As schools adopt social-emotional programs, a new guide offers help

May 14, 2017

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Parents, teachers and students streamed into the library of Palo Alto’s Gunn High School on a warm evening this spring to hear about a new plan, coming this fall, to help high school students develop empathy and coping skills through “social and emotional learning.” For starters, the audience wanted the answer to a question that has dogged the jargon phrase for years: What is social and emotional learning and why should schools get involved in it?

The term is bedeviled by abstractions, but the concept is straightforward: help students learn how to manage their emotions, be kind to others and make sensible decisions and they will do better in school, work and life. Like Palo Alto Unified, districts across the state are increasingly interested in helping students cope, prompted by concerns about student mental health and a new accountability system that calls for schools to do a better job for the hundreds of thousands of students who are suspended or chronically absent each year.

Now a new guide, Navigating Social and Emotional Learning from the Inside Out, published by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, aims to steer school districts through the thicket of social and emotional learning programs and decide on an approach.

Stephanie Jones, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the lead author of the guide, acknowledged that skilled teachers have been teaching social and emotional skills for generations, particularly at the elementary level. That includes modeling kindness, teaching the ground rules of social interactions  be quiet in the library, nod your head to show you’re listening and introducing conflict resolution techniques, from roshambo to structured conversations.

“Building social and emotional skills, however one defines that broad domain, is kind of the central feature of a high quality teaching practice,” Jones said. She added, “The new chapter of this work is trying to be quite explicit about its value, the evidence behind it and what is needed to take it to the next level.”

In Palo Alto Unified, as in many districts, school staff work to build social skills and prevent bullying in dozens of ways that differ from school to school and grade to grade, from instituting “student social kindness ambassadors” to using the Second Step curriculum, which teaches students how to use “self-talk” to remain focused, among other self-management skills.

More than a year ago, the Palo Alto district took the plunge and committed to a district-wide, multi-year plan to develop the social and emotional skills of all students. A committee of teachers, parents, students, staff, community members and administrators created a draft plan that mapped out staff training, parent education, pilot programs and data collection. Among the concerns: Are the programs backed by research? Social skill building comes naturally to kindergarten students, but how are high school teachers feeling about the work?

In a report to the school board in February as it completed the work of its first year, the committee laid out the need for paying attention to the emotional lives of students. While Palo Alto students “tend to be well equipped academically,” the committee said, it is “less clear” that students are well prepared on the social and emotional side of life. About 1 in 4 students in high school in Palo Alto reported “limited ability to understand their own moods and feelings,” the district committee said, citing a 2015-16 California Healthy Kids Survey.

Sometimes it’s a matter of learning and understanding the vocabulary of emotion and behavior, Jones said. Teachers and parents tell children and teenagers to “show respect,” “be flexible” and “don’t get distracted,” and assume they know what that looks like. They may not.

“I think of my own children and saying to them, ‘Pay attention,'” Jones said. “When they were little, they didn’t know what attention meant or what I expected them to show me.” Head nodding, looking at the speaker, or giving a thumbs up are all ways to indicate attention, she said. For older children, being able to paraphrase a conversation is a sign that attention is turned on.

The Palo Alto committee was not charged with recommending one or several social and emotional programs; that work has been passed to several new committees.

The guide is intended to make the decision easier through detailed profiles of 25 programs, most of which are designed for children in pre-K through 5th grade. Worksheets guide staff as they consider their priorities and goals in choosing a program.

Options are plentiful. In the Mutt-i-grees program, students imagine how dogs might feel in a situation. In the I Can Problem Solve curriculum, students look at a picture of a boy pushing another boy out of line and discuss: What might have led up to the push? What is likely to happen next? What could be done differently? In the 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution) program, children’s literature is used to spark conversations about bullying, standing up to injustice and respecting differences.

Other programs offer a general approach to classroom management, rather than a specific curriculum. In the Good Behavior Game, students work in teams, lose points for off-task behavior getting out of their seats or shouting an answer and win prizes, such as extra free time, for staying on task.

Brenda Carrillo, director of wellness and support services at Palo Alto Unified, said in a statement, “When students are taught specific skills to understand and manage their emotions and make positive decisions,” the payoff is enormous on academic and social fronts.

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