They get plenty of practice in solving linear equations, conjugating Spanish verbs and identifying foreshadowing in literature, but sometimes it’s things like gossip among classmates that pose the most challenging part of their school day.
That’s why dealing with rumors and gossip is just one of 16 social and emotional skills taught in Lawrence School’s Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, or Peers.
“We teach them to minimize rumors and gossip by actually spreading the rumor themselves. It’s so empowering,” says Judy Kaufmann, a middle school math and science teacher and one of the lead Peers teachers. She tells students to intentionally bring up the rumor with classmates — “Hey, did you hear I like John?” — then prepare a quick comeback, like “Who cares? Don’t people have anything else to talk about?”
“We teach them these comebacks, and they practice it over and over,” says Kaufmann.
Lawrence School, which specializes in teaching kids with learning differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome, sent 21 faculty and staff to be trained in the Peers method at UCLA, where the program was pioneered. In addition to helping kids deal with gossip, the program provides instruction and role-playing in starting conversations, finding common interests, making and keeping friends, and changing their reputation.
The program includes 10 to 12 students who meet for 40 minutes each day throughout the school year. Participants are selected through parent recommendation and teacher evaluations of a child’s social skills — like difficulty making friends or working in groups. They are then assessed at the beginning and end of each term.
“They now have a toolbox to help themselves emotionally and socially,” says Kaufmann. “It’s so neat when you see that transformation. The growth is beautiful.”
Lawrence’s Peers program is just one example of how schools are increasingly developing strategies to incorporate social and emotional learning, known commonly as SEL, into their curriculum or classroom environment.
Other programs go by names such as Responsive Classroom, Second Step and Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support. But all are built on the same key principles, as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
“Social and emotional learning is all of the nonacademic stuff that’s equally as important in affecting the students, more than just their brain,” says Sharon Baker, director of Hathaway Brown’s middle school. “It’s always been a part of what HB is about, but in the last five to six years, we’ve been more intentional in our programming.”
The principles of social and emotional learning go back to research conducted at the Yale School of Medicine in the 1960s, but the term didn’t begin to emerge until the mid-1990s. Around that time, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning formed to serve as the center of research and advocacy.
Since then, incorporating social and emotional learning into a school’s curriculum has demonstrated tangible results.
A 2011 Child Development study surveyed programs in 213 schools, encompassing more than 270,000 kindergarten through high school students in rural, suburban and urban districts. It found an 11 percent gain in academic achievement among participating students, along with demonstrated improvement in attitudes, behavior and social skills.
Last year, a Columbia University study evaluated six programs, including Responsive Classroom and Second Step, and found that every dollar spent produced an $11 return in the form of reduced juvenile crime and delinquency and fewer risky behaviors like drug use.
While those are important measures, Beaumont School’s director of guidance Alicia Iarussi points to a less tangible, but equally important metric in the all-girls school’s graduates.
“These kids come back as competent and kind and confident adults,” says Iarussi. “That’s the best result in my mind.”
Within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, a focus on social and emotional learning came about through tragedy. In 2007, a student at downtown’s SuccessTech Academy shot two teachers and two students before ultimately killing himself.
“We recognized that something had to be done with students when they felt this desperate,” says Denine Goolsby, executive director of the district’s Humanware social and emotional learning program. “The hardware was the metal detectors and wands and cameras, but Humanware is the human side that becomes intrinsic to decision-making for students.”
While many programs face the challenge of getting buy in, Humanware received an immediate, positive response from Cleveland teachers. They formed working groups across all schools and grades, and solicited support from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning that continues to this day. Officials from other public school districts have visited the district to learn from its model.
For example, the approach offers an alternative to in-school suspensions called planning centers, where an aide works individually with each student to build an intervention plan and modify behavior.
“Instead of just sitting there watching the dust fly through the air, they are actually working with a person to build a toolkit of reaction,” Goolsby says. “They are armed with an answer that’s positive instead of what ended them up there.”
In addition, a student advisory committee from the district’s high schools meets four times a year with CEO Eric Gordon to discuss how the district can be improved. And classroom meetings encourage small-group communication and problem-solving.
As the 10-year anniversary of the SuccessTech shooting nears, Goolsby’s team is spending this year documenting Humanware’s impact. Already, scores on annual surveys designed to track social and emotional learning metrics in juniors and seniors have increased by 15 percent over a 10-year period.
Attendance was up 1.5 percent districtwide between the 2014 and 2015 school years, and there were 52 fewer expulsions.
