Narcissus looks into the camera and, click, he falls in love with himself. The selfie photo is one image that symbolizes our culture. We have fallen in love with our looks, our dress, and our possessions. Self-centeredness, we can argue, has always been with us, but never has it caused an epidemic, a broad undermining of personal value and healthy relationships. Especially among our children. Have social media allowed us to deepen our friendships? Has multitasking made us more effective in our ability to cooperate and work well with others? As a society, have we become more compassionate and caring?
Elementary school students may be unable to articulate the questions above, but they sense that something is wrong. They are often confused about what they are feeling. They are insecure about their relationships with others. They are uneasy about the purpose of school or the larger purpose of their lives. They will often rebel against authority with violence, drugs, or emotional withdrawal. Although schools focus on academic studies, educators cannot ignore the underlying reality that affects these students. Education, after all, is primarily about people.
At The Principled Academy we recognize that emotional literacy is as important as academic literacy. We are aware that students are emotional and social beings, and that these aspects must be addressed if students are to be healthy, happy, and effective people. From preschool through 8th grade, students will spend more than 10,000 hours in a classroom. Aside from intellectual development, students need to recognize their emotions, how to regulate them; how to understand the feelings of others; how to build empathetic and caring relationships toward others; how to identify their core values; and how to act consistently on the foundation of those core values.
"Safe and Caring Schools" is a preschool-8th grade social-emotional curriculum used at The Principled Academy. Each grade has a textbook that is appropriate for that level. So from preschool through 8th grade, usually through morning homeroom activities guided by the teachers, students will engage in exercises suggested by the text. Teachers may use this and any other materials during the day that they feel is appropriate for the students.
Preschool offers a foundation for social-emotional learning that is developed in all the following grades. Children learn the language of emotions, as well as the ability to identify and express emotions towards others. Where better to begin than with “The Golden Rule.” Children arrange themselves in a circle, as the teacher asks, “Do you know the meaning of “The Golden Rule?” The children do not. “It means to treat people the way you like to be treated.” The teacher continues: “Do you like it when your friend pushes you?” Children: “No!” Teacher: “Do you like it when your friends say nice things to you?” Children: “Yes!” After a few more exchanges, the teacher concludes: “Always remember to treat your friends nicely, the way you would like to be treated.” The meaning of the lesson like the one above will be repeated numerous times in the course of a semester, as teachable moments lend themselves to this rule. For the children the rule will become internalized, for they can now connect this experience and behavior of others with what they have learned.
Much of what children learn in preschool is focused on their emotions. Children at this age are bundles of emotions, yet they are often unaware of what they are feeling. During another circle time, the teacher makes a list of various emotions, cuts the list into individual pieces, and places them into a container. Each child takes a turn to pick a piece of paper, then explain to the class how they would feel the emotion they chose. George chooses “anger” and explains that he “feels angry when his brother snatches his toys.” The teacher asks him how he can resolve the situation, and he replies that he can tell his brother to stop taking his toys.
Yami chooses “scared”, and she explains that she feels scared when the alarm goes off. The teacher asks how she might feel better. “It helps when I cover my ears.” Nina chooses “happy” and explains that she feels happy when “her big brother comes to school.” From these exercises children learn that everyone has similar emotions, and that one can identify emotions as well as choose how to respond constructively.
All of our lives we need to identify and constructively regulate our emotions. If we can learn these lessons in preschool, much of human conflict and tragedy can be avoided. Bullying seems to be a topic in all schools, and even three- and four-year-old preschoolers have heard the word. They understand that it means something about cruel words or behavior. Lucas says, “At my house I’m bossy to my sisters.” Louisala offers an example of bullying: “I don’t like your skin color.” When the teacher asks what a bully would say, everyone in the class responds: “I don’t like you.” The youngest children feel the impact of unkind language and behavior.
When the children are asked what they would do if they were bullied, Ashanti says, “Talk to them. Be nice.” Misako says, “Walk away.” And everyone agrees that walking away is a good strategy. The teacher adds that the children can talk to an adult. The children then view a short age–appropriate film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a discussion follows about Dr. King’s dream for America. Even adults are seriously bullied, they understand, but Dr. King responded with courage and love.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, provides research on empathy and other aspects of social and emotional development. In an essay, “Why We Should Teach Empathy to Preschoolers”, Shuka Kalantari writes, Various studies show that the more empathy a child displays, the less likely they are to engage in bullying, online and in real life. Empathic children and adolescents are more likely to engage in positive social behaviors, like sharing and helping others. They’re less likely to be antisocial and exhibit uncontrolled aggressive behaviors. That’s a big reason educators have been devoting more attention to empathy in recent years, integrating it more deeply into schools and curricula. And… some of these efforts are focusing on early childhood education. (1)
As children graduate to kindergarten, they learn more about themselves, about others, and how to develop their strengths as they collaborate with other students. Empathy allows children to understand and express their feelings while recognizing that other children have similar natures. Literature comes in (as it does in every grade level) to the class discussion to reinforce the learning objectives.
