Teachers try to make the most of brain development as students move beyond learning to read
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Wolfe wholeheartedly agrees. "Because of the emphasis on high test scores in most districts, teachers are under enormous pressure to push … namely from a community that wants to see those high scores," she says. "But the best schools realize that you can get good test scores from creating real understanding. If you focus on getting students to understand what they learn, rather than simply drilling test material, the scores will take care of themselves."
The importance of social and emotional learning comes into play in the classroomStudents were treating each other terribly at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J., and administrators knew that something had to change. "They put a social and emotional learning program in place to deal with issues of teasing and put-downs," says Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and vice chair of the leadership team of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What happened next surprised everyone. "It had an unintended consequence," says Elias, who reports that the entire climate of the school took a positive turn. "Students began coming to school early because they wanted to spend time with the staff. The message is that if kids feel that there are people at school that listen and care about them, they really want to be there." And while they are there, research says, they learn better. Studies have found that emphasizing positive social behavior in the classroom is linked to better intellectual outcomes and performance on standardized achievement tests. And the 2003 nationwide review "Safe and Sound: An Educational Leaders' Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs,' led by Mary Utne O'Brien, discovered that 83 percent of schools that have implemented high-quality social and emotional learning programs have since made academic gains. Still, most social and emotional programs are focused less on test scores and more on building the life skills, such as self-awareness, self-regulation of emotion, self-monitoring, empathy and perspective, and social skills in handling relationships. Emotions impact learning While more schools are recognizing the importance of social and emotional learning, Ed Dulaney, project director for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning and former principal of Hinsdale Middle School, says too many still lag. It is the collaborative's mission to get more schools on board. Without proper training and attention, emotions can hinder learning in the classroom because a child's focus is elsewhere. "Often, kids' brains are not ready to learn, because emotionally they are distracted. … They are not processing or integrating [information] in a way that allows them to retain it," says Elias. This makes sense to experts such as Barbara J. Leys, director of the University Training Programs for the Academy for Urban School Leadership and adjunct professor of educational psychology at National-Louis University. "Especially if children are under chronic stress, their systems get triggered quickly, and they can't concentrate as easily and have difficulty remembering things-once those stress chemicals are running through their bodies, it is hard to stop those reactions," she says. "But if we can help them to be aware of that and plan for possible solutions ahead of time, we can counteract it." Those who think children shouldn't have a lot to be stressed out about may need to rethink their position. "There are pretty compelling evidences that between 9 and 15 million kids suffer from some kind of significant stress factor," says Eric Jensen, author of the book Teaching With the Brain in Mind and president of the Jensen Learning Corp. in San Diego. "It can cause some kids to become hyper-vigilant, which looks like attention-deficit disorder, or go the other way and become hypoactive and disconnect from the school experience." Jensen says most schools have yet to factor in the effect of stress on how kids learn. "Prolonged stress, or distress, inhibits the creation of new brain cells. Anything we can do to help make the classroom a less stressful place to learn is going to enhance brain function." One school's success Students at Cossitt Avenue School in LaGrange may not be immune to the impact of stress Jensen describes, but they are given the advantage of being part of a school committed to social and emotional learning. "I truly believe the academic connection is there," says Principal Mary Tavegia. "If they are comfortable in school, they are ready to learn." Cossitt Avenue School, with 620 kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, was the first of School District 102's five schools to adopt a social and emotional learning program. "We realized that our schools were not as warm and caring as they could be," says Tavegia, noting the reason for the pilot program's implementation. Ten years later, Cossitt's social emotional program is still in place and has yielded improvements across the board, especially among boys ages 11 and 12. It has been adopted by the three other elementary schools and the junior high school in the district. Tavegia believes Cossitt's success has had a lot to do with the intensive staff development that is part of the program. "As adults, we set the tone for our schools, as well as the climate, so first we had to come to an understanding of child development and of social and emotional development," she says. "We operate our classrooms using a class meeting process, so that students learn how to communicate with one another and learn social intelligence, how to make eye contact, accept another's opinions, take charge and communicate," says Tavegia. The students themselves are given ownership on how some subjects are learned: If they are required to read a book, the group may decide together to report about the text through painting, rather than writing. Relationships are also a focus-both between school and student and students and their peers. "Building a child's sense of belonging to their school is key to a child's academic achievement," says Tavegia. "If