Topics on worksheets such as cooperation, responsibility, conflict resolution, and the power to make good choices are all connected to the core values of the school. We believe that human beings are created to love one another and to exhibit virtues such as empathy, compassion, justice, temperance, courage, and prudence. These are the strengths that constitute human excellence. If families, schools, and communities can all promote these virtues, then children develop a moral core that can allow them to withstand the forces of our culture that seek to undermine these virtues. At its worst, popular culture often promotes the idea of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” Because these ideas undermine who we are as human beings, young people are often lost in the wilderness of sex, violence, and nihilism. Schools have a serious responsibility to protect young people from the forces that would undermine their value.
Children need to be children. Their emotions and relationships with others need to mature. Psychologists have identified stages of growth, and we need to be aware of these stages as we guide social and emotional learning. Consequently, we do not encourage dating or pairing off as boyfriend and girlfriend, and we discourage sexual attraction in any manner. Boys and girls, younger and older, are encouraged to act like brothers and sisters in a family. So, older children need to care for younger children, and younger children need to respect older children.
Thus, each Friday there are “buddy” classes where older students read to younger students. Additionally, monthly field trips will often bring older and younger students together. In a trip to the pumpkin patch in October, for example, the older students will help younger ones carry home the large pumpkins. If a young student is alone in the school yard before class, an older student might approach and begin a conversation.
Boys and girls are not isolated from one another, for they interact in numerous ways. The performing arts club directs all types of students in the annual plays. Students in every class interact in various kinds of group activities. Every other year the seventh and eighth grade classes make a trip to Washington, D.C., with teachers and parents. In various museums and public buildings students constantly interact with one another. In raising money for the trip and planning activities, boys and girls need to work together.
Occasionally, a new student will enroll in the school and be surprised that there are no “boyfriends and girlfriends”. Often students will smile and explain that they feel comfortable focusing on learning and that there will time for the dating game when they are older. Unfortunately, our culture has eroticized even the youngest children, and yet we wonder why promiscuity, teen pregnancy, and single mothers are so common.
Although what I am here discussing is rarely mentioned in social and emotional curricula, we believe it is of central importance in helping students be aware of who they are, what they feel, and how they will relate to others.
As in all the earlier grades, the fifth graders discuss the meaning of responsibility in the classroom, with friends, at home, and toward oneself. Students are reminded that they are responsible for their own actions. Making good choices, based on core values, is what school and life are about, and we are concerned that students are successful in both of these arenas. Amanda writes, “I act responsibly with my friends by helping listen to them when they are feeling down. I can help them [and] don't say mean things.” She continues, “I act responsibly in my family by doing my chores, helping my siblings, and saying ‘thank you’ for what my parents have done.”
Listening to others is a necessary skill if students are to make good choices in their social relations. But genuine listening is not easy for students or adults. Every teacher looks at a class of students and notices a student unaware as he taps loudly with his pencil on the desk. Another student with glazed eyes is watching the second hand on the classroom clock. The challenge, as we learn from various types of meditation or religious practices like Zen Buddhism, is to be fully present. Our mind can easily wander, and is often disturbed by various thoughts, but we exist in the present moment and need to be aware of what is happening in the now. The challenge then is to help students attend to what other students or the teacher is saying. Only then can one take responsibility and make a good choice.
In a worksheet entitled “Listen Up”, students are asked to complete the following statement: ” I think paying attention to others is important because ….” Bella responds by writing,” you can show respect and you will know what you are doing and how to do it...I don't do anything while I’m paying attention. Just listening….[I need to] pay attention to all the details so I won't be confused….Eye contact [ is important] so I can really understand what they’re talking about.” Teachers can then follow-up on this worksheet by designing activities that help students become better listeners.
From preschool through middle school students are reminded to make good choices, for they are responsible for their behavior. A worksheet “Choose Wisely” asks students to answer the following four questions: “Describe a poor choice you once made; what were the consequences of your choice?; what were your other options?; what did you learn from making the choice you did?” The worksheet is a touchstone for behavior during the school year. The teacher can remind students about how they behave based on these four questions. The questions on the worksheet establish a framework by which behavior can be evaluated.
Making good choices does not eliminate the inevitable conflicts that arise at school or at home. However, conflicts can be resolved in an effective way based on good choices. A worksheet entitled “Conflict Resolution Quiz” asks students to respond to the question: “How can you build your confidence to resolve conflicts peacefully?” Chelsea says, “We can think about the consequences of our actions, that we can try to do the right thing. We can also be inclusive to people who are different than us. You can try to find things you both like, you should be nice to everybody. “Another worksheet presents examples of conflicts, then asks students to indicate how they would respond: a passive, aggressive, or assertive response.
Finally, the end of year celebration allows students to reflect on what they have learned. Samantha writes, “A Safe and Caring school is important because you can stay focused and you won't have to worry about bullies and dangerous things: you can learn new things while enPearling school.” Obviously, there is range of responses, and students may not immediately recognize what benefits they have received from social and emotional learning. The teacher was pleased that students “would reveal what was in their hearts.”