Children read We Are All Alike, We Are All Different by Laura Dwight. Following a discussion of the book, the teacher cuts out puzzle pieces to be colored by each student. The pieces are then used to illustrate how to build teamwork and establish friendships. (2) In story time children hear about the lives of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. They then draw pictures of these heroes and color them brightly with flowers and beautiful designs. Throughout a child's life at the school, he or she will be presented with role models who exhibit various virtues. At every age, we need examples of people who can inspire us with their behavior.
Another lesson in kindergarden that promotes individual creativity, as well as collaborative effort, is the classroom quilt. (3) Each child was asked to color a cloth square, then decorate the square with fabric paint. The teacher then took a photo of each child and fit it into that child’s quilt square. The squares with photos were then attached into a lovely quilt which decorated the classroom wall. Voilá. A beautiful work of art created by each child and also by the entire class. The teacher explains that when friends work together, they can be happier and make beautiful things.
Although children at this age easily respond to visual images, language development is also very important. Language gives children a base for learning new things. A child rich in language can build background information by which to learn more. If a child has a limited vocabulary, learning becomes much more difficult. One reason a child may be bored in school is because he or she doesn’t have the language and knowledge background to make sense of new information. So at every grade level, social and emotional learning is also a matter of understanding and using language.
In kindergarten, for example, each child is given a simple crossword puzzle in which to find and circle key words, such as fair, truth, and help. The game is fun, and children understand that learning is fun. Another day the crossword puzzle is about finding “safe and caring words” such as listen, friends, talk, and nice. A third puzzle has the words sorry, kind, and share. The teacher discusses the meaning of each word and explains the value of a rich vocabulary.
All of the activities in kindergarten and the school are meant to reflect the culture and core values of the school: a loving, caring environment where children can empower learning. We believe each child has great value, and everything that happens in the school is meant to develop and celebrate that value. Happy homes, good schools, and a caring community, we believe, are the building blocks for a child’s good life.
Just as we expect children to use safe and caring words, activities in kindergarten and other grades emphasize making “good choices” and being responsible to act with care, kindness, and love. Kindergarteners, for example, are given a worksheet entitled “Being Responsible”. A diagram illustrates four images: a child brushing his teeth, a child running and knocking over a table, a child picking up toys, and a child cleaning a table. The student is then asked to circle thumb up or down, indicating being responsible or not. Another worksheet entitled “Making Good Choices” asks the student to color a face happy or sad each day of the week. (4) The teacher explains that making good choices brings good feelings.
We know that children have strong feelings, often expressed in a destructive manner. Children may not be aware of their feelings or the feelings of others. During a class meeting, which is important at every grade level, students can express their feelings as they listen and learn that other students have similar feelings.
Billy talked about “being angry when his older brother bothered him.” It made him mad but also worried. Heran talked about “being happy and laughing when her mom facepainted her dog’s face”. Fred felt weird when his mom accidently dropped makeup powder on him. He laughed and thought it was funny. Many feelings were expressed, but a follow-up exercise helped students understand when and why they felt as they did.
A worksheet entitled “What Makes Me Angry,” is distributed to the class. Each line has a statement followed by four face images labeled happy, sad, mad, and scared. “When I’m teased I feel….”, and the student will color one of the faces.” ” When someone makes fun of me, I feel…,” and again the student will color one the faces. To an adult this seems like a simplistic exercise. For children, however, they learn why they feel a particular emotion and, in later exercises, they have a basis for regulating the emotion.
In another activity, children are asked to draw and color faces that correspond to an emotion. They do this with accuracy and poignancy. (5) During the school year they will participate in many activities that will help them understand their emotions and how to regulate them. The teacher comments that “The children show great levels of sympathy, empathy, and kindness towards others. They love to talk about emotions and feelings, and they are excited that they are learning how to read words and also to “read” emotions.
By identifying feelings in oneself and others, students can make wise choices about building constructive relations and developing good habits. Habits are important because they represent consistency and regularity in behavior. In Aristotle’s terms, they allow us not only to know about virtuous behavior but to act in virtuous ways.
A worksheet entitled “Listen Up” helps students in kindergarten to develop good habits. A statement is followed by a happy or sad face image. “I pay attention when someone is talking” reads one statement. “I don’t care how the speaker feels” reads another. Students color in the yes or no face in response to the statement. Another sheet entitled “A Better Way to Say It” challenges students to find alternative ways of saying “Go away! I don’t want to play with you,” or “Give me that!”
A big step and we land in first grade. Everything is difficult, yet everything is the same. As children develop they still need to be guided by the same universal principles, especially “The Golden Rule:” Treat others the way you want to be treated. In September, the beginning of the school year, the first activities in social and emotional learning focus on “The Golden Rule.” Although children have learned about the rule in preschool and kindergarten, they still need to explore the meaning of the rule in terms of specific applications. Even adults need to review this rule, for it is so easy to forget.
An initial application of “The Golden Rule” is a quiz where students learn about caring. Students are given several statements, and they are asked to circle true or false on their papers. “Caring is not important in school.” True or false? Then students are asked to fill in the blanks: “No one deserves to be out.” Finally, students are asked to draw or write a response to the statement: “How are you a safe and caring student?” At the end of the quiz, the teacher reviews the answers with the students. No one is given a grade.
