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

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

Emotional and social education is tremendously under "taught" in our school so what you are doing is fantastic! If I may share that there is a strategy which will engage not only emotional and social areas of the brain, but also encourage integrated thought, critical thinking skills and whole brain integration - and that activity is singing. Yes, singing. Anyone can look someone in the eyes & speak to them, but try singing while staring full on in another pair of eyes. That weird feeling you get proves how emotional and social music is. For years, researchers have shared their data of the benefits of singing and music to learn but there haven't been many resources. Here's one for all grade levels that is easily and quickly integrated into any teacher's busy schedule. & here's a link: Check it out and please let me know what you think of their 2000+ songs for grades pre k - 12. I have an integrated classroom, gifted to special needs students are all in here and I have to get through to all of them. helps me do that effectively, thoroughly and quickly. Everyone loves music and can learn to sing a song. It lowers stress levels and is non threatening. We never forget what we learn to sing because more parts of the brain are used in the learning process when singing than any other activity known to man. So, let's go with what WORKS. in this case what works and is also FUN. Learning should always be FUN and EASY & if it's not, there is something wrong with the delivery system, not the child. So what I think you are advocating is educating the WHOLE child by allowing him/her to learn with their entire body. The only medium which accomplishes emotional, social, physical and academic education is...SINGING!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Great comment Virginia. As someone who was at Mt Desert Elementary onsite filming, I can tell you I heard singing quite a bit in many different classrooms. You're right that music is very emotional and can focus student attention, reduce stress, and get them ready for learning.

Great point. What works can (and should!) be fun as well :)

Markie Pozzuto's picture
Markie Pozzuto
6th Grade Language Arts and Math teacher from Cortland, Ohio

I couldn't agree more! Many of our surrounding districts are losing their electives and the students are spending too much time in the classroom. There has so be some kind of balance. I also really like the idea of "wiggle seats" or exercise balls. Many of my kids have trouble sitting for 90 minutes. I try to give them opportunities to move around and allow them to stand and work if they need to, but sometimes it does not seem to be enough.

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