Educating the Whole Child

Rationale/Basis of the Practice

Although the school and district have always been concerned with the social/emotional health of the students, it was observed about a decade ago that behavioral incidents were rising, and that many of the conflicts noted at the middle schools seemed rooted in unresolved student conflicts at the elementary level. Although conflict resolution and character development were addressed, it was felt that a more consistent and systematic approach was needed, especially as the standards-based focus on academics left little time for teachers and principals to address social or emotional issues in depth. The decision was made by the Board of Trustees to hire full-time counselors at the elementary schools to help address these issues. Subsequent Needs Assessment surveys indicated that a substantial majority of stakeholders believed the extended counseling program was having a positive impact at all levels.

Historically, the district’s mission has included educating “the whole child in a nurturing environment,” consistent with State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s A Blueprint for Great Schools (2011). The ultimate district goal is to have all students attain the district’s list of “Essential Outcomes”, the “life” worthy and 21st Century skills that students will need for a successful life. They include having good character, being innovators and problem solvers, effective communicators, global citizens, lifelong learners, and effective users of technology.

North School decided to focus on the whole child by creating a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program. Research on SEL, showed that students who acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions, would do better in school and in life (National Research Council, 2009, 2012; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; Goleman, 2005; Greenberg et al., 2003). Further research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in 2007 found that good SEL programs led to significant improvements in academic achievement (i.e., closing an achievement gap), social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, positive social behavior, conduct problems and emotional distress. North determined that an SEL program was needed to support students to attain the district’s Essential Outcomes and to help raise academic achievement.

Description of the Practice

The SEL program at North is a structured, tiered, and interconnected set of strategies to meet each student’s behavioral, social, and emotional needs. Tier 1 is provided to all students and it is broad-based to ensure that all students are given a solid foundation in SEL.

When the full-time counselor arrived in 2007, she established a formal, school-wide character education program, focused on instilling school-wide values such as fairness, respect, responsibility, kindness, empathy, trust, and resiliency. After three years of trying out different school-wide themes, North School became a “Bucket Filler” school, based on the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. This theme continues to be an effective way to build character and create a positive school climate. The teachers encourage students to fill one another’s metaphorical “buckets” to create a culture of kindness. Staff and students identify “bucket-filling” behaviors by writing names of “bucket fillers” on stars, hearts, and cards and entering them into a school-wide bucket for a raffle and prizes. Teachers refer to the bucket-filling theme throughout the school day and highlight it in their literacy programs too. Students use the language with one another and parents reinforce the language at home.

Student leaders reinforce the bucket-filling theme and the school norms (i.e., Make Good Decisions, Show Respect, and Solve Your Problems) at the first assembly of the year. The 5th grade Character Team creates and presents 6 yearly school-wide character assemblies for the students. Students are encouraged to wear their student-designed “bucket-filling” t-shirts on assembly days. The assemblies include skits or songs about problem solving the real-life dilemmas of North students, current “hot topics” of the student body, the Essential Outcomes, and bucket-filling behavior. In addition, each classroom teacher acknowledges the behavior of 1-2 students who have shown exceptional character over the previous month and the students receive a “Bucket Filler Award” certificate. The assemblies end with the team members reading 10 student-written “Bucket Filler” letters aloud. These letters allow one student to tell another student how their bucket-filling behavior has had an impact on them, which inevitably fills the recipient’s bucket as well. This year more than 75% of the 5th graders expressed interest in joining the Character Team.

A critical component of any successful SEL program is a conflict resolution program. North School uses Talk It Out, by Barbara Porro, to teach all students the steps to resolve conflict. All staff members are trained in Talk It Out and help lead students through the steps using this common language. Students use “I-messages” as a strategy to try and solve their conflicts in the classroom and on the playground. In order to help as many students as possible resolve differences, 5th grade conflict mediators are trained in the Talk it Out process and they work during recesses with K-2nd grade students on the playground. Talk It Out and the school theme have melded. Students use the terms “bucket filling” and “bucket dipping” to talk through appropriate behaviors and choices and treatment of each other. Parent volunteers called Recess Pals, are also trained in this process, and are out on the playground every lunch recess interacting with students and reinforcing bucket-filling behavior.