Since “The Golden Rule” is a general statement, students need to explore the meaning of the rule in terms of their unique lives. In a subsequent activity, children are asked to name and draw “the people who care about me” at home, at school, and in their neighborhood or community. Roger draws figures of eight people: Charles, Mommy, Louisa, Bie, Grandpa, Grandma, Natalia, and Mrs. Jones (the teacher). Children, like all of us, want and need to experience care or love in our lives. And certainly that is one of the core meanings of “The Golden Rule.” When children receive care in their primary relationships, they feel secure, happy, loved, and are receptive to learning. If the three primary relationships of home, school, and community offer care and love, then the world makes sense to a child, he or she experiences consistency and feels secure.
Care and love can be expressed in almost every situation in the school. Occasionally, a family will move and a child will have to leave the class. Even in this challenging situation, a teacher can create a caring closure. The first grade teacher writes, On December 18th, I announced to the morning assembly that Sammy is leaving our school and that today would be his last day. I made a large card to give to Sammy, and I asked all his classmates to sign the card with a special message. Before leaving for lunch, I gave the card to Sammy. He was very excited to read all the messages. I think this gave the much needed closure for my class and Sammy. After school, older students asked to sign his card. This brought a big smile to Sammy’s face. It is always nice to leave a place knowing that you will always be loved.
Anger seems to be a ubiquitous emotion, in school as in life. Nations fight other nations, religions war with other religions, and even presidential candidates are rude and insult each other as civility takes a backseat to anger. Surely, early childhood education can make a difference in helping children understand when they are feeling anger and then strategize how to regulate it in a constructive manner.
An activity in first grade presents children with a worksheet entitled “What happens when I get angry?” (6). In one list are feelings of what happens when a child feels anger. A second list indicates what a child can do to cope with anger. A concluding statement reads, “Now I’m calm.” Students are then asked to color the outline figures of children who are angry, feeling better, and calm. The strategies of how to deal with anger in this diagram are probably similar to ones a counselor would give an angry adult.
Much of social and emotional intelligence focuses on helping children read the emotions of others. The challenge for children is to understand their own emotions, for then it is easier to identify the emotions in others. Without self-knowledge, there is little hope in understanding or feeling with (empathy for) others.
Another worksheet entitled “Discovering Our Feelings Quiz” is distributed to the first graders. They are asked to circle statements as either true or false. For instance, “I can calm down when I get angry.” A second section of the quiz asks the students to fill in the blanks: “We can , , _ to make good decisions when we are angry.” Roger fills in the blanks with stop, think, and choose.
Teachers throughout the grades emphasize that students can be responsible for making good choices. In almost every classroom there are posters on the walls with some message about making good choices. Students who make good choices with their emotions are often the ones who make good choices in their academic work.
Because bullying can be a problem at every grade level, the curriculum in each grade provides exercises on this topic. Since young children do not fully understand the meaning of bullying or how best to respond to it, teachers use activity sheets on these topics. In the first grade an activity sheet is labeled, “What is Bullying?” Students read an outline of a boy who says, “Bullies say or do things on purpose that hurt other people.” An outline of a girl says, “At our safe and caring school we treat each other with respect.” Students are then asked to check boxes labeled “yes” or “no” after statements such as “gossiping”, “calling bad names”, and “using put downs.” At the end of the sheet students are asked, “Describe a time when you were bullied. How did you feel? What did you do?” A rich discussion with the teacher and the students follows from this activity.
Natalia explains how a bully pushed her down, she got mad, and she spoke with a teacher. Students expressed their own feelings, listened to the feelings of others, and participated in class discussion. Another worksheet entitled “Caring about one another – bullying Quiz” asks students to answer true or false to statements such as “Bullying is doing or saying things to hurt others.” A final section of the quiz asks how students might prevent bullying at the school. A number of the students write (or draw) that they would walk away.
No one activity will prevent bullying or provide an ideal manner by which to respond to a bully. The cumulative effect of activities and discussion about bullying, in each grade, however, can sensitize students to why they should not bully others and to offer strategies on how to respond to bullying.
Friendship is central to children – and adults. Next to family, it is the source of love, care, creativity and the power of life. To have good friends, one must be a good friend. And friendship is a topic in all grades. To emphasize the beauty of friendship, first grade students color a “Friendship Rainbow” on a sheet that has the cutout figures of a boy and girl. (7) Friendship is not only a question of beauty or liking someone, the teacher explains, but of
seeking the good qualities in another and exhibiting these qualities in oneself.
In the follow-up discussion on friendship, the teacher asks students to pair up and color a sheet with boxes that indicate “That’s What I Like About You.” Sample boxes have brief comments such as “You are caring” ; “You are a good helper” ; “You are a good listener” ; and “I like the way you share”. The goal of this lesson is to help students identify the qualities they want in a friend.
