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How More Social and Emotional Learning (and Less Academics) Actually Builds Academic Success

Mount Desert Elementary

Grades K-8 | Northeast Harbor, ME

Scott McFarland

Principal of Mount Desert Elementary in Northeast Harbor, Maine

With all of the high-stakes testing in our schools, and the resulting judgments and consequences for students and teachers, it is no wonder that schools are taking time away from activities like recess, breaks, art, music... to spend more time on academics. Yet I believe, based on what I have seen in schools, that we should move in the opposite direction, and take time out of academics in the early elementary years to focus on making students feel safe, secure, and confident in the classroom, in other words making them ripe for learning.

Morning Meetings

One of the ways we "ripen" students for learning at Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor, Maine, is to focus on social and emotional learning, and teach them how to regulate their emotions so that they have more focus and are less impulsive. We have regular morning meetings, where teachers and students sit in a circle and check in with each other and share their personal feelings. This builds a culture of trust and respect, which, in time, leads to students sharing some of their most profound feelings and thoughts.

Better Transitions Help Student Focus

We have also implemented a program where we focus on transitions from one class or activity to another. This is important because when focus is broken during transitions, valuable learning time is lost getting kids back on task. At our school, it is not unusual to see students engage in Brain Gym exercises such as Hook Ups as they move from one class to another or participate in classroom yoga as they prepare for a writing class. We also give students wiggle seats and exercise balls to help them better focus on the lesson.

All of these are meant to help students regulate their energy levels and teach them to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors. The positive by-product of these focused transitions is that students actually produce higher quality academic work. Instead of teachers taking the first 10 minutes of writing class to re-focus their pupils, they get down to work in a fraction of that time.

But it takes time and patience and trust, so how then do we get the courage to take time off academics to attend to these activities? The answer lies in the mindset of the teachers and leadership. We need to view activities like morning meetings or mindful transitions or yoga as part of the lesson plan, the norm, to be expected -- and not as an addendum. We need to trust that spending time on HeartMath or Brain Gym or yoga will actually pay dividends in academic success. We need to trust that less can be best, and better and more nurturing for children. So take the risk; embrace social and emotional learning, and you will see how it can transform your students and build sustainable academic success.

Click here to learn more about proven social and emotional techniques that prepare students for learning.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap

I completely agree with what is being said here. I also think it is important to remember that a prime arena for social and emotional learning is in the home. When we create homework demands that override the judgment of the parent, we are essentially stifling the parents' ability to support the child's growth. It is logically inconsistent to recognize that teachers can enhance learning by diminishing academic demands on students in class, and then create assignments for children to do at home for which parents have no power.

Dana F's picture

I could not agree more with this strategy of creating a clear and well-controlled environment in an elementary setting. A few teachers in my buildings are starting to use the techniques "break breaks", which are moments of fun and controlled activities to get the students to move around and keep their blood flowing through their bodies. The concept of a consistent yet changing routine such as yoga and student-based classroom management is ingenious. When a teacher can create options the students will enjoy but also be beneficial and the student is able to choose that option, it is making the student have a sense of empowerment. Any time a student can 'feel' a sense of ownership in a positive manner the student is more likely to be willing to want to learn. This is an article and video I will be sharing with my staff members at school. Thank you for the interesting insights to creating positive minds for positive success.

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

YES! I couldn't agree more about getting the kids up & moving around. The latest brain research insists that a child's attention span is only as long as his age (5 years old, 5 minutes). Between activities and before presenting new concepts and information to my students, we preview the vocabulary they will learn by singing it. The short 15 - 30 second songs on http://www.acadamiacs.com/ are great reinforcement, preview and review material as they cover everything on NCLB and a lot more. This keeps BOT brain hemispheres active and integrated, engages all learning styles and utilizes the latest classroom technology. It;s a win win for everyone making learning FUN, fast and efforltess. We get more covered in my classes through singing than any other teacher in my school These songs are PERFECT!

