A Parent Primer on Social and Emotional Learning

Learn the benefits of nurturing students' social skills and how to make it happen at their school.

Learn the benefits of nurturing students' social skills and how to make it happen at their school.

Pride of Ownership:

Teachers in the Jefferson County Public Schools ask students to establish their own guidelines for how their classroom should run.

Credit: Nathan Kirkman

When a school puts special emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL), as schools in Jefferson County have done, it can dramatically change a child's experience of education. Students strive, in a program like Jefferson County's CARE for Kids, to become successful thinkers, but they also learn to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, and communicate and collaborate effectively with others.

SEL infuses the school experience in and out of the classroom, providing a context for studying academic subjects, and a strategy for positive discipline. This holistic approach has already made an impact in Jefferson County, which includes schools in urban Louisville, Kentucky.

Since the school district launched its SEL initiative (CARE for Kids got off the ground in 2008), teachers in some of the most challenged schools there say the teaching and learning environment has become more welcoming and cooperative. And students say they feel more connected to their teachers and peers, more supported, and more motivated to learn.

The change is reflected in the numbers: Educators in the district credit CARE for Kids for reducing behavior problems by 50 percent and raising academic performance at the first schools to adopt it. (See the Edutopia.org article "Jefferson County by the Numbers.") And the program is only in its second year.

Parents have noticed a difference, too. "The attitude of caring and communication filters throughout the school," says Angela Sartin, a parent at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary School, near downtown Louisville. "The educators there love and care for my children. Kids are your most precious commodity; you send them away each day, and they come back with little personalized experiences that let you know the teachers really do care."

Of course, great teachers always have forged strong relationships with kids and taken time to cultivate their self-awareness, self-image, and social skills. With support from top administrators, and the backing of a schoolwide effort, many more teachers in Jefferson County have been able to offer that kind of care in every classroom -- and in the hallways and cafeterias.

As CARE for Kids grows, parents will have a larger role in the program. For the moment, recognizing that it may not be possible for many working parents to visit during the school day, the district has designed activities to help involve them from home.

Teachers are encouraged to give kids interactive homework assignments such as interviewing a parent about how he or she chose the child's name, or using a Venn diagram to compare aspects of the adult's favorite job with the student's favorite classroom responsibility. The district hopes to build these efforts as the program develops.

If your child's school doesn't have an SEL program in place, you can still get involved -- as an advocate. Superintendent Sheldon Berman and a corps of teacher believers spearheaded the effort in Jefferson County, but parents could also be the catalysts at their schools.

Here's what you can do: First, get informed about SEL -- you'll find useful links below. Then, see how it's being implemented in Jefferson County. And then, take action! Share these resources with fellow parents, teachers, school administrators, and school board members, and brainstorm how your school could get started.

Social and Emotional Learning 101

Core Concept: Social and Emotional Learning: Edutopia's one-stop shop for SEL information

An Introduction to Social and Emotional Learning (video)

Selling SEL: An Interview with Daniel Goleman: The author of Emotional Intelligence makes the case for social and emotional learning (video)

Social and Emotional Learning: Reading List: books used by Jefferson County educators

Case Study: Jefferson County, Kentucky

Community Begins with the Morning Meeting (video)

Discipline and Culture: Jefferson County educators take a positive, constructive approach to discipline

Positive Discipline Strategies Yield Quick Results (video)

Faces of CARE: Pat Gausepohl

Ideas to Get You Started

Ten Takeaway Tips for SEL

Set Up SEL in Your Classroom, School, or School District

Jefferson County's SEL Downloads and Resources

Jefferson County Schools Set Out to Replicate CARE for Kids

The Importance of Social and Emotional Learning: How You Can Implement it In Your School (blog)

Additional Resources

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Northeast Foundation for Children, producer of the Responsive Classroom program, used in Jefferson County

Origins, producer of the Developmental Designs program, used in Jefferson County

Developmental Studies Center, producer of the Caring School Community program, used in Jefferson County

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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This article originally published on 12/23/2009

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