A universal complaint in our culture is that “young people have no manners.” Whatever truth there is in this statement, we all can improve the manner in which we relate to others. Central to social and emotional learning and character education is how we establish effective relationships with others. The classroom is a microcosm of the larger world, and how students behave in a small world is a good indication of how they will behave in the larger world. Since we are all prone towards self-centeredness, manners help us think about and care for others. To exhibit good manners is to exhibit good behavior. But manners take effort and discipline. We may not feel like smiling and saying “good morning”, for it takes effort to overcome our indifference toward others. The commercial world often usurps the role of good manners by substituting a product for good behavior. “Care enough to send the very best” is a line for one product, but surely the very best is the heart and spirit by which we offer ourselves to others.
The adult world often fails young people by exhibiting foul language or rude behavior. Rap music, television, the internet, and commercial films often assault the most hardened sensibility. Teachers, therefore, like parents, must model the best manners, which is more important than any exercise or activity from the curriculum. An exercise worksheet entitled “Good Manners or Bad Manners” is distributed to students. They are asked to color a happy face, indicating good manners, or a sad face, indicating bad manners, after statements like “Opening a door for someone” , “Using unkind words”, “Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’”. A second sheet entitled “A Better Way to Say It” asks students to revise hurtful words with respectful words. So, “Give me that!” can be revised to a statement like “please hand the to me.”
Children in elementary school often have grandparents that live far away. They may not relate to elderly people regularly, and thus there is a gap in their relationships. Since all TPA students participate in service projects, we have arranged for children to visit senior centers and sing Christmas carols, read together with seniors, or perform various skits. The first graders are usually accompanied by older students for such visits. The first grade teacher reports about one such visit: “On December 11th, our class went to the Eden Lodge Senior Center to sing Christmas carols for the seniors. After the singing, our children gave homemade Christmas cards to each senior. I asked the children to sit and talk to the people. They reported back to me that they really enjoyed themselves. We discussed that the gift of giving is much more rewarding than expecting gifts from others.”
As the year comes to a close, children review their goals and the need for hard work, persistence, and grit to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. A final worksheet entitled “Follow Your Dreams Quiz” is distributed to the class. One section of the quiz asks students to draw or write “about a dream you want to achieve.” Students have learned to connect a dream with practice, good choices, and all the social and emotional awareness they have learned during the year.
At graduation students take a step forward and will become the new second graders.
“It turns out that kids schooled in feelings are smarter, nicer, happier, and more resilient than children who are less literate in their Emotional ABCs” (8)
We emphasize social and emotional learning and character education at The Principled Academy, along with academic excellence, because scientific research supports what all parents want: caring, responsible, respectful, grateful, and ethical children. This is what parents want for their children at home and at school. Educational reform in the last thirty years has focused in academic achievement measured by test scores: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core. The irony is that all of these programs were meant to boost grades, yet with very little success. We all want smart children, but more than that we want good children who have the ability to lead a good life. Virtuous behavior is crucial to both academic and social-emotional success. Consequently, a cycle of 36 virtues is integrated into The Principled Academy calendar over a period of three years. Each month everyone in the school learns about a virtue such as “perseverance” in stories, skits, and classroom discussion. Posters on walls throughout the school provide visual examples and definitions of perseverance. Second graders learn to use the dictionary and find the meaning of the word. They then use the word in a sentence on worksheets that are distributed to each student.
Class discussion about the virtue helps students make the word come alive. If all we did in the school were to promote a virtue of the month, social and emotional learning might be very superficial. However, this practice is embedded in the culture of the school, where everything contributes to the goal of social and emotional learning.
Students in the second grade have learned to regulate their emotions to some degree, but they are now ready to take more responsibility for self-control. The teacher introduces them to
simple techniques of mindful meditation to help them learn how to calm themselves. The technique is now used in schools, businesses, and various organizations. Students are asked to breathe normally and be alert to the process of breathing. Breath comes in and breath is released. If their minds wander, as surely they will, they are asked to gently return to observing their breath. Even five minutes of this practice helps calm the emotions of the students, and they are ready for the next activity.
Americans have been traumatized these last few years by violence at home and abroad. It is difficult to read the daily newspaper without a sense of helplessness about what to do in response. Early childhood education offers a concrete opportunity to help young people manage their destructive impulses and become the peacemakers. In one of the most destructive periods of human violence and cruelty, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, righteous Germans risked their lives to protect Jews. These examples of sacrifice have been studied in books about altruism. In trying to understand why these Germans acted as they did, the studies reveal no extraordinary examples. Rather, the rescuers were taught as children to practice kindness and to act with social responsibility. Even though all Christians are taught these ideals, the homes of the rescuers provided practical, systematic, and daily examples of making the ideals real. So, too, can schools practice and promote activities that help cultivate empathic and compassionate human beings.
A great challenge for every teacher is to build trust in a classroom. Children need to feel cared for and secure, if they are to be open to learning. Every day the teacher needs to work toward these goals. Trust demands consistency. The second grade teacher provides one example of how this can be created:
One month I began giving all students a handshake or high five upon entering the classroom in the morning. One student did not like responding to me in this way. I continued to make my offering to him each day and avoided making him feel guilty. One morning he ran into class and gave me a hug. This happened several times. By my consistency he probably realized I was genuinely sincere in wanting to create a caring environment.