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

I couldn't agree more. Believing that the parents are a child's first and best teachers, eliminating their authority, influence and power is highly detrimental to a child emotionally, socially and academically. Here's an idea that ANY teacher can incorporate into their homework assignments that brings the family together on common ground. SINGING! I assign songs from http://www.acadamiacs.com/ for my students and parents to sing together at home. The songs contain meaty information with no "filler", they are set to familiar melodies and are simple to learn. Most importantly, it unifies the family emotionally, and socially all the while getting the required academics covered without turning the home life upside down with unrealistic homework assignments the parents cannon help with or understand. Parents are continually sending in notes about how much they are enjoying learning with their child - not complaining about homework assignments. I'd also like to add that my students consistently receive the highest grades in the school, not because of me, but because they are learning through music and have the interaction with a parent and the foundation of their family to support them!

Scott McFarland's picture
Scott McFarland
Principal of Mount Desert Elementary in Northeast Harbor, Maine

I love the energy that I am seeing with people - all of this is about shifting traditional mindsets and I'm hoping that all of this discussion can help give people the strength and conviction to make changes :) You are all very thoughtful educators with the best interests of students in your heart!!!

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music

Teaching SEL w/singing and lesson plans is where we LIVE so, obviously, we couldn't be more tickled pink to discover this video and thread! Our IABPM program teaches students they can sing "Whatever" to feel better and it works like a charm :-) "Messy" teaches them not to feel like they have to over control the world, "Monkey" teaches them to be more mindful, "Fearless"..well..it's just our most popular song. "Scary Guy" teaches them to avoid downer company at all costs. Positvitiy is a whole lot more fun!
I'm sorry if this sound like a plug but it truly isn't, I'm just very excited to discover these comments! We've witnessed our our "Nonconformist" song turn being different into the new "cool" overnight so yes, SEL + music = such a potent formula!
*deep sigh...* This thread has really made my day. I LOVE your thinking! Teachers--sing on!

Danielle's picture
First Grade Teacher from New Jersey

I agree that both social and emotional learning are so important for students. If they can share feelings, ideas and stories, they have a sense of family and comfort in the classroom. I try to start every morning by talking about something going on in their lives such as soccer games or gymnastics or what they did over the weekend. I feel like this helps students by making them comfortable and showing them a mutual respect in the classroom. I love the idea of students picking a transition to different activities. It really empowers them and gives them a choice. This is definitely something I will try to start implementing in my classroom. It will be fun and easy for students, while saving time and keeping them focused.

Scott McFarland's picture
Scott McFarland
Principal of Mount Desert Elementary in Northeast Harbor, Maine

Hi Danielle,

Thank you for your response!!! I think you will love the transitions - the class featured in the video has 13 boys and 5 girls and the boys are very active -the results of the implementation of the transition strategies and yoga has been staggering so you will see results very quickly! The best of luck to you and keep in touch!!

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

Hello Principal McFarland, You are such an encouraging leader and wise to know about the transitions. Do you know why some of those yoga moves work so well? It makes BOTH hemispheres of the brain work simultaneously and equally. This takes control of the children's actions out of their reflexive survival instincts in the brain stem and moves them to being governed by their cerebral cortexes. It literally shifts the control of the actions from lower brain centers to higher ones. The brain and body were never meant to be separated in the teaching/learning process but unfortunately they are. (Sit in your desk, don't move and look at me while I teach you)/ Our culture sees the brain as an organ of learning. I prefer the paradigm shift of "the body is the information collector and servant the brain".

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

Hi Markie, It's so great to hear your enthusiasm about music in the classroom. I lecture at Universities and Preofessional Development conventions/seminars about this and am a huge advocate of giving teachers the tools to use it in every area possible. Tell me about the songs you use. Did you make them up? I use http://www.acadamiacs.com/ faithfully. Have you tried any songs from this collection? I;d like to know what you think.

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