Worksheets and activities related to social and emotional learning in the sixth grade are similar to those in the earlier grades. In response to a new student joining the class, another student, Pearl, writes: “We pledge to be A Safe and Caring School because we want everyone to feel happy to come everyday to school. Our classroom community creates a great place to learn and grow because our teacher is nice and everyone treats each other kindly and fairly.” Anna explains, “We pledge to be A Safe and Caring School because that way we will be safe. Feeling safe and having others care for you will boost your self-esteem, which will help you study hard and work together nicely. In this kind of environment you can do very well in school and be happy.”
In response to a worksheet entitled “Governing Our feelings”, and a question about responding to a bad grade, Anna writes, “You do great at many other things, so this one bad grade isn’t going to hurt you. You can make up for this bad grade by keep doing your best at this subject. Next time, just study a little bit harder. You’ll be fine, don't worry.” Anna’s response illustrates the importance of grit in overcoming difficulties. The teacher explains to students the main idea in a book by Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Whatever talent or interest a student might have, hard work is necessary to develop that talent.
The teacher hands out a grit chart from Duckworth’s book. (12) It provide statements such as “I am a hard worker” ; “I am diligent; I never give up” ; “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” Students then circle numbers which indicate “Not at all like me” or “Very much like me”, etc. They then can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. With this self-knowledge they can work on improving their skills.
At the end of the year the sixth grade students reflect on their future dreams as they integrate what they have learned during the course of the year. Pearl wants to become a children’s doctor, so she explains that she “needs to study really hard about health.” She recognizes that she will need a “good education and she lists people who can help her: “My parents, my friends, and my doctors.” With what they have learned about themselves and how best to build positive relationships, students have taken an important step to a successful future.
Middle school students are often rambunctious. They are very active, especially after a P.E. class. To calm them down I design a mindful meditation exercise. I ask students to participate in a five minute exercise. First, while sitting in their seats, I ask the class to close their eyes and observe their breath. Breathing in and out, the class begins the exercise. I explain that thoughts would come and go, and as they are aware of their thoughts, they would gently return to following their breathing. I then asked them to imagine sitting in their favorite place, then to continue following their breathing. At the end of the activity I explain that focus on the present moment, here and now, was something they could control, rather than their thoughts controlling them. Thoughts and feelings could be guided, rather than a lack of awareness and control. I then asked the class for responses. One student felt sleepy. Another felt at peace. A third felt regret.
When I asked how one might deal with this painful feeling, a fourth student explained that regret could be turned into a positive feeling by doing something positive to remove regret. Middle school students become more reflective and serious about themselves and their studies. As in all grades, we urge students to recognize their potential strengths and with self-knowledge to build on those strengths. In the realm of social and emotional learning, we draw from the research of Professor Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman is often referred to as the “father of positive psychology”. In his research he has identified 24 human strengths that lead to well-being. Among these are prudence, humility, gratitude, perseverance, etc. The Character Education Partnership has organized these qualities in a Periodic Table of Character Strengths. This chart then provides a question for students and others: “What are your strengths and which do you want to develop?”
I give this table to middle school students and ask them to take it home and circle what they believe are their strengths. In addition, I ask them to give the chart to their parents and have them circle what they believe are the student’s strengths. The purpose of the assignment is threefold: Students become aware of their strengths and they can choose to develop them; students and parents can discuss the chart and collaborate on building character strengths; students also become aware of their weaknesses and can choose to deal with those.
Seligman’s research allows us to base our social and emotional learning on scientific research, rather than platitudes about good character. A fundamental principle we uphold is that good character can be taught. If one believes that good character cannot be taught, then education focuses on testing, testing, testing. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a man’s mind and not his morals is to create a menace to society.” We all want our children to be smart, to be knowledgeable, but more important, without disparaging academic knowledge, we want them to be good, ethical, compassionate people.
Reading worksheets is not always a serious business, and we all can laugh. One student, in response to a question about empathy, writes: “Sometimes at my old school my friend was going through peer pressure. I felt I understood what he was going through. Then he and I went to different middle schools. I still give him advice in case of a mid-life crisis.” On the other hand, students can be very serious in response to a question about bullying. Melissa writes: “People bully because they’re hurting inside and they want others to feel the same way. If they saw and heard how other people are struggling too, and if they opened up in groups, then maybe they would let go of their feelings. Maybe they would feel support from their classmates.”
Since to read well, write well, and speak well are necessary for effective communication, students in middle school participate in oratory class once a week. I ask students to prepare a two-minute presentation on a current event, with a subject about the political, economic, religious or social aspect of culture. I provide standards for good oratory such as: looking at the audience; speaking loudly and clearly; being knowledgeable about the topic; and a number of other aspects. After 36 weeks of school, many students who were shy often become transformed into effective speakers. I urge students to practice their speech at home and receive feedback from parents. In any case, practice, practice, practice is once again the steps to success in school and life.