Cooperation and teamwork are further aspects of social and emotional learning in the second grade. In a worksheet entitled “Cooperation – Teaming Up for Success Quiz”, students are asked questions about these topics. Brandon responds to the question, “When you were part of a team, what did you do together?” by writing, “We played together and won.” Questions with blank spaces ask the students to fill in a correct word. So, “ _ members help one another.” Finally, the student is asked to circle true or false to a statement like “I am responsible when I help my team.”
Second graders have developed both socially and emotionally so that they can now further develop their ability to cooperate. We are all social beings, and the degree to which we are able to cooperate will often determine our success in life. In our school we have children whose parents come from 29 different countries. So the very fact of relating to a fellow student will help a person develop social skills that will be prized in the future.
Awareness of others and empathy applies not only toward other people, but also towards the environment. We are slowly learning not to trash the environment, but to recycle, reuse, and respect it. At a more profound level, children can learn to empathize with the environment. Second graders and other students participate in growing a garden at the school. This helps them understand that plants are living things, unlike the bins of food at Safeway. They participate with other students to clean the San Leandro Creek each September. This activity helps them understand that they are stewards of the environment. Finally, a teacher speaks of the love of birds and trees, as students make a field trip to the local environmental center. Many years ago my second grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York, lovingly cared for a box of geraniums in the classroom. I watched how she cared for those flowers, and something in my heart connected with her love, and I have had a lifetime love affair with flowers.
In our hypermedia environment, we hear lots of noise, but silence and the ability to listen to one another is often rare. Students need to learn the art of listening as well as the arts of speaking and writing. If we don’t listen to one another, there is very little communication, and very little social and emotional learning takes place. Consequently, in second grade as well as others, students participate in activities that involve “good listening”. One worksheet asks students to choose “yes” or “no” following a list of statements. For example, the question asks, “Which of these are good listening habits?” Sample statements follow such as, “Looking at the person who is speaking,” or “Sitting quietly and not interrupting.” Worksheets such as this help students learn standards of behavior, and the ongoing class activities are opportunities to apply the standards.
At the end of the year, to bring closure to what has been learned, students receive a beautiful graduation card. Written on it, in bright colors, are the student's name and virtues that each student has demonstrated during the year. So, Rebecca’s card lists “Kind”, “Thankful”, “Friendly”, and other qualities. (9)
Since students spend 10,000 plus hours in school from pre-K through middle school, and a like number of hours at home, it is important for schools to work closely with parents. It is true that the school is in loco parentis; it represents parents with the values taught at home. Parents have the responsibility to love, care for, and nourish their children with guidance about language and behavior. The goal is to nourish a child who is intelligent, ethical, happy, healthy, responsible and who can enter into valuable relationships with others. These are the same goals for the school.
Social and educational activities should include students and parents. For example, in the third grade, students are given a poem and then asked as homework to discuss the poem with a parent or guardian. The guidance they are given is that “you and the adult will learn things from each other about what you think, feel, know, and want to know.” Both the student and parent are asked questions about the poem, then each is asked to sign the homework sheet.
PTO activities and guest speakers also address issues about social and emotional learning. Professor Thomas Lickona, who has written books on character education, spoke to parents, our staff, and the public in a lecture on the topic for which he is famous, character education. We look forward to involving parents in the design of activities that involve social and emotional learning. In addition, my blogs on the school website (principledacademy.org) often refer to books that can help parents and staff learn of the scientific research to support the work we are doing at the school.
Many of the themes that have been introduced to students in the earlier grades are now carried forward in the third grade. Since anger is still an emotion that causes difficulty, at home and in school, the third grade teacher explains that “I am coming to realize that meeting with students and working with them on conflict resolution skills has to be an ongoing process. There isn’t a quick fix. I need to meet with students and help them listen to each other. I have them practice repeating what the other person said and not just focus on their own point of view.”
In addition to teachers working closely with students in dealing with anger, worksheets help students gain self-knowledge and eventually help regulate their anger. A worksheet entitled “The Anger Meter” is presented to each third grade student. They are asked how they might feel after the following situation: “If someone made fun of the way you look, how would you feel?” Sterling chooses number 4, angry. Number one is okay, two is frustrated, three is upset, four is angry, and five is furious. “If someone took your things without asking, how would you feel?” Sterling now responds with a five on the Anger Meter.
A follow-up worksheet, along with class discussion, asks students “What Can I Do When I’m Angry?” Tori writes; “I count to ten; I yell at the wall; I cross my arms.” Each student writes his or her own strategy on how to deal with anger. Another worksheet entitled “Conflict Resolution Quiz” reminds students about some things they have learned in dealing with anger. In answering multiple choice questions, students will circle a correct answer. So a statement like “Conflicts can be resolved when we a. Stop, think, and choose or b. Demand to resolve it our way, or no way.” (Other choices are available). What seems like an obvious answer to us is still a matter of thoughtful choice for a third grade student.
Before students can regulate their feelings, they have to identify them with words and drawings. Almost everyone in the third grade, when asked to draw a face indicating a particular feeling, does so with accuracy. On one worksheet students are asked, “How do you feel when...someone teases, someone invites you to a party, you get blamed for something you didn’t do, [and] you did a great job on a school project.” Amy’s faces indicate sorrow with tears or bright smiles. The situations on worksheets almost always refer to home and school, so the teacher guides the discussion which can be continued at home, when children show their worksheets to parents.
