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How More Social and Emotional Learning (and Less Academics) Actually Builds Academic Success

Mount Desert Elementary

Grades K-8 | Northeast Harbor, ME

Scott McFarland

Principal of Mount Desert Elementary in Northeast Harbor, Maine
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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.

Morning Meetings

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.

Click here to learn more about proven social and emotional techniques that prepare students for learning.

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Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stacey's picture
Special Education Teacher Canada

I completely agree that social emotional learning is beneficial in all classroom environments. Building that initial rapport with students benefits everyone in the long run. My district is participating in some training focusing on building classroom communities and it is nice to see that it is really working in other classrooms and schools.

Sara Jacobs's picture
Sara Jacobs
Kindergarten teacher from San Diego, CA

Principal McFarland,
The Responsive Classroom approach is so refreshing to hear! I love how you said that you are not the expert and that the teachers are. Additionally, that leaders should feel empowered by giving the teachers the license in doing these things in the classroom. It sounds like you have a lot of trust and respect for the teachers at your site. I have been "battling" with my administration in regards to trusting faculty and treating us as professionals in terms of how our classrooms are run. It sounds as if you are on the forefront of something remarkable for your staff and students. Our principal and district is so wrapped up in test scores that they often forget that we are teaching little human beings that need social and emotional skills to be successful in our society!

Alyssa Curry's picture
Alyssa Curry
Kindergarten teacher, Anchorage, Alaska

I had never heard about Brain Gym before reading your article. But as a Kindergarten teacher, I absolutely agree that students (especially my younger ones) need to get up and move even a couple minutes to transition between activities. In the morning I always try to interject stories that get them out of their seat and onto the story floor. The stories usually have some sort of movement and the students love to help act out what I'm reading. I also do a lot of math songs in the afternoon, and the classroom favorite is the Cha Cha Slide. It has left/right coordination and is a great wiggle song!

Heather's picture
Imtermmediate Autism Teacher from Las Vegas, NV

I think this school sounds amazing! How is it that every district in the nation is taking all our time away for students to have fun in school, yet we are still dropping in test scores? I don't understand how students are supposed to learn sitting stagnant in a classroom all day long. They need a break every now and again to get thier bodies and brains activated again. Transitions are such a huge part of the day. These moments always open the door to the wiggles and small conversations to begin. By making the student responsible for their transitions and knowing thier expectations when doing so, the studnets will be focused and moving at the same time.

Scott McFarland's picture
Scott McFarland
Principal of Mount Desert Elementary in Northeast Harbor, Maine

Hi Heather,

Thank you for responding. I don't get it either why people cannot see what we do. In this day and age of "accountability" people are less willing to take risks, in this case to take the risk of doing less academics for the implementation of SE learning. This to me has been the worst side effect of NCLB - I guess as the leader of the school I am willing to take these risks and hope that our episode can give others that same courage to change their mind sets. Good luck to you and keep in touch!!

Scott McFarland's picture
Scott McFarland
Principal of Mount Desert Elementary in Northeast Harbor, Maine

Hello Alyssa,

Thank you for your post. There are certainly critics out there about the effectiveness of Brain Gym but the fact that kids have the opportunity to move around and be active and learn ways to regulate their emotions is huge and cannot be disputed in my mind,,,,, so keep up the great work!!!!! This coming from the east coast all to way out to you on the west coast!! I love technology!!

Cassandra Smith's picture
Cassandra Smith
Special education teacher from New Hebron, MS

Mr. McFarland
I think your school and its teachers are awesome! I found it to be very rewarding and refreshing to see students enthused about learning. It is difficulty to effective manage the classroom and keep your students interested and motivated to learn. I feel that you and your teachers do a phenomenal job and I wish more school were the same. Thank you for sharing with the world.

Carolyn Webster's picture
Carolyn Webster
Special Education Teacher from New Jersey

I agree that building relationships with your students is very important. Similar to the morning meeting, I have a "let's talk" time at the beginning of my morning circle, where students can share ideas about a topic. Having students choose their transitions is an idea that I will start incorporating tomorrow. I think my students will enjoy this activity and it will make for smoother transitions. I am also going to incorporate some deep breathing and stretching exercises into my students' day. Thank you for sharing the positive work that you are doing with the students at your school!

Brittany Patrick's picture

I truly enjoyed the information given in this article. One of my goals this year as a second year teacher is to improve classroom management skills. I believe that providing opportunities for students to regulate energy