Walk by second grade classrooms and you will overhear students expressing their feelings as they sit with their classmates on the rug at morning meeting. “I liked when you said hi to me in the hallway,” or “It was hard for me when you didn’t share the Legos.” Children are eager to share their strategies for how to solve a problem. In Park’s Lower and Middle Division classrooms, students are encouraged to work together and develop their ability to resolve conflicts. As one Kindergartener says, “We are problem spotters and problem solvers, not problem makers!” Developing skills like these are an essential part of educating the “whole child.”
The School has long recognized that a great education is more than straight academics. Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, is evident in Park’s mission: “Our school community fosters a nurturing environment in which children develop curiosity, express creativity, appreciate the value of hard work and discipline, and experience the joy of learning.” More so, Park has been at the forefront in recognizing the role identity plays in forming children who are SEL proficient. “Park is committed to being a metropolitan, coeducational, day school of diverse races, religions, cultures, and backgrounds. Central to its mission is an appreciation of similarities and differences of perspective and the interdependence of all people.” Diversity and identity are key to SEL; it is impossible to learn cooperation, teamwork, and respect if everyone comes from a similar background and mindset.
Social Emotional Learning was born as a school-reform movement at the Yale School of Medicine in the late 1960s, when James Comer noticed that home environment affected academic outcome. The New Haven Public Schools piloted the New Haven Development Program from 1987-1992, demonstrating a positive relation between supporting students’ social and emotional needs and academic performance. CASEL, the Collaboration for Social and Emotional Learning, formed in 1994 and the national SEL movement was born. While Comer’s initial study was born from “the dysfunctional society, which we increasingly inhabit, the absence of mesh, the absence of community networks, the fragmented nature of modern society,” most educators today believe that children from all backgrounds benefit from SEL.
SEL, as a defined curriculum, has a notable impact. A study by CASEL demonstrated that SEL programming yielded an average gain on achievement test scores of 11-17 percentile points (2008). A meta-analysis of 82 school-based SEL programs found long-term (between 6 months and 18 years) improvements in four areas: SEL skills, attitudes, positive social behavior, and academic performance. Additionally, decreases were found in three areas: conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use (Taylor et al., 2017). Noted business writer J. Freedman reached the same conclusion:, “Emotional intelligence is a way of recognizing, understanding, and choosing how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it determines the majority of our daily actions. Research suggests it is responsible for as much as 80 percent of the “success” in our lives.”
Fifth grade teacher Sarah Leonardelli explains, “We often begin the school year thinking about our hopes and dreams. However, as a student and teacher, I always found it daunting and difficult to set goals for the entire school year. So instead of thinking about the entire year, we focus on monthly goals in my fifth grade classroom. We use a class “Twitter wall” to “tweet out” our goals monthly and sum them up in a hashtag. This allow our goals to be public so others in the class know what we are working on and can help to hold us accountable. In addition, it allows us to reevaluate our goals more frequently, sometimes setting new goals for ourselves or continuing the same goal into the next month, but thinking about a new approach or way to achieve that goal.”
Creating a Unified SEL Framework
Beginning in the fall of 2017, we wanted a more cohesive SEL framework for the School. Park had the advantage of beginning this SEL programming initiative with a clean slate. Recent studies by CASEL and the Wallace Foundation have determined that there is not a one-size-fits all SEL curriculum. Indeed, many schools that invested in a singular, schoolwide SEL curriculum have found their purchases to be obsolete. Programs that do a portion of the SEL well, or serve a small set of grades well, often fail the others.
To implement SEL here at Park, we first needed to conduct our own research. We learned what programs other schools were using from online resources and reports. We conducted a survey with Lower and Middle Division teachers to see what they used, needed, and wanted; and interviewed many faculty and staff in-depth. We visited five Boston-area schools known for SEL prowess and interviewed a sixth located in California. At the end of the research we reached the same conclusion as CASEL and Wallace: There is not a singular solution to implementing SEL.
Given that, we determined the best course of action was to examine what we hoped to achieve through SEL programming. Through a scope-and-sequence document, a grid that delineates expectations by grade level, we defined what we aim to teach our students in terms of heart and soul, character, and identity; and also identify our current strengths and weaknesses in doing so.
Last year, the Lower and Middle School Divisions dedicated time to the above topics. In the final meeting, we determined the headings we wanted for our SEL scope-and-sequence and worked in grade levels to define expectations. This summer, two additional meetings yielded an early draft of a full scope-and-sequence. We have already met this fall to polish it. During the 2018-19 school year, we will examine the grid through the lens of teaching to it, and look at how we can best meet the expectations laid out within it. The goal is that by the start of the 2019 year, we will have a published scope-and-sequence document and solid plans on how to meet its expectations. With SEL, teachers are providing the skills for long-term success. For example, a deep (or a “flower”) breath is a powerful tool; it brings our system back to balance and is a critical component of the problem-solving process. Students are learning that problems and big feelings happen to all of us. If we can learn to notice the feeling and take that first deep breath, we can then work to respond (not react!) and find a positive way through the problem, which ultimately is a tool needed by all for success. With clear expectations and a common vocabulary shared among teachers from Pre-K – Grade V, children in the Lower and Middle Divisions may be reminding us all to take a “flower breath.”