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.
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.