they feel bonded with the school and those in it, they are more likely to achieve and stay in school." At a school where students come from very different backgrounds, including affluent neighborhoods, a residential children's home and a domestic crisis center, teamwork is heavily emphasized. Cossitt achieves a sense of community through a variety of team-building exercises, including a cross-age buddy program that pairs older children with younger students to complete curricular work that benefits both groups. "The little kids aren't afraid of the big kids and big kids have grown kinder because of it. They have a responsibility," Tavegia says. And although the school is in a district that has always shown high academic achievement, Cossitt discourages comparison and competition between students. Visitors to the school won't come across bulletin boards broadcasting the school's top-performing students. "We stress performance, achievement and standards of quality work, but we are not about posting scores. We took down star charts that listed who got the perfect spelling test or the highest test score." Gone also are tangible rewards for schoolwork and competitions such as spelling bees. What may surprise people is that Cossitt's social and emotional program does not take up additional class time. "It is not like, 'Now it is 2:15 p.m. and time to sit and do our social and emotional learning,' " says Tavegia. "It is who we are and what we do every day. It is embedded into our school curriculum." Literature and social studies lessons can be sprinkled with discussions about the motivations of the character in a book or a group in history. "We might use it to examine a problem and talk about how they think a person involved felt in order to encourage them to develop perspective and a sense of empathy … or ask what they might have done in the same situation," says Tavegia. Experts say social and emotional learning becomes part of a school's culture and can be introduced with any subject. And overall, Elias says schools like Cossitt likely strike a different tone than many from the moment the students arrive. "The whole mood begins when the kids come in the door," he says. "Kids come with all kinds of different moods, but when they are greeted warmly and caringly by name and by an adult … as opposed to being expected to immediately get down to business, it makes a difference." Bumps in the road While schools that support the social and emotional learning concept may sound idyllic, children's emotions and behaviors can be messy. "We need to recognize that every student needs some sense of hope about being in school, even if they struggle in a particular area," Elias says. He tells the story of a program in Israel, Until the Last Child, which takes children who are having the most difficulty in class, either academically or behaviorally, and assesses their multiple intelligences to uncover specific strengths. "When they find a kid's strength they find an opportunity in the school day to exercise that strength," says Elias. "When they don't behave well during the day, they lose the opportunity to engage in that strength. After all, think about it, what is a detention really? For many, it can be a reward or a relief. But taking away something that a child is invested in is a different story." After one such assessment, an aggressive boy was trained to serve as a greeter for adults who visited the school. "He became the best greeter," says Elias. "After that, when he would have trouble with aggression, he would be told, 'We want you to be able to greet, need you to, but can't let you if you fight with other students.' The whole relationship between the boy and the school was turned from adversarial to helpful." Too often, educators lock other children out by labeling a few as the "best" in a certain academic area. "The reality is that we don't have enough heaps for everyone to be on top," says Elias. "Kids get the idea without being told that they are not good at something." Perhaps worse, so do his or her peers. "If that child is always on the bottom of the pile, both that child and all of his friends know that he is the kid that doesn't get it," says Leys. "But if we require all of them to do things in different ways, each child might be a star in some areas." Still, teachers interested in boosting the social and emotional learning of their students might have to go beyond science and math to find where a child's true gifts lie. "There are many pathways to life success, and all kids need to have a sense of value," says Elias. "That means that if you are not good at math and reading, it doesn't mean you are worthless … it may just mean that you haven't found that thing that you are really good at yet." Parents' help The number of schools focusing on the importance of social and emotional learning is growing, but that may not make a difference to parents if their own kids' schools aren't among them. "Seek out your child's guidance counselor or psychologist first," says Elias. "It can be very difficult for parents to try and correct a teacher's behavior, and I don't always blame the teacher for being defensive to it-they are professionals. Nevertheless, if your child is not getting what they need, you need someone more objective to help you." Even if a child's school is not on the social and emotional learning bandwagon, school guidance counselors or psychologists should be. "After you have addressed it with them, wait and see what happens … parents need to be patiently impatient and expect that they will pay attention. If nothing is happening, the next step is the principal's office," Elias says. In the end, experts say administrators, teachers and parents need to work together to make sure learning is not just something that impacts what kids think, but what they feel and how they interact with others.
"We need food but don't eat constantly-and that is the same for emotional intelligence,' says Elias. "If we give recognition and appreciation, it is digested and then the next day they may need some more-but they don't need a constant supply."
Heather Cunningham is a mom and writer who lives in Batavia and writes frequently on health and parenting issues.