Social emotional learning, the newest trend in K-12 education, transformed Kessler Elementary School from the building where students threw tantrums — and chairs — to a family of students and staff.
About three years ago, Kessler students were known for acting out, receiving referrals and struggling in the classroom.
“This was a building where it was hard to get substitutes and about half the teachers left at the end of each year. That was problematic in a lot of ways,” said Noma Hudson, Kessler’s principal. “Our kids need consistency, and they need relationships.”
But this year, with the help of teacher-student handshakes, morning “I wish you well” rituals and the practice of conscious discipline, student referrals have been cut in half and test scores are on the rise, Hudson said.
Conscious discipline is one of the leading social emotional learning (SEL) programs in the nation, according to the Harvard Graduate School for Education. The practice uses kid-friendly tools and activities to teach students how to recognize and manage their emotions, and how to make and maintain positive relationships.
“It did not take long for me to notice a huge difference in class,” said Library Specialist Brenda Winters, who teaches in the Kessler writing lab. “The biggest piece for me of conscious discipline that has made the difference is developing tools to build relationships with kids, to connect with them. There’s more buy-in on their part in terms of learning when they know you care about them.”
Kessler uses many conscious discipline techniques to build relationships and help students manage their emotions. For example, kids are encouraged to bring family photos to school so they have a reminder of their parents nearby if they get anxious. Younger students bring “kissy cups,” or little containers “filled with kisses from mom or dad,” for when they need extra support, Hudson said.
For students having troubles getting along with their peers, the “time machine” floor mat marks out the steps to conflict resolution.
“The time machine gives victims the words to say they don’t like a behavior, but both parties must be willing to go through the process,” Hudson said. “Eventually it gets to the point where the mat isn’t even needed.”
Kessler isn’t alone in adding SEL to its classrooms. Other schools in Longview are integrating similar practices in the classroom, depending on what works best for the school. Also, the Kelso School District is piloting a districtwide curriculum for SEL this year.
Ron Hertel, social emotional program supervisor at the state superintendent’s office, said the trend is fueled by scientific research about brain function — and how to maximize learning potential.
The research shows how students feel and function directly relates to their ability to learn.
“If there is something standing in the way of a child trying to learn — for example if they are just trying to survive in their life — that’s where their energy is going to go,” Hertel said. “Ten or 12 years ago, they didn’t know that piece of it. They just thought they needed to teach better or teach more, push kids harder. Now we know we need to pay attention to their emotional and social well-being because, until that is addressed, we are not going to be able to teach them.”
In 2015, state legislators charged Washington school officials to develop benchmarks and standards for schools. Once completed, these will provide guidelines for recognizing which SEL skills a student already has and recommendations for how to help students develop skills they might be lacking.
“Kids don’t always have the tools to deal with heavy emotions that come their way, so this is the opportunity to create an atmosphere where kids can learn how to be self aware and learn how to manage themselves in terms of behavior,” Hertel said.
School officials in Cowlitz County said their students may face a variety of challenges outside of school, including poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and drug abuse, among others. And they bring that “turbulence” to school with them.
“You can’t expect them to learn if they are dealing with big, turbulent things in their life,” said Cherie Gaston, kindergarten teacher at Barnes Elementary School in Kelso. “I can’t ignore that they may be upset. I can’t ignore what’s going on in their lives.”
Gaston said she’s glad the Kelso district finally “gave the green light” for teachers to test out Second Steps, a national curriculum for SEL. The district also created a special committee to focus directly on SEL.
“To us, in the social emotional learning department, I think it’s just another content area,” said Jake Alabiso, SEL coordinator at Kelso.
Alabiso said teaching kids SEL should use the same model as teaching kids reading, writing or math.
The Second Steps curriculum does just that. Kelso elementary school teachers schedule daily class meetings for “mini-lessons” in SEL. Each lesson includes a photograph of a child exhibiting behaviors and facial expressions for a certain emotion and a discussion about what that emotion feels like.
Gaston follows up each of her lessons with a sharing session, where students take turn telling their classmates about a time they felt that emotion.
“These kids, at this age, they need to know why their heart is pounding quickly or why their tummy is churning with butterflies,” Gaston said, adding, “(Second Steps) gives them the tools to be more successful, the tools they deserve.”
Kelso and Longview schools differ in their approach, but Hertel said that is common because there are many ways to deliver SEL.
But no matter how a school decides to implement SEL, Hudson and Winters said the key to it all is giving kids the necessary tools to help them feel safe enough to learn.
“I feel like we are teaching the whole child now,” Winters said. “We aren’t just teaching the academics; we are teaching a life skill.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Cherie Gaston as a teacher at Butler Acres Elementary School. This story has been updated to reflect the correct information.