The class, the audience, also has a responsibility to listen carefully and to encourage the speaker with attention. So rather than merely a worksheet about listening, oratory makes demands upon a student to listen, to comprehend, and to respond to the remarks of the speaker. I then offer a caring response to encourage the speaker, and hopefully the class benefits from my response for their oratory. In all facets of social and emotional learning, I try to explain to students that if they learn a particular skill their lives will benefit now and in the future. As I build trust with the class, they can accept my comments.
Teachers, as you may have guessed, have the same responsibility as students to develop all aspects of social and emotional learning. We need to experience each student as someone of great value. Our words must always seeks to uplift, never to diminish a child. We need to control our emotions just as we encourage students to control their emotions. We need to develop methods of self-control like meditation if we are to be fully present for students. We, too, need to exhibit hard work and illustrate for students our love of learning. We need to model collaborative behavior toward other teachers, and we need to embody standards of cleanliness and order. What children see in a teacher’s behavior is more important than what teachers say. Every child is unique and we need to respect and respond to that uniqueness. A teacher, like a parent, must love a child. And being a teacher is a journey of love, just like being a parent.
It is easy for a teacher to get angry at a student who is not paying attention or is disturbing the class. However, as students must learn to control their anger if problems are to be solved constructively, teachers need similar strategies of control. The topic of anger, related to the virtue of self-control, is a theme that runs from pre-school through middle school and beyond.
If we are to become loving individuals who can build happy families and peaceful communities, we need to control anger that can destroy all relationships. In the seventh grade, once again students are asked to respond to situations by indicating degrees of anger on “The Anger Meter”. 1. Okay; 2. Frustrated; 3. Upset; 4. Angry; 5. Furious. Sakesha is furious in response to a statement about kids telling racist jokes during recess. She writes: “I’ll them to stop and if they don’t, I’ll tell a teacher.”
The many worksheets and activities where students are asked how they would respond to hypothetical situations are meant to prepare them for similar situations that might confront them in the future. It is a process like exercising the body to strengthen it and maintain good health. We are often unaware of the degree of our anger and how others receive it. Self-awareness and self-knowledge can avoid many tragic situations. The ultimate subject matter in school is oneself. Social and emotional learning addresses this issue and facilitates academic learning.
A worksheet entitled “Don't Push My Buttons” lists categories such as “Bothered, Annoyed, Ticked Off, Angry, Really Mad.” Sakesha reflects that “It is okay to get angry. It is normal; everyone does for different reasons. Some people are bothered by others when they repeat stuff that is not funny.” Her statement illustrates the “bothered” dimension of anger. As students respond to situations that reflect different stages of anger, they are actually attuning themselves to different aspects of self-awareness. Students learn not only what they feel but also how they make others feel. Even as adults we may not be sensitive to how we bother or annoy people, or why they get angry at our behavior.
So far I have explained that emotional intelligence (E.Q.) is as important as intellectual intelligence (I.Q), and both kinds of intelligence can be improved over a lifetime. In the seventh and eighth grades especially, students realize that their attitude (E.Q.) impacts their social behavior and their ability to learn. Julie writes,
Being aware of my attitude and working to keep it positive is important because your attitude can affect people around you. One example of this is that sometimes if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or have a bad day, I can get really grumpy. Then my siblings can get the consequences. The outcomes can range from yelling at them to physically throwing them out of my room. These actions can lead to them getting angry and from them my parents will get angry as well.
An example of when I have a good attitude is when I’ve been having a really good day, have had a lot to eat and am watching Dr. Who or Star Trek. If one of my siblings were to come to bother me, I would nicely tell them to leave and tell my parents nicely about it if they didn’t. This puts everyone else in a better mood and because of that, we can have a nice peaceful day full of fun and happiness. As for the outcomes, one ends in terrible, grumpy and gloomy days and the other one ends in an amazing, fun, and good day. I can overcome my bad attitude by listening to music. Listening to music can also help me keep up my good attitude during the day.
No one activity makes for a mature student, but the cumulative impact of daily and weekly activities, and the culture of the school, can have a dramatic effect on student behavior over time. Regular support from parents strengthens what we do in class. Once again, an assignment asks students to bring home a poem to be read and discussed with parents. Then the students and parents are both asked what would be a good subject for a poem. Natalie chooses the topic of watermelon because “I love the taste, the smell, and the color.” Her parent’s subject is “Never give up, never quit. Life is tough! The extraordinary successful people endure hardships.”
In this interaction of parent and child, both have the same homework, and this allows the parent to explain about the value of perseverance without preaching. Another parent wrote about his wife, because he loves her. For a student to hear this must bring Pearl and comfort. A happy student is usually a good student who is open to the Pearl of learning.
There are excellent public schools as well as private schools. All schools, to achieve academic excellence, need to seriously consider the role of social and emotional learning.
1. Greater Good Newsletter, June 29, 2016.
2. See figure 1
3. See figure 2
4. See figure 3
5 See figure 4
6. See figure 5
7. See figure 6
8. Michele Borba, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World. New York: Touchstone, 2016, P.7.
9. See figure 7
10. The Power Paradox (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), pp 4-5, 8.
11. Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don't Students Like School (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009,) pp. 170, 182.
12. New York: Scribers, 2016, p.55