voted not to continue using Second Step for what Robins said, “the philosophy and direction that Second Step was going, it really did not align with our board’s vision and priorities.”

One of the additional resources that was listed,, was one Canyons Board of Education Mont Millerberg cited as not being aligned with the board’s vision.

Millerberg said he isn’t opposed to teach social-emotional skills, but he wants a different curriculum.

“I feel social-emotional learning is an important component of education, and can recognize the value of it, but looking into the curriculum that has been put in place of Second Step’s external links, I can see the potential harm outweighing the good,” he said. “Our young people in middle school and high school are very vulnerable as they go through physical changes, trying new things, peer pressure. What they need is a safety net and support.”

Second Step is used in some of Jordan School District schools. Jordan Board of Education President Tracy Miller said the board has “gone through the curriculum and the links are not given to students. We have taken them down. We feel it’s important to teach social-emotional skills and there is a lot of good content in that curriculum. We are trusting our teachers not to introduce any inappropriate material.”

Robins said that was looked at, but “for me, it’s a challenge to say, we’re only going to turn off this or we’re going to pull this part of it. That becomes problematic. I think from the time that the curriculum was adopted until now, there have been many changes. I think that was really due to a shift of Second Step’s direction of philosophy.”

Robins directed teachers and principals to no longer use the material.

“Second Step is only a small part of our overall support to students in Canyons,” he said. “All of us, including our students, are experiencing all kinds of different challenges and trauma (heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic). We’re going to have to deal with this together and as a community, and as parents and as patrons, to take an all-in approach to invest in our students. Skills of self-regulation, empathy, kindness, respect—we’re still very committed to ensuring our students are able to learn those skills and to make that part of their educational experience.”


The U.S. Surgeon General recently said that youth are struggling more than ever as students cope with the pandemic, anxiety in school and family challenges. A report was released saying that in the past 10 years, prior to COVID-19, high school students reported persistent feelings of “sadness or hopelessness” increased 40%. 

“The Surgeon General, a couple weeks ago, said that 40% of all kids either have anxiety or depression—and those are just the kids that have been identified,” McGill said. “I think it’s a clear telltale sign of what’s happening with our youth and these middle schoolers and high schoolers at a pivotal time in their lives and if they’re struggling with their mental health, then they’re going to struggle in all aspects of their behavior.”

“Quite frankly,” he continued, “there hasn’t been a more critical time, I think, in our history especially the educational history, having gone through COVID, and having to deal with things that we’ve had to deal with. The behaviors that we’re seeing something out of the first wave of COVID in school settings, with an increase of kids not going to class, increase in parties, vandalism of property, treatment of one another in schools to behaviors of kids in schools, drug use, fake news, all of that is just off the charts. And the one thing that we can come back to in terms of looking at the key variable of these situations is COVID—when we basically locked down schools at a period in time and their lives, those interpersonal connections and the social piece of worrying and relationship building were basically taken away from them.”

McGill has mental health and substance abuse training. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and his master’s degrees in clinical psychology, school counseling and school administration. He has worked as a school counselor and as a clinician at a family center. 

He advocates for schools to use the SafeUT mobile app to prevent suicides, reduce instances of bullying, and maintain a safe learning environment; his former high school was the first to use the state-funded app.

McGill said that as mental health impacts students, it can escalate to school violence, suicide, cyberbullying, sexting and even the recent TikTok threats.

“Throughout all my research that I found, kids stating and responding to over and over and over again, was how much the metacognitive skills they need to be successful in school. It’s a huge concern because at the end of the day, if a child doesn’t have their basic essential needs met, then learning isn’t going to come. Learning becomes secondary,” he said.

Going forward

McGill already has met with other school districts discussing social-emotional learning.

“A lot of districts are building skill-based activities, looking at things like establishing resilience, building connections with others, learning about empathy, and trying to see things through a different lens or perspective—the metacognitive elements to learning. I’m taking a look at how we build those best practices that relates to building skill sets that make kids successful in school as well as in life and having things like motivation, resiliency and determination. Drive, motivation, all those things that basically make us not only successful in life and drive us to do things that we do, our purpose. I think most parents, if not all parents, would agree with that,” he said.

McGill acknowledges parents’ concerns.

“Some parents have some questions around what are the teachers or educators teaching my kid as it relates to their emotions and emotional regulation, and you’ve got a faction of parents that don’t believe that it should be (taught) in a school setting,” he said. 

So, with that line drawn between what should be taught in school versus in the home, McGill, who recently served as principal at Alta High, said that teachers and administrator feel pressure to help students succeed.

“Schools have had a lot of pressures placed on them to provide different services besides just educating kids. A lot of schools have food pantries, and a lot of schools are providing mental health supports at a higher volume than they’ve ever done before in the history of education in America. They’re a lot of these supports that schools are providing that are needs for kids so they can focus on their learning.”

Already underway is to bring in speakers on several topics one night this spring to educate and involve parents in such topics.

McGill said he will be watching the lawmakers this session to see if there’s legislation that comes out “and changes the dialogue around what school districts do as it relates to SEL (social-emotional learning) supports because there has been so much discussion and controversy,” he said. 

There is a history of the legislature introducing dialogues and bills around student issues, as state Rep. Susan Pulsipher said happened in 2020. 

“We’ve increased resources and left it up to school districts to choose how to be most effective in incorporating it, like we did with vaping and having the schools introduce education,” she said. “Jordan (District) has put counselors and psychologists in every school. I know Canyons wasn’t happy with the changes that were taking place online with its curriculum and that can be challenging. So, they’re taking control by writing their own. The state interim committee on education looks into student services so it may look into handling the online situations.”

Through the change, McGill supports teachers’ efforts to engage students in the classroom.

“They’re getting them interested in their learning, helping them advocate for themselves and learn about self-awareness about how to improve their learning,” he said. “We’re going to take more of a focal approach on helping our elementary, middle and high school kids identify those strongest skill sets and then figure out ways to incorporate that within the current curriculum that they’re already teaching.”