“People think it’s touchy-feely, but it’s not,” Goolsby says. “It’s what children need to be successful.”
PHILOSOPHY VS. PROGRAM
At St. Ignatius High School, principal Daniel Bradesca doesn’t use the term social and emotional learning, nor can he describe an isolated program as such. But the same principles fall under the school’s philosophy of cura personalis, a Latin term meaning, “care for the entire individual.”
“It’s not just the what, it’s the why,” says Bradesca. “It’s a mission education, and that’s how we define social and emotional learning. There’s something that has to go beyond the content.”
The all-boys Jesuit high school places an emphasis on service learning. Schedules permit students to leave campus during the day to serve the community.
The most popular service-related extracurricular activity, which draws about a third of juniors and seniors, is the pallbearer ministry, for which St. Ignatius students act as pallbearers in funerals of the indigent or those with no family available.
“That’s an example of Jesuit education,” he says, “the idea of introspection and applying it to what you learn. It’s self-awareness of who you are in the world as a child of God and what your responsibility is.”
That difference between philosophy and programming exists at St. Joseph Academy as well. Dean of women Marie Ciolek says the concepts have been part of the school’s mission from the start in 1890, but they’ve been increasing the focus in recent years.
For example, the school has developed a new well-being program focused on physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Each month offers a theme, such as this month’s focus on breast cancer, that includes speakers and activities planned by students. Study hall time can also be used for Zumba classes, yoga, reflexology, meditation or prayer groups.
In addition, the all-girls school is currently a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, a rigorous international accreditation process that develops the “intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.”
“It echoes our mission of developing that student who is thinking and understanding and appreciating what they have and the world around them, and helping them become compassionate leaders,” Ciolek says.
SOCIAL (MEDIA) AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING
One of the biggest things impacting the social and emotional lives of teens and pre-teens today — especially girls — is social media.
Friendship and social media is the No. 1 issue affecting middle school girls, says Hathaway Brown’s Baker. Social media amplifies the natural points of stress and conflict by making them available and immediate for the rest of the world.
“It’s changing the way people develop relationships and how they view themselves and others,” she says.
It ratchets up the pressure to perform and to accumulate friends and likes, and reduces the amount of time for self-reflection.
“We have to give them the tools to assist in the challenges, allowing for mistakes and encouraging them to learn from their mistakes,” says Beaumont’s Iarussi. “That’s a really challenging thing to do when there are so many external pressures that are outside of their control. That’s a lot of responsibility for a young adult to have.”
At Hathaway Brown, the focus on social and emotional learning is grounded in the school’s advisory model. Every teacher serves a group of eight to 10 students. Advisers meets daily with that small group for 20 minutes. Once a week, a full class period unites advisers with their students.
“We do direct programming like interpersonal skills development, team building or leadership development,” says Baker.
As such, Hathaway Brown doesn’t have to worry about getting teacher buy in to make sure a social and emotional learning philosophy is executed at the classroom level.
“It’s part of the expectation,” says Baker. “We interview for the curriculum and for how well this person will be able to advise.”
New teachers receive a three-day orientation with much of the time devoted to social and emotional learning. Likewise, new hires are assigned a faculty mentor of their own.
But while there may be increased demands for teachers able to put social and emotional learning principles into action, it doesn’t mean universities are preparing teachers to enter the workforce with such skills.
“I’m seeing the reverse actually,” says Baker. “Universities are responding to [the emphasis on state testing] by preparing students to be teachers who are data-mining and focused on assessment rather than the social and emotional side.”
Back at Lawrence, this school year started with a fresh group of Peers participants and homework assignments.
In additional to learning those comebacks to nasty rumors, they’ll also be practicing how to start a conversation.
“If they aren’t facing you or talking to you, you need to move on,” says Kaufmann.
For some, these skills come easily. But Kaufmann always hears from other students, parents and even other Lawrence teachers who say they’ve benefited from Peers-inspired tips such as how to enter a group conversation.
Given its mission, Lawrence welcomes new students at all grade levels with average to above average IQs who have had difficulties learning at another school. Thus it is very focused on the social and emotional part of learning.
“We know they’ve struggled somewhere else,” says Kaufmann. “They already have anxiety and lack of self-confidence when they begin.”
But in Lawrence’s specialized environment, Kaufmann has seen the difference it can make.
“They are transformed into these confident and empowered learners,” she says.
3:00 PM EST
October 3, 2016