Darren Atkinson, a Carrithers Middle School science teacher, practices social and emotional learning in his classroom and coaches fellow teachers on how to do it, too.
Credit: Nathan Kirkman
Don't call social and emotional learning (SEL) "touchy-feely" in the Jefferson County Public Schools. Such dismissive terminology fails to recognize the seriousness of an initiative that is at the heart of the Louisville, Kentucky, district's efforts to create widespread reform.
CARE for Kids, a program dedicated to helping students become happier, healthier, more productive citizens, also aims to spur kids to become more successful learners, and so far, it has shown serious promise.
Just two years into their reform efforts, Jefferson County schools pioneering the CARE for Kids program have seen a reduction in discipline problems and an improvement in academic achievement. The challenge now is to scale it up -- to deliver the program effectively across a diverse district of 99,000 students.
Superintendent Sheldon Berman's strategy is to demonstrate the power of the program by involving the people in the district who are most interested in CARE for Kids and then letting its appeal pass virally to others. Other administrators in the district are following suit, allowing teachers to lead the charge as much as possible. And many teachers, who call CARE for Kids "common sense," need little convincing.
"Educators have always known in their hearts and minds and bones that children need social and emotional learning to grow up to be successful adults," says Mary Utne O'Brien, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based nonprofit foundation.
"The 'Aha!' moment comes when educators discover there's a systemic way to implement an SEL program," she adds. "They don't have to make it up from scratch -- there are programs they can follow that have been well developed and have stood the test of time."
Too often, she adds, teachers across the country practice SEL in the isolation of their own classrooms, without guidance or support. Having the full backing and resources of the district, as in Jefferson County, will bolster these efforts and spread them into many more classrooms, enabling SEL practices to succeed on a much broader scale.
CARE for Kids started in 2008 in 28 elementary schools, where the teachers voted overwhelmingly to participate, and in the sixth grade at all 23 county middle schools. Now, 55 elementary schools and all teachers of sixth and seventh grades are involved, and more are slated to join them next year.
At the high school level, teacher trainers are weaving some CARE for Kids principles into broader reform efforts, including collaborative learning and advisories. But they're not implementing the program wholesale, in part because there is less published curriculum available for SEL at their grade levels.
Implementation of CARE for Kids at participating schools begins with two days of teacher training in the summer. Teachers receive a binder full of instructions and activities at the initial training and attend five follow-up sessions during the school year. Middle schools get a little less training for all staff, but more for their teacher leaders, who relay key points of the training to their colleagues.
Each school has a CARE for Kids leadership team, composed of the principal and several certified staff who, with district help, support their colleagues throughout the year. (Some of the most enthusiastic teachers even help deliver the CARE for Kids training to other schools.) Berman estimates that the program costs $800,000 per year in professional development expenses -- or about $8 per student.
Schools are advised to start simply by implementing a daily morning meeting of 20 minutes in every classroom. Teachers and students use the meeting to build relationships with each other, practice social skills, and jointly set behavior standards for their class.
Over time, schools build up other pieces of the program, including 10-minute end-of-day classroom meetings, schoolwide community-building events, cross-age buddy activities, parent engagement, and nonpunitive discipline. Jefferson County also provides CARE for Kids training to every adult in participating schools -- including cafeteria workers, custodians, and security guards -- on the principle that schoolwide change needs to involve everyone.
Growing the Reach
Jefferson County aims to expand CARE for Kids to all 89 of its elementary schools and to all grades of its middle schools by 2011. This is a long process -- educators at even the most advanced schools believe it will take another three or four years to implement CARE for Kids to its fullest potential. Berman says he won't mandate schools to participate, but he expects that, given the results, almost all will opt in eventually.
Among the challenges the Jefferson County schools face is scheduling; it's tough to carve 30 minutes of meeting time out of an already-packed day. The district provides a sample schedule to help schools over that hurdle. It's still difficult, teachers say, but a worthy investment that ends up saving time in the long run.
Schools also must secure the buy-in of teachers and students. Some of what CARE for Kids prescribes for teachers -- sharing of themselves on a personal level, a new approach to discipline, careful selection of the words they use with students -- runs very deep.
Teachers aren't expected or encouraged to become students' friends, but they need to closely connect with kids, and be able to discuss emotional matters while showing love and support. Many educators do that naturally, but for a handful, it requires the softening of some boundaries.
Despite the challenges, teachers tend to participate wholeheartedly in the program because "it's a commonsense approach," says Darren Atkinson, a science instructor and the CARE for Kids teacher leader at Carrithers Middle School. "We all know relationships make a huge difference."
Some students, meanwhile, can become "too cool" for CARE for Kids -- especially the older ones. But, explains Carrithers principal Pat Gausepohl, "We're focusing on the 80 percent that buy into it, and hoping something will rub off on that other 20 percent."
In Atkinson's case, this means telling his students early in the year, "I love each and every one of you -- I may sometimes hate what you do, but I love you as a human being," and making sure his actions help that message sink in.
"There's probably about a quarter of the kids in that room who have never heard those words before," he explains. "When these kids see and believe that you mean it, they want to work for you."
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.
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