SEL Today Q&A: Heidi Armstrong, Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, Hawai‘i Department of Education

Heidi Armstrong was appointed in February 2019 as Assistant Superintendent for the Office of Student Support Services after serving in the position on an interim basis since July 2018. Armstrong has been with the Department for 30 years, most recently as a complex area superintendent for Campbell-Kapolei Complex Area. Prior to becoming CAS in 2012, she served as principal of Iroquois Point Elementary, where she led continuous improvements in school performance and quality, as comprehensive support for students helped boost reading and math proficiency. She began her career with the Department in 1988 as a math teacher at Pohakea Elementary, where she became vice-principal in 2000. Armstrong also was the vice principal at Waipahu High from 2001-02. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. The creation of this office was approved by the Board of Education in May 2018.

Please tell me about your district and the community you currently serve.

The Hawai‘i State Department of Education (HIDOE) is the only statewide public school district in the country and comprises 257 public schools and 37 charter schools. We have about 22,000 permanent full-time staff including about 13,000 teachers with more than 22,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time/casual employees serving about 176,000 students, their families, and the community.

We operate within a tri-level system including the state level, complex area level, and school level. At the state level, there is one state superintendent, a deputy superintendent, and 7 assistant superintendents each leading one of these offices: Office of Talent Management, Office of Facilities and Operations, Office of Strategy Innovation and Performance, Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design, Office of Fiscal Services, Office of Information and Technology Services, and my office, Office of Student Support Services. We have 15 complex area-level superintendents who oversee a portfolio of schools made up of high schools and their feeder schools. You can learn more at

How is your district approaching social-emotional learning? How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed this?

HIDOE prioritized SEL in 2017 when we launched our strategic plan centered on students. A key goal of the strategic plan was to address the whole child and ensure all students would be safe, healthy, and supported in school so that they can engage fully in high-quality educational opportunities. As such, this plan also has significant input from the community and stakeholders.

Today, HIDOE continues to focus on SEL with the Superintendent’s 3-1-1 priorities. Our state office has a strong team dedicated to student well-being, including a lead position for each of the following: SEL, Counseling, School-Based Behavioral Health, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and the Hawai‘i Multi-Tiered System of Support. Our small, but mighty team, provides guidance and support for SEL.

Overall, the pandemic has increased awareness and the need for SEL practices. The challenges we’ve faced as a district really emphasized the fact that social and emotional learning is critical to re-engaging students, supporting adults, building relationships, and creating a foundation for academic learning. Our district approaches the SEL need with professional development focused on back-to-school and trauma-informed teaching, feedback sessions, and SEL practices and resources designed for whatever learning situation we may find ourselves in.

The statewide professional development implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic includes:

  • Establishing foundational beliefs regarding student well-being;
  • Fortifying a culturally responsive positive behavioral support system;
  • Building a culture of resilience;
  • Ensuring early identification and provision of supports;
  • Collaborating with students, families, and the community;
  • Promoting academic mindsets to meet content standards and the use of response-to-intervention strategies; and
  • Building social and emotional skills of students, staff, and community.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) coins it best, “by prioritizing SEL and the needs and concerns of all students and families, schools can begin to cultivate the healing, empathy, resiliency, and collective resolve needed to navigate the transition ahead and more effectively continue the work of teaching and learning.”

What role do you see SEL playing in improving equity? What are you doing to connect with students that have fallen through the cracks?

One of my favorite definitions of educational equity states that “every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background and/or family income” (Aspen Education and Society Program & CCSSO). In Hawai‘i, we are pairing SEL and technology: the Hawai‘i Multi-Tiered System of Support (HMTSS) is a systemic, data-driven approach to address equity for students that emphasizes the importance of establishing equitable learning conditions to help build student skills and competencies that can be applied across all educational trajectories. I believe that SEL provides the skills students need to be self-aware, be socially conscious, engage in critical thinking, make responsible decisions, and foster a sense of connectedness and belonging. In short, SEL is critical to educational equity.

Our work helps schools put SEL at the center of learning, no matter the discipline, and to design the school systems within the context of their community. I encourage you to learn more from programs like  Growing Pono Schools and Ceeds of Peace promote SEL from the context of our local community

Oftentimes, we talk about SEL in only the student context. How are you supporting your educators with SEL?

HIDOE will be surveying all teachers regarding their sense of wellbeing so that we may address their needs as part of our new strategic plan. In addition, our Office of Talent Management offers an employee assistance program where employees can receive confidential counseling services free of charge. My office, the Office of Student Support Services, is piloting trauma-informed organizational practices within our office, all of which builds off our thoughtful professional development work centering SEL.

Edtech is helping change what teaching and learning look How do you blend technology and SEL in your work? Are there specific resources you can recommend?

What role does professional learning play in providing SEL?

In Hawai‘i, we know that professional development is crucial in fostering the implementation of SEL practices within our schools. But to truly transform teaching and learning, professional development also needs professional support and coaching. This helps ensure continuous school improvement. HIDOE integrates SEL within our technological systems, like the Hawai‘i Multi-Tiered System of Support, and we hold quarterly meetings with complex area leads to promote effective implementation of SEL and multi-tiered practices. Our schools are encouraged to:

In addition, we are proud to have just been introduced to the work of the Social-Emotional Learning Coalition from Discovery Education and look forward to diving deeper into this resource to support our work! It’s a great tool available at no cost that supports educators with grab & go high-quality resources and professional development, all designed to engage students.

What advice do you have for other districts working to infuse classrooms with SEL?

Some of the best advice I’ve received in my life is when things get hard, take a deep breath. This really is a social-emotional learning lesson, and one we have metaphorically applied in Hawai‘i education. By taking a pause to listen and breathe, we were able to prioritize SEL through key initiatives aligned to the four areas of focus outlined by such as Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL): 1. build foundational support and plan; 2. strengthen adult SEL; 3. promote student SEL; and 3. reflect on data to improve. In Hawai‘i, this manifests as:

  • Integrating key initiatives such as Hawai‘i Multi-Tiered System of Support, our professional development work, and our SEL Initiative which involves fostering social and emotional competencies using evidence-based approaches through explicit instruction, integration with the academic curriculum, classroom practices, and schoolwide climate strategies. and HMTSS.
  • Fostering a safe and supportive learning environment (known as Back-to-School with Aloha and Connect with Aloha).
  • Integrating SEL and mental health support (known as HIDOE Here to Help).

At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for your district, and a big part of that is recognizing that SEL plays a significant role in ensuring that students are safe, healthy, and supported in school so that they can engage fully in educational opportunities.

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