Louisville's CARE for Kids Program Starts with the Heart

How do you boost achievement, reduce racial and economic performance gaps, and nurture happier, healthier, more confident students?

How do you boost achievement, reduce racial and economic performance gaps, and nurture happier, healthier, more confident students?

VIDEO: A School District's Initiative for Social and Emotional Learning Pays Off

Running Time: 06:31 min.

When the buses arrive at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary School, near downtown Louisville, Kentucky, a team of educators stand ready to greet each child by name.

Literacy teacher Robben Seadler is at her post in the main hall, giving smiles and high fives, receiving hugs, and making sure every child starts the day with a greeting from a caring adult who knows her name and something personal about her.

"I like your new pink coat! Did you get it at Target?"

"How's first grade, Ronnie?"

"Jamesy, did you eat this morning? You sure?"

The kids eat breakfast at school -- 94 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals -- and with milk still clinging to the corners of their mouths, they make their way to their classrooms for their morning meeting.

Beginning with these 20-minute daily encounters between students and teacher, the Jefferson County Public Schools (encompassing Louisville and environs) is trying to reform how students become self-aware, caring, and connected to others.

The superintendent and many educators in the trenches here see social and emotional learning as the key to cultivating successful schools and essential to their mission to educate children. They've turned this vision into an ambitious, homegrown initiative called CARE for Kids (Community Autonomy Relationships Empowerment), which experts hold up as a national model.

It's all built on the morning meeting where, as the day begins, students and teachers join in discussions, activities, games, and role-playing that address empathy, collaboration, and personal responsibility. The meeting establishes the class as a community and teaches important social skills. Using carefully chosen strategies, teachers and other adults at school reinforce these lessons throughout the rest of the day.

"What could you stop and think about today?" kindergarten teacher Joanna Clark asks of the 24 kids sitting in a circle in her classroom at Breckinridge-Franklin -- a diverse mix of faces reflecting both the school as a whole and the community at large (49 percent African American students, 41 percent white). Clark is hoping to get them to consider their impact on others.

"I could think about knocking people's paper off the table while they're working on it," replies Kayden. "That might make them feel sad."

Teacher greeting children in the morning

In School We Trust:

Literacy teacher Robben Seadler (center), a CARE for Kids leader at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary School, makes sure to greet every child by name.

Credit: Nathan Kirkman

Many of these kids come from homes and neighborhoods distressed by poverty, violence, or drugs. When they arrive at school, some may be hungry, angry, scared, or sleep deprived. (A morning greeter once learned that a boy's uncle had been shot; she informed his teacher before class.) The daily ritual of sharing their current state of mind strengthens the relationships between teachers and students and prepares the kids for a day of learning.

What some critics call an overly sentimental approach provides an immediate academic payoff. When a teacher asks a question, nearly half the class confidently raise their hands. Students respect their teachers and work well together in groups. (I saw fifth graders in Seadler's writing class plunge vociferously into a brainstorming session, and just a few minutes later, when Seadler told them to bring down the noise level, they quieted themselves instantly.)

Overall, the environment at Breckinridge-Franklin feels calm and orderly. Having visited scores of schools, I can say that the level of participation and cooperation by students here is startling. "The better the relationship you have with the kids, the more they're going to want to learn, and the more they're going to take ownership of what you're trying to teach them," says Seadler. "And when they feel that way, the behavior problems aren't there."

Seadler, who leads her lessons with an easy, friendly command, is a vision of energy each morning even though she's studying for a master's degree in school counseling and working several nights a week at a nearby pub to pay for it. "For once in my seven years of teaching, I feel like I'm making a difference," she says. "I feel like when the kids walk out the door, they're going to remember me and what they did in my classroom."

Progression and Evolution

CARE for Kids is the creation of Superintendent Sheldon Berman, who successfully established a similar program in Hudson, Massachusetts, before taking over Jefferson County Public Schools, a diverse urban district of nearly 100,000 students, in 2007. Berman, founder and past president of the nonprofit resource center Educators for Social Responsibility, believes in the power of SEL.

"This isn't touchy-feely stuff," he says. "It's core social skills that give kids the knowledge and experience to work effectively with others. This isn't about being nice. It's serious work to create a sense of community and resolve conflicts."

Berman and his colleagues assembled CARE for Kids from various existing models -- including the Developmental Studies Center's Caring School Community, the Northeast Foundation for Children's Responsive Classroom, and Origins's Developmental Designs for Middle School -- and adapted them to suit Jefferson County's needs. The program started in 2008 in 28 elementary schools, where the teachers voted overwhelmingly to participate, and at all 23 county middle schools in the sixth grade.