Throughout one’s life, friends and family are the key to a happy, healthy, and prosperous life. Children pass through many stages of development before they mature. During this process, they make choices in their relationships that can help or harm them. Friends can draw out the best or the worst in behavior. We can ignore the wisdom of parents or maintain a closer, loving, and supportive bond. A worksheet and discussion in class about “People I Can Count On” develops themes students have thought about in previous grades.
Gene explains who supports him at home: “my mom, dad, and sister.” He is asked “Two ways your friends support you,” and he responds, “When I am hurt they help me. They encourage me.” In a third category he is asked, “Who else can I count on for help? “He says, “Mrs. Smith and Mr. Thomas.” (his teachers). In the class discussion following this exercise the teacher explains the importance of trust in building healthy and helpful relationships. In middle school, students will hear that “friends” in high school many offer the “support” of drugs, violence, and sexual promiscuity. Students may learn to mistrust and resent the advice of parents. Therefore in the early grades it is important for students to understand and trust the people in their lives who offer good counsel and model healthy behavior.
The reverse side of the worksheet “People I Can Count On” develops the meaning of a friend and friendship. It asks responses to questions such as “What do you look for in a friend?” and “How might a good friend get you in trouble?” Children and adults may enter into friendship casually, without much thought. What seems pleasurable often undermines what is good. Constant reflection and good choices are important throughout one’s life.
Cooperation and collaboration are important in school as well as in life. The third grade science teacher explains how she implements this theme: “Students worked together sharing rock specimens in groups of 4 or 5. I asked students to think about how well they worked in groups. I wrote 3 questions on the board and asked students to write their responses.
1. What worked - what went well. What did you like?
2. What didn't work? What didn’t you like?
3. Do you prefer working in a group or individually? Why?
Sterling liked working in a group because “four brains are better than one.” Noah liked working in a group because other students “share and help.”
At every grade level, getting to know and care for every individual student is the goal of each teacher. Small classes do help; no one is ignored. But underlying all of this care is a central principle, perhaps the most important idea in human history: Every person is created in the image of a loving God. That is the extent of the religious ideal underlying the culture of The Principled Academy and the classroom. No religious doctrines are taught at the school, except for that central principle. It is our point of view, as Karen Armstrong - the prominent historian of religion - has written, that compassion is the core teaching of all major religions. So, for us, the ultimate goal of all social and emotional teaching is to help children develop compassion. If we all are created in the image of God, we are all very precious. We have great value and great dignity. We have the potential of exhibiting a great care toward others and to the environment. The goal of the teacher is to help students realize their value by making the potential actual. Since we are all very precious beings, the teacher and the students must treat each other with great sensitivity.
In the school we have parents from a variety of religious traditions and of no religious persuasion. But they are all concerned about the ethical behavior of their children. When we help students learn to respect each other, that translates into exercises about carefully listening to each other, cooperating, and using language that enhances rather than diminishing another person. A leader is someone who can draw out value from others in any activity. All children can be leaders if they understand how to create value in contributing to the benefit, welfare, and happiness of others and thus to themselves. This is like the principle of love. We become a loving person, and have the value of love, by loving others.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, explains in his latest book how science confirms what we have been arguing: “... a new wave of thinking about power reveals that it is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives other people in our social networks.” “Handling the power paradox depends on finding a balance between the gratification of your own desires and your focus on other people.” (10)
It is this balance that we hope to achieve with our students. So when parents ask students to be leaders not followers, it is important to understand the paradox that leaders serve others rather than seeking position or power for oneself.
A worksheet on “Leaders and Followers” allows students to identify on a scale where they position themselves. Gene sees himself as strong in response to the statement “I like to help the group solve problems.” However, he indicates that he “likes to hear what everyone also has to say first.” In his concluding statement he says, “I am a leader and a follower, because I’m usually in the middle.” The discussion following this activity explores the meaning of leadership in terms of doing “the right thing” and clarifying what that means in specific situations.
Following up on the leadership theme, students receive a worksheet entitled “Teaming Up For Success Quiz”. They can now reflect and respond to statements like “Being a leader means you get to boss people around” or “Everyone on a team can have different responsibilities but the same goal.” The concept of leader as one who serves can be carried over to a family meeting. Often children do not realize that they are served in infinite ways by their parents. Leadership, they begin to understand, is a question of who takes responsibility to serve.
Often overlooked in curricula of social and emotional learning is the role of academic subjects, especially the liberal arts. From preschool through middle school children learn to use language effectively. Reading, writing, and speaking are the basis by which we come to understand each other. At each grade level children need to learn these skills. So there is no separation between social and emotional skills and academic skills.
From pre-school, where children learn their ABCs, to middle school, where they learn to write persuasive and expository essays, the learning process is a continuum. As a middle school teacher, for example, I meet with the sixth grade teacher to make sure the students can write effective paragraphs. I know what skills students need to be successful in high school and college, so I teach with those goals as a guide.