Several years ago, some students told staff that the playground was boring and lonely if one was not interested in playing sports. The staff at North School believed that having positive peer interactions was such a fundamental expectation for all students, that they partnered with parents to solve the problem. The program started with a few board games and it kept growing. Teachers now volunteer to host a variety of lunch time activities and the program is so successful that North won a county innovations award for the “Lunch Elective” program last year. Students have almost 10 options per week including Japanese, computer programming, music, book talks, chess, drawing, and coloring, and games. Most importantly, students now find like-minded peers and engage with peers through interest-based activities.

The school counselor plays a pivotal and broad role in the success of North’s SEL program by monitoring emerging student needs. Last year, she trained 5th grade referees to help monitor and encourage good sportsmanship during the structured games such as handball, kickball, and basketball. Referees wear official referee jerseys and carry a whistle, which makes them feel important in their role. The counselor hosts “Lunch Bunches” 2-3 times per week for students to make peer connections and foster positive social interaction in an informal setting. The lunches may be requested by the student, teacher, parent, or counselor, and they are an excellent way for the counselor to address a social struggle or observe social behaviors in a small group setting. To support a smooth transition to the school, new students are invited to a special “New Student Lunch Bunch” to meet new friends, ask questions, and share feelings. The counselor also gives a yearly talk to all 4th grade girls on relational aggression and gives a lesson on harassment and bullying to all 3rd-5th graders every year.

Promoting leadership is another important part of the SEL program. Each year North provides two “Character Retreats” for the 4th and 5th grade students. Using a variety of activities, these retreats stress cooperation, tolerance, empathy building, and challenge each student to collaborate on a team project. Middle school students lead the activities, allowing North students a chance to ask the old students questions such as how to handle rumors, friendship challenges, and academic demands. North School also has an active Student Council. In addition to the 10 Student Council Officers, every 1st through 5th grade classroom has a Student Council representative who attends meetings regularly and reports back to their peers. Additional leadership opportunities include “5th Grade Leadership” jobs which promote social responsibility and create a feeling of meaningfulness and belonging. The 5th Grade Leaders serve as recess aides, conflict mediators, laptop technicians, digital camera users, public announcers, flag raisers, mentors to younger students, and Bridge School buddies.

Last year, the North and middle school counselor worked together to create a buddy program between 8th graders and any children in need at North. The program started with 2-3 buddies, and this year there are about fifty 8th grade students paired up with elementary students. These middle school buddies help in the preschool, Learning Center, and other classrooms, creating lasting connections and friendships for all students and increase self-esteem.

At the heart of the North School SEL program is the class meeting time provided weekly in each classroom. Two years ago, the North staff read the book Positive Discipline in the Classroom by Jane Nelson. The book taught us that class meetings are an avenue to “create a classroom climate that is nurturing to both self-esteem through life skills education, and to academic performance.” Class meetings decrease discipline problems, build resiliency, foster responsibility and cooperation, and create effective decision makers. All classroom teachers dedicate 30 minutes per week for class meeting time. Instruction during classroom meetings include problem solving current student needs, compliments and appreciations of each other, sharing feelings, listening to one another, or mini-lessons on a variety of social emotional topics including emotional vocabulary from the health standards and the Essential Outcomes.

When it is apparent that tier 1 services for SEL are not sufficient for a child to feel good socially and/or emotionally, there are further support options. Parents, principal, teachers and specialists may hold a CST (Child Study Team) meeting and decide to provide tier 2 interventions, which may include counseling either in small groups or individually, to address such things as test anxiety, friendship, playground behavior, or to teach relaxation techniques. The counselor also meets with parents frequently to help teach them strategies that might be effective to help their child(ren). Students requiring intensive support at the tier 3 level may receive individualized academic programming or one-to-one adult assistance at various times in the day, as per their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or Section 504 plan.