Now, 55 elementary schools and all teachers in grades 6-7 are involved, and more are slated to join them next school year. Berman reasons that by starting with the people who are most interested, he can demonstrate the power of the program and let its appeal pass virally to other schools.

At the high school level, teacher trainers are weaving CARE for Kids ideas into new reforms, such as collaborative learning and advisories. But they're not enacting the program wholesale, in part because there's less published curriculum available for SEL in the older grades.

Mary Utne O'Brien, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Chicago-based nonprofit organization the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), praises Berman and his team, adding that their program matches up to the best SEL practices from around the country. What makes their work exceptional, she says, is that they're doing it districtwide, with full support from the top -- which makes it possible to succeed on a broad scale.

In Jefferson County, the elementary program begins with two days of CARE for Kids staff training in the summer. School staff receive a binder full of instructions and activities and five follow-up training sessions during the year. Middle schools get more training for their teacher leaders, who relay key points to their colleagues.

Each school has a CARE for Kids leadership team, composed of the principal and up to three certified staff who support their colleagues throughout the year with district help. Berman estimates that the program costs $800,000 a year in professional-development expenses -- or about $8 per student.

Schools are advised to start simply, focusing on morning meetings. Over time, they build up the program, adding end-of-day meetings, schoolwide community-building events, cross-age buddy activities, parent engagement, and positive discipline. And lest anyone be left out of the loop, the district provides CARE for Kids training to all school-based staff -- including cafeteria workers, custodians, and security guards. Changing the school environment involves everyone's participation.

That CARE for Kids empowers students emotionally is reason enough to applaud the effort. But what's getting folks in Jefferson County doubly excited is evidence that the program also empowers kids to learn better and may provide the foundation on which other reforms can be built. As Bill Perkins, principal of the Frederick Law Olmsted Academy North public middle school for boys, says, "Anybody who's involved in school reform knows that if you don't get the culture right, you're not going to get the test scores right."

Research supports this idea. In a review of 180 school-based studies, researchers found that students' academic-achievement test scores went up an average of 11 percentile points when their schools started SEL programs. This is a larger gain than many other educational programs produce.

"Children who are taught social and emotional skills can wield those skills throughout their education," O'Brien says. "No one says, 'Gee, can we afford to teach reading?' So should it be with social and emotional learning."

How It Works

Breckinridge-Franklin is one of the more advanced CARE for Kids schools in the district, a model of where other schools are expected to go. One hundred percent of its teachers voted to participate in the program, and they have embraced the practices to the point that a sense of community infuses the whole school, adults and children alike.

Carrithers and Olmsted, too, are trailblazers. The districtwide program is in its second year, and even in these model schools, some teachers are further ahead than others. In some classes at Olmsted, Perkins reports, the morning meeting has been implemented so effectively "that kids help map out the agenda, whereas other teachers struggle just to get them in a circle."

Perhaps the greatest challenge teachers face in implementing CARE for Kids is the shift in mind-set required, extending right down to adjustments in the words teachers use with students from moment to moment. Through hours spent at each of the three schools I visited, I could see the program working and see how staff members define the environment by weaving together five essential strategies.

1. Building Community and Setting a Supportive Tone Through Morning Meetings

Class sitting in circle for a meeting.

All for One:

Carrithers Middle School teacher Darren Atkinson (below, center, facing his class) finds his students more eager to learn as a result of trust building during morning meetings.

Credit: Nathan Kirkman

Every one of the key CARE for Kids practices starts here. In these daily sessions, teachers and students agree on how they want their class to feel, behavior-wise. (Read: calm and safe.)

They practice conflict-resolution skills and role-play constructive responses to tough situations. They discuss emotional topics, such as bullying, friendship, and family struggles, and play goofy games to get to know each other better. And they laugh a lot.

In Darren Atkinson's sixth-grade circle at Carrithers one morning, kids are naming every kind of bullying they've seen or experienced: teasing, gossiping, hitting, taunting, cyberbullying, and your-mama jokes.

Atkinson asks, "How would you stop the bullying?" Four or five hands go up. "Tell an adult," several kids say. "Confront them, but not physically; ask them why they said such-and-such about you," offers Terre. A boy suggests defusing the situation with humor.

2. Setting and Reinforcing Expectations -- with Kids' Input

The philosophy involves making kids owners of their own classroom environment (as well as their own learning). So, rather than the teacher announcing the rules for behavior, students set the expectations themselves. Each class creates a list of norms for how they want to treat each other (for example, "Listen when someone else is talking" or "Keep your hands and feet to yourself"), which is posted prominently in the room.