Sensitivity to words, language, and learning to read closely and carefully are very important elements in social and emotional learning. The ability to develop ideas in a written form, and thus to communicate coherently and clearly, are further skills necessary for social and emotional effectiveness. As professor E.V. Hirsch at the University of Virginia has written, children need background knowledge if they are to understand any new material. Reading is important as the foundation for receiving new knowledge. Children are sometimes bored in school because they cannot connect what is being taught to what they already know.
This is true, for instance, in studying American history; if children have very little knowledge about the importance of our democratic form of government, they cannot empathize with our struggles to realize this ideal. History is a story which students cannot appreciate if they don’t know what makes our history an important story that affects their lives. The liberal arts, such as history, literature, and religion, for example, are meant to “free” us from prejudice as they enlarge our sensibility.
The conclusions we draw from psychology are: (1) There is no dumb student. Rather, students may lack the background information to make study and school interesting. Therefore research scientists emphasize the need for children to be exposed to rich language in stories and for parents to speak often with children. Yes, some children will be exposed to books and a stimulating cultural environment, and thus have an advantage over other students, and they may have some advantage of potential talent.
(2) Intelligence can be developed and improved over a lifetime. Intelligence, whether intellectual, social, or emotional is not fixed. The challenge for parents and teachers is to identify interest areas with children, so that they can find not only intellectual interest but power in learning. Then, children need continuous nourishment once their interest has been aroused. The goal is for children to find the internal motivation to continue learning.
(3) Effort, hard work, is a third principle leading toward successful learning. Whether it is the 10,000 hours plus or some other standard, there is a serious element in studying anything. Like the joke about a tourist who asks how he can get to Carnegie Hall, the response is “practice,” “practice”, “practice.” Here the student needs models or mentors who exhibit the habits that lead to success.
(4) Finally, students have to wrestle with problems or new ideas. Scientists tell us that learning to deal with a problem allows the brain to incorporate this learning process as part of working memory for future learning. Cramming or mindless memorizing for a test might have immediate benefits, but the knowledge is lost within a short time.
The fourth grade curriculum for social and emotional learning, therefore, is taught in tandem with the liberal arts and sciences. Children have developed intellectually and emotionally at this point to be able to reflect more deeply about who they are, what they feel, how they regulate these feelings, what they know, and the skills to understand and express their knowledge.
One further point of emphasis about how children learn, from the viewpoint of a cognitive scientist, is the need for “practice”, which means hard work to master a particular subject. Often parents and children believe that some students have greater talent, thus there is no need for them to work hard. However, as Daniel T. Willigham writes, “Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.” He further explains that “... slow learners are not dumb…[they] have the same potential as bright students, but they probably differ in what they know [background knowledge], in their motivation, in their persistence in the force of academic setbacks, and their self-image as students.”
(11) As a teacher, I will often see students wilt in class as a “talented” student makes an intelligent response to a question. The self-image of a ‘slower’ student may be, “I’m not as smart as X.” Somehow they may have carried that self-image with them for many years, without questioning or challenging that image. Sometimes a teacher will even reinforce that image. 60 years ago in my high school Spanish class, the teacher regularly called on me as “el burro”, the donkey, for my slow responses to her questions. She may have meant well, but that’s all I remember from her class.
To return to the fourth grade, many of the social and emotional exercises develop what has been taught in the earlier grades. Obviously, a great challenge in American education is to create safe and caring schools. This is no easy task, so at each grade level activities and worksheet exercises focus on accomplishing that goal. “The Golden Rule” makes its reappearance very early in the year, as the fourth grade teacher discusses its implications for class behavior.
Students are now asked to explain in a worksheet how they would communicate to a new student the rules of their classroom and the school. Steven writes, “We are a safe and caring school because we will always include everybody. We have the right to agree or disagree. We will do our best. We will be bully free. We will share our feelings and ideas. We will treat others the way you want to be treated. We will do our homework. If you need help, ask for help and you will learn. You will be treated with respect. We will be safe. Everybody makes mistakes so nobody is perfect.”
Obviously the level of reflection of a fourth grader is deeper than younger students. Further, this student has been in the school since preschool, so many of the ideas he has shared are ones that have become part of him. When a student enters the school at any grade level, the entire culture of the school and every classroom promotes social and emotional learning and the core values that Steven expresses.
Another writing exercise asks students to respond to the following question: “You had a tough time on a test that you thought would be easy. Write what you can tell yourself so you feel better and do better next time.” Sterling writes, “I got this, I can do it, I will do it.” Hana says, “I tried my best and I can do better next time.” Carl explains, “You can study the test and look it over or tell your mom, etc., how to help you.”
The purpose of such an exercise is to help students develop strategies to improve their intelligence and to develop perseverance, hard work, and grit to succeed.
Learning new words is not an arbitrary process, as in a spelling bee. Rather, vocabulary is connected to other elements of social and emotional learning. One worksheet asks fourth grade students to fill in the blanks in a paragraph using words like stressful, respectful, and feelings. Another worksheet, using a crossword puzzle, asks students to identify words like empathy and compassion. In a follow-up discussion the teacher makes sure that the students understand the meaning of the words.
