In October 2007, a seventh-grade student at Goldenview Middle School, in Anchorage, Alaska, was showing off the .38-caliber weapon he'd brought to school to show to a fellow student and friend. After the friend urged him to take it to a teacher, the student did the right thing and handed it over, despite the possible punitive repercussions. End of story. No flashy news hook -- just a kid who trusted his friend, a sigh of relief, and, for the rest of the students, a normal, undisrupted school day.
This alternative headline -- or nonheadline -- was the result of social and emotional education (SEL) initiatives put in place in the Anchorage School District. Vickie Blakeney, the school district's SEL-curriculum coordinator, says a program called Aggressors Victims Bystanders, in which students role-play stressful social situations, "has really made a difference in our schools. Our middle schools have seen a dramatic improvement in the numbers of suspensions and detentions."
Over the past decade, SEL has taken an increasingly important place in K-12 education. Some see it as an effective solution for student behavioral problems that disrupt classrooms. Others view it as just the latest trendy initiative pushed onto already overworked teachers. Recent research, however, has shown that SEL can dramatically improve not just a school's social environment but its test scores as well.
What Is Social and Emotional Learning?
The term "emotional intelligence" was popularized by the success of psychologist Daniel Goleman's 1995 best-selling book of the same name. Emotional intelligence (EI), the self-awareness and ability to control emotions, can have a profound effect on where a person ends up in life, socially and professionally. In school, a child's EI influences not just his own success but also the success of his classroom in general. SEL initiatives teach kids how to recognize and regulate their emotions, thus increasing their EQ, or emotional-intelligence quotient.
Credit: Indigo Flores
Marc Bracket, president of Emotionally Intelligent Schools (EIS), which provides emotional-literacy training to schools, offers an acronym to describe the SEL concept: "It's 'RULER,' for 'recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion.'"
Effective social and emotional education can change the culture of a classroom, addressing behavior problems such as bullying, acting out, interrupting, failure to do homework or bring needed supplies, and even violence.
Tom Roderick, executive director of the New York City's Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, has been helping public school districts with SEL since the 1980s. "A lot of time in school is wasted because of students' misbehavior," notes Roderick. "If you teach your kids these skills, you create a classroom community more conducive to learning. If kids are worried that somebody's going to tease them or put them down or humiliate them in some way, or if they're afraid of getting beat up by somebody, they can't focus on their studies very well. Your mental state has a lot to do with how well you can concentrate."
Brackett agrees: "We believe emotions are the backbone to good learning. For example, in order to pay attention, you need to be emotionally involved in the learning process. Plus, there are certain aspects of emotional intelligence -- such as the ability to regulate one's emotions -- that are quite important for test taking and being able to sit in class."
"RID is an anger-management strategy," she explains. "The students initially take a look at what triggers anger: What kinds of things can happen in the course of the day that make them angry? The second step is to look at how they know when they're getting angry. What happens physically, emotionally, mentally? The students will say things like, 'My heart starts to beat really quickly, my hair stands on end, my hand shakes, my voice gets tight.' That's the R, recognizing your anger signals."
Once they recognize they are angry, students must learn how to stay in control of a situation. "That's the I," says Keister. "Identify a thought that calms you down and puts you back in charge of yourself." According to Keister, calming thoughts include, "This is not worth getting upset about," or "I know I probably don't understand the situation, and I need to ask questions."
"Just by saying that one thing, we can feel ourselves calming down, taking a deep breath, getting back to our center," claims Keister.
Finally, Keister explains that the D refers to doing something constructive. "Now that you've got yourself calm so that you, not the adrenaline, are making the choice, now that you're back to your higher-thinking self, what are some things you can do to have a positive outcome?" she asks.
The lesson is powerful -- so powerful, reports Keister, that "when we did a study in Detroit, the students said this is the most important skill that they learned, because they never knew. They didn't understand the pathway of anger and what was actually happening physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They didn't realize they had this kind of control."
Teach Emotions in the Curriculum
Programs such as those Morningside, Lions Quest, and EIS offer emphasize that these SEL lessons are not just for students. "We have to teach it to teachers, principals, administrators," proclaims Brackett. "How can we expect teachers to feel comfortable and be skilled at teaching students about emotions when often they have had no training themselves?"
The most effective programs are also woven into the curriculum across disciplines. Morningside, for example, has developed the 4Rs Program (reading, writing, respect, and resolution), which integrates conflict resolution with the language arts curriculum for grades K-5. Teachers get training and support in using children's literature as a starting place for lessons about community building, handling anger, listening, assertiveness, cooperation, negotiation, mediation, celebrating differences, and countering bias.
"Each unit begins with the teacher reading aloud a children's book," Roderick explains. "The unit then involves writing, role-playing, and discussion to deepen the children's understanding of the book. So, if they're reading a story in which the main character is having a conflict with somebody, you can say, 'What do we have here? We have a conflict. Do you think the character dealt with it in the right way? How do you think these characters are feeling?' And so on."
"A lot of our curriculum comes from the kids, in a sense," Roderick continues. "It's not that we're dishing out a bunch of information to the kids. We're asking them to reflect on their experience. Kids love it, because it's so real to their lives."
Though additions to the curriculum may seem like extra work for teachers, Keister says they've found that teaching these skills actually creates more teaching time. "When the students can self-regulate, there's less hubbub going on in the classroom," she explains. "So, the teacher has more teaching time, and the students demonstrate more on-task time. We did see an improvement in reading and math scores, even though the Lions Quest teachers were not the reading and math teachers. What that told us was that there was a transfer: Students were transferring social and emotional skills to their other classes."
Roderick says social and emotional education not only improves academic performance but also gives students life skills that are just as important. "We all know people who are brilliant but who just go from one job to another," he notes. "Especially in the new economy, people often work in committees. They work with people from different backgrounds. They have to be able to communicate and get along. These are social skill sets that will serve them all their lives."
Traci Vogel is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. She is the fine arts columnist for SF Weekly and blogs about the restaurant industry at Chow.com.