Y chart taped up on the wall

Speed Limit:

Teachers in CARE for Kids schools at all grade levels use Y-charts to help students, as a class, agree on what their behavior should look, feel, and sound like.

Credit: Nathan Kirkman

In Tammy McBride's class at Olmsted, the sixth-grade boys are explaining the norms for their shared social contract. "I picked 'standing in the circle,'" says Jimy, "because if someone is talking in the circle, they might feel uncomfortable if no one else is standing in the circle to listen to them. They might feel unwelcome." Then they sign the document and shake hands with their class's eighth-grade mentor, Ryan.

A key tool for keeping clear expectations is the Y-chart: literally a big Y on which classes write what a given activity should look, sound, and feel like. (They gauge sound in levels zero through four, from silence to outside voice.) At Breckinridge-Franklin, for instance, DeNay Speaks pauses before sending her fourth graders off to work in pairs classifying polygons.

"Who can tell me what needs to happen when we're working in a group?" she asks. The kids chorus back, "Listening to each other." "Level-one voice." "Care about your partner." "Help them if they need help." And where should they look if they need a reminder, she asks? The class norms and the Y-chart for group work.

The message is clear: This is your classroom. You make the rules.

3. Directly Teaching Social and Emotional Skills

Abilities like empathy, kindness, and self-control aren't the kinds of things we usually think of as teachable; conventional wisdom says those are just innate personality traits. But the central proposition of CARE for Kids is that these qualities are entirely transferable -- and can be learned through instruction and practice, just like grammar and arithmetic.

In Joanna Clark's morning meeting at Breckinridge-Franklin, the kindergartners conclude by discussing what to do if someone does something that upsets them. The answer, of course, is talk about it. They practice by reading aloud constructive "I-statements" Clark has written on a poster. A sketch of a little boy's face says, "When you cut in front of me in line, I feel sad because I walked and got there first." A little girl's face says, "Sorry, I will not do that again."

Upstairs, as Andrea Panucci's fifth graders prepare to review their multiplication tables in pairs, she says, "Before you find your buddy, let's remember what we do when we disagree over what the right answer is." The children work calmly and cordially together, even when their answers don't match.

Five minutes into the exercise, Panucci, a 13-year teaching veteran, says, "At my other schools, I would already have had kids fighting by now." Afterward, she asks students to reflect on what they did well. A blond boy named Brandan nails it: "When we thought that someone had a wrong answer, we didn't argue about it. We checked it over."

4. Using Precise Teacher Language

Jefferson County educators say word choice is the hardest part of CARE for Kids, because it's the most subtle and personal aspect for teachers. The distinctions can be as fine as saying "walk" instead of "don't run." CARE for Kids instructs teachers to use language that reminds and redirects students, rather than condemns them, prompting students to reflect on their behavior and emphasizing the deed, not the doer.

Clark, for one, says that after embarking on CARE for Kids, she found herself frequently using the word remember. When two boys in her class get rowdy rolling dice in a math game, she squats behind them and says, "Friends, do you remember the rule for rolling? Show us."

It works for a few minutes. Then the boys (and their dice) are bouncing loudly again, and Clark is back, speaking more firmly this time, but still making them the guides for their own behavior. "Hey, boys, listen to me. What's the rule for working over here? If we're going to work as a team . . . " They finish her sentence: "Be a team."

5. Practicing Developmental Discipline

With this concept, Berman explains, consequences for bad behavior must be directly and logically related to the offense and help the child learn how to be responsible for his actions. "Take an incident in which a student pushes another," he says. "You might say, 'Let's give that student a detention to stay after school.' But that isn't a direct consequence. The student doesn't necessarily learn anything from that. The appropriate consequence may be to write a letter of apology."

At the middle school level, when students act out and need time to settle down, teachers put them in short Take a Break, or TAB-in, sessions, like time-outs, in a quiet corner of the room. If a student needs more serious downtime, teachers can send him to a colleague's classroom.

Typically, the buddy teacher will quickly check in with the child, get him started writing his reflections on his behavior, and then carry on with class. For children with the most severe behavior problems, CARE for Kids doesn't always suffice, and schools still use suspensions as a last resort.

The Impact

"When I first started, this school was crazy," says Seadler, who is in her sixth year at Breckinridge-Franklin. "Kids had to be restrained -- there was no sense of control."

Suspensions and discipline referrals fell 50 percent from 2006 to 2008 after the arrival of a new principal, Alicia Averette. In the first year of CARE for Kids, those numbers dropped in half again. Now, room 209, once used for detentions, is employed for small-group instruction.

