Social and Emotional Learning: A New System to Help Students Coming to BHS

Andrew Botolino , Staff Writer

Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults 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. And this process is making its way to BHS.

Social and Emotional Learning places an emphasis on five core competencies–self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Enforcing these core competencies involve classrooms utilizing Social and Emotional Learning curriculum and instruction, schools implementing school-wide practices and policies, and houses and communities implementing family and community partnerships. This is all intended at the goal of enhancing the education in Barnstable.

Spearheaded by Dr. Gina Hurley, the Executive Director of Social and Emotional Learning and Student Services for the Barnstable Public School System, the program aims to revamp the way we look at the modern student–not as simply a kid with potential to learn, but as a whole child. This means educating the child “through areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making in addition to academics,”as Hurley explained.

Shawn Kingman, BHS counselor, added that “Social-Emotional Learning is embedding all the skills that a student would need to be successful in life.”

And there has been plenty of research to back up the importance of social and emotional learning. When those strategies are implemented, schools experience, on average, an 11 percent gain on academic performance math and reading standardized tests, a nine percent decrease in problem behaviors, a 10 percent decrease in emotional distress, a 23 percent gain in social-emotional skills and a nine percent gain in attitudes about self, others, and school.

But why do social and emotional skills matter? Well, according to Hurley, “Students with strong social-emotional skills are less likely to disengage from learning through challenging behavior because they have the skill set to deal with frustration, anxiety, and all other emotional aspects of learning.”

“When we took a deeper dive into the research, we knew we had to take a stronger initiative,” she said. So, the Barnstable Public School system took action, and has done a few things over the past few years, such as adding a school counselor in every elementary school and implementing a social-emotional curriculum in those elementary schools called Second Step, which has been added through seventh grade, and soon eighth.

Programs and events like Responsive Classroom, which includes morning meetings and closing circles in elementary schools, or the expectation matrix, encompassing responsibility, respectfulness and safety in different forms around school, which also teaches how those expectations are demonstrated at school, and incorporation of Stuart Ablon’s work and the creation of the collaborative problem solving model, which helps work with students exhibiting challenging behavior, all have been utilized within the parameters of increasing social and emotional skill.

Ablon and Think:Kids encourage the strategies encompassed in the social-emotional learning curriculum and the collaborative problem solving model, described by Hurley as the idea of “collaborating with the student to solve a problem, as opposed to 100 percent student-dictated, or 100 percent teacher-dictated” problem solving.

In the classroom, a student has to be able to overcome adversity, just like they would outside it, and social and emotional learning teaches that resiliency. “If a student’s having a hard time learning, how can we help that student in all classes? How can we support them to come back from adversity?” Kingman stated. “So basically [Social and Emotional Learning] is addressing that needed skill.”

“If a student needs to work on something like grit or dealing with adversity, we build that in them now so that when in college or the military or work they know how to deal with that,” Kingman added. “It’s very important.”

In addition, positivity is key to the idea of social and emotional learning. “Positive behavior intervention and support are the positive experiences we have with kids,” Hurley added, and those positive experiences are vital in fueling the student’s learning ability. Kingman reaffirmed that, emphasizing, “It’s all about the positive mindset.”

This mindset plays an enormous role in the overall success of the student, and is something that goes hand-in-hand with social-emotional learning. “Some might avoid instead of trying to overcome,” said Kingman. “But the students that can learn from their mistakes, and look at adversity as obstacles to overcome will be successful.”

But how will these ideas and concepts of social and emotional learning translate into the high school? Well, Kingman stressed collaboration. “A teacher might see a kid 143 times, and I might see that student 10 times,” he said. So having a system that ties in that work of the guidance counselor, like the social-emotional learning one does, helps address and aid with the issues a student would see a guidance counselor for on an everyday level. “If a student is lacking in something, I’m notified,” he said, “but it also needs to be addressed in the area where it’s happening. It really needs to be a full team approach,” Kingman added.

Overall, “we are looking at educating the whole child, and combining social and emotional learning and academics together, as one, not as two separate pieces, to address the whole child,” said Hurley.

It may seem like a lot of work to learn and implement the concepts, features and idea of a new view on education that is both exciting and daunting, but Barnstable is up for the challenge. Social and Emotional Learning is moving into full effect quickly, and with the new program and a staff that, according to Kingman, is “fully supportive of addressing the skills kids need to be prosperous in life,” positive change is in store. Said Kingman, “We have the best teachers going!”