Ultimately, having such a comprehensive SEL program, which focuses on the individual needs of each child, has had a direct and positive influence on academic achievement for all students at North. All of the above program components come together to provide a caring environment where children are happy and healthy, and come to school with clear minds, a strong belief in themselves, and ready to learn. The students know how to share and deal with their emotions which allows them to fully engage in their academic learning.

Results of the Practice

There is continuous monitoring of the effectiveness of North’s SEL program. In 2012, the district added a numerical measurement system on the report card for the Essential Outcomes to track student progress. In addition, all teachers make a comment about a student’s social/emotional progress in the comments section. At faculty and grade-level meetings, staff routinely reviews the various strategies in place, examines how the needs of specific students or groups of students are being met, and implements strategies and interventions to meet these needs. The addition of the lunch electives program is an example of an outcome of this process. The Parent Group and School Site Council meetings are forums for parents to discuss school climate and offer suggestions for improvement. The school’s Single Plan for Student Achievement has included formal SEL goals since 2010, ensuring a conversation about SEL and making the actions in the plan regarding SEL a priority with accountability.

North School takes pride in listening to feedback from its stakeholders in order to improve its programs and practices. Teachers, parents, and students are regularly asked how they feel things are going socially from their perspectives. The anecdotal qualitative and quantitative data has been very positive about North’s school climate for students.

Teachers are very happy with the changes they have seen since the SEL program started. Comments from teachers have been positive, “The bucket-filling program…accentuates positive behavior and it allows students to be recognized for these behaviors”, “Having class meetings has improved my classroom environment. Having a forum to be able to share their issues has enabled the students to focus on their schoolwork the rest of the week.”, “[class meetings] provide a platform for the children to feel validated in their feelings and concerns. The overall school climate is described by teachers as “very pro-child, safe, healthy, happy, and flexible”, “a positive, growth-minded place for students” and, “very positive and warm. Our kids feel safe and welcomed.”

Anecdotal data from parents is equally positive. For the past two years, parents have been encouraged to send in written “Kudos” (i.e., compliments) to North staff members acknowledging something that is working well and to “fill their bucket”. Last year, staff received over 100 Kudos, and this year the goal is to receive 200 Kudos. One parent remarked, “I feel so fortunate for my children to have such amazing personal support and guidance at school when they need it! The teachers and counselor at North go above and beyond to create a positive and happy environment for every student." Another parent wrote, “The faculty at North School has given a lot of thought to our child’s emotional needs, and life is better in school and outside of school as a result. The specialists at North School have been tireless advocates for our child…ensuring that our child has a positive experience at North School. The North School climate has increased our son’s self-esteem, and with his bolstered confidence, he has had a very successful school year.”

Student feedback was most important. In order to hear what the students thought, all 3rd-5th grade students were surveyed at the end of last year. When students were asked whether they had a good year: 88% of 3rd grade students, 93% of 4th grade students and a resounding 97% of 5th grade students answered “yes”! A new 4th grade student noted: “I have had an incredible year at North because I am treated more fairly than at my old school.” A 3rd grade student commented, “I had a wonderful year at North School. I had a great year because of all the support from the teachers, faculty and staff.”

All of the above data indicates that the current SEL program is creating a very positive school climate for the students at North School. The school-wide focus on SEL promotes positive attitudes, improved behavior, and a sense of purpose for our students. Students are provided with opportunities to build supportive meaningful relationships with peers of all ages, adults, and even middle school students. North students feel connected and attached to their school. The life skills being built through these programs are establishing a foundation for our students to be contributing and responsible participants in society. Since the SEL program started, North has seen an increase in mean scale scores on standardized tests in ELA and math showing us that fully educating the whole child does indeed strengthen academic learning and help close the achievement gap!