The school's tardies and early dismissals have declined from 2,770 to 2,410 per year, a 13 percent drop. And the percentage of students scoring in the two highest levels, "Proficient" and "Distinguished," on the Kentucky Core Content Test rose in reading (from 59 to 60), writing (sharply, from 34 to 45), and math (from 61 to 69) in the program's first year.

Though it's impossible to prove that CARE for Kids caused the academic boost, Averette believes that by enabling kids to work well together and have discussions about learning, it did.

At other schools, says Panucci, who came to Breckinridge-Franklin as CARE for Kids began, "it seemed like you spent 70 percent of your time on discipline and 30 percent on teaching. Now it's maybe only 20 percent discipline."

In-school suspensions at Carrithers dropped 9 percent in fall 2009, and out-of-school suspensions declined as well. Time-outs fell by 52 percent. In the first six weeks of 2008, students failed a total of 411 classes; in 2009, the figure was just 195.

"I haven't been called a b---- for two years. That's really good," says Principal Pat Gausepohl, laughing. "And kids come up and hug me -- kids who wouldn't hug their own mother."

At Olmsted, the all-boys middle school, where 90 percent of the 800 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and one in three has special needs, the strategy is working. Discipline referrals there have been cut in half, and scores on the Kentucky Core Content Test spiked substantially last year in all areas except reading. The percent of students scoring "Proficient" or "Distinguished" jumped from 15 to 26 in math, from 14 to 28 in science, from 14 to 23 in social studies, and from 14 to 24 in writing.

Jefferson County aims to expand CARE for Kids to all 89 of its elementary schools and all grades of its middle schools by 2011. This is a long process -- educators at the most advanced schools believe it will take four more years to implement CARE for Kids to its fullest potential. Berman won't mandate schools to participate, but he expects that, given the results, almost all will eventually choose to.

The Rewards

"I'll tell you a secret," Darren Atkinson says to his Carrithers 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."

He tells me later, "There's probably about a quarter of the kids in that room who have never heard those words before. When these kids see and believe that you mean it, they want to work for you."

Some students, especially in the upper grades, act "too cool" for CARE for Kids, says Gausepohl. "We're focusing on the 80 percent who buy into it and hoping something will rub off on that other 20 percent."

At the very least, those 20 percent will get a calm, safe, supportive school environment. And Seadler wagers they'll get even more: "This program has done more for our kids than anything I've ever done with reading and writing and math. It's going to follow them wherever they go. And it's going to help them to be respectful, caring, wonderful human beings."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.
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This article originally published on 12/23/2009

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Comments (4)

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Social Media Manager at Developmental Studies Center

Caring School Community by Developmental Studies Center (DSC)

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Grace: Thanks for this story on this exceptional SEL implementation. It is always to a pleasure to hear the latest about Superintendent Sheldon Berman and his work in Jefferson County Public Schools. We wish we saw more district-wide support for SEL.


School DayZ

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At the middle school level we are doing some work with my book, School DayZ which features 68 middle school vignettes that students discuss both pre and post reading. The book is on the Incentivepublications.com website and contains black line masters for classroom use. Kids are responding positively and we have done some school wide drama presentations regarding these social and ethical issues that challenge kids every day
Ron Klemp

Education writer, Founder & co-editor of MiddleWeb.com

Excellent reporting

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Terrific story -- this is the kind of detail schools need to build interest in developing similar programs.

Parent of 3 (middle, elementary, pre-k), PTA District Pres, Louisville KY

PTA partnerships with JCPS

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As the 15th District PTA President (which oversees all the PTA/PTSAs in the JCPS public school system) I know first hand how positive the CARE for Kids program is. Our children benefit from this experience because it establishes that school is a community, that your classmates are your partners, and that we must all work collaboratively and creatively in and around the school day. I often tell my children (my sons especially) that school is a commitment. They have an obligation to perform the tasks assigned and respect their teachers (and school administrators). That they need to help their peers and other students so that the classroom is a positive environment. We know that if a student is struggling, the focus of the teacher, etc, will be on that student and that other students, who are excelling or maintaining, will be set aside to focus energy and resources on the student in crisis. CARE for Kids gives all students a chance to matter, to know that their opinion is important and valuable. Morning circle, a regular routine at my son's Waldorf based elementary school, acknowledges every student in a positive manner. Teachers who ask for student input on class rules then have student awareness of class rules. Sure, it may seem obvious that we don't interrupt, but when all the children agree that that is a good "rule" then it seems as if less interruptions occur. With any program, parent support is crucial. Without parent involvement then CARE for Kids, or any other system, will falter. I look forward to seeing this initative grow and for the PTA and parents to be part of the conversation concerning classroom management. After all, who knows our children better than we do?

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