A worksheet in the fourth grade helps students distinguish between behavior that is either kind or unkind. Phrases are jumbled up on a page, and students are asked to sort out which phrases indicate kind behavior or unkind behavior. If sorted correctly, phrases in the kind column would be “writing a thank you note” or “cheering on a teammate”. In the unkind column would be “making fun of someone.”
In itself, this exercise seems too simplistic to influence behavior. However, the goal of all the worksheets and activities is meant to have a cumulative effect. In Thomas Lickona’s words, students need “to know the good, desire the good, and do the good.” Just as all parents teach children kindness and compassion at home, the school reinforces these ideals through numerous activities. The goal is to help students become responsible people on the foundation of core values.
Central to these values is the dignity and precious value of each person. Therefore people need to be treated with great respect. In addition, students need to learn to respect themselves, for this is not an automatic process.
In a true and false quiz, students are given worksheets and asked to designate statements as either true or false; for example, “Good manners are for little kids. When you get older you don’t need to use them anymore.” This exercise segues into a discussion of good and bad manners. The theme of manners connects with ideas about respect. We care enough to be pleasant to other people as a foundation for relationship. This does not mean we cannot disagree with others as to ideas or behavior. Rather, civil behavior allows us to maintain a good relationship so we can build on the areas where we can agree.
A poem is distributed to fourth graders and their parents. Since homework is the usual complaint by students, parents were asked, “What feels like homework for an adult?” John’s mother writes, “cooking, cleaning, laundry, and projects from work.” A follow-up questions asks, “Some ideas on how to make … tasks easier to do.” Mom responds, “Doing the tasks when there is still time. Doing the easy parts first and then asking for help with the harder parts. Planning and dividing the tasks into smaller tasks” Her comment about the exercise is “John and I could relate … with so much to do and so little time.”
This activity is meant to help a parent and a child to understand the challenges that each faces daily. The hope is that they experience greater understanding and empathy. How many of us as students have even thought about the challenges that our parents face? The exercise is meant to help strengthen the connection between home and school.
As with the earlier grades, students receive worksheets about dealing with anger, people they can count on, the meaning of friendship, leadership skills, cooperation, vocabulary, and the academic skills that complement more directly the social and emotional skills. The teacher explains that all of these skills will directly help students succeed in school and in life. This emphasis will help motivate students, for they will recognize that what they are learning is not an abstract exercise without meaning for their lives. We are all meaning-making beings, and we are bored or suffer if we cannot connect what we are learning with some benefit.
As we enter the fifth grade classroom, we find that responses to worksheet questions are more thoughtful. Most students have been in the school for several years and they have absorbed much of the school culture. In the worksheet asking the student to explain the school to a new student, Mark explains: “We take the safe and caring pledge because our school has to be safe, caring, and loving. We have to follow “The Golden Rule.” As the Pope would say, ‘Let us remember “The Golden Rule.’” We have to follow “The Golden Rule” because we want to be treated well, right? “The Golden Rule” is ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’ Our classroom community creates a good and safe place to learn because we are all friends here and we never cheat off of other people’s tests/papers. So please join our safe and caring school.”
Another student writes, “Hi new student. I’m Samantha. In our safe and caring school, we like to include others in fun activities and games. In our classroom and school, you will be welcomed by many teachers and students. We will try to know you and show you the rules in our school. Also in our classroom everyone will include you; we work, and we will still have fun! I hope you will love our Safe and Caring School.”
Although students use the language of Safe and Caring Schools, they are often unaware, just like the adults around them, when they are uncaring and use words and behavior that borders on bullying. Before we can prevent bullying, students need to know the difference between “kidding,” “teasing”, and bullying. These distinctions are part of social and emotional learning, for they make students aware of what they are doing and how they impact others.
Worksheets such as the ones we have been discussing are given to students once a week, usually in the first period of the day, our time devoted to character education throughout the school. Thus, they have a cumulative impact after many weeks. For example, on separate worksheets students will respond to topics such as “Mean Words Hurt”, “The Problem With Bullying”, “A Kid’s View on Bullies”, “Bullying Quiz”, and “Just Kidding”.
American history illustrates that individual freedom and creativity are some of the building blocks for success. We like to believe that our effort as individuals provides us with all we need for our personal happiness and social well-being. Our ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness often obscure our need to work together for the common good. We often forget that whatever success we achieve makes us debtors to our parents, teachers, community, and the political and economic institutions of the larger culture. We are beneficiaries of the common good, and we have a responsibility to contribute to that good.
Childhood education is especially important where students learn to cooperate and to work together for the wellbeing of themselves and others. On a worksheet entitled “Portrait of a Leader”, Mark, a fifth grade student, writes: “A leader is someone who has to make good decisions and has to have cooperation.” Chelsea, on a worksheet entitled “Teaming Up For Success”, writes: “Everyone should work together. We should all see what we’re best at and try to help the team with that skill. A team needs to work together. That way we can get things done.” Bella, on a worksheet entitled “Cooperation & Me”, explains: “Cooperation means working together and agreeing on what to do. You can work better together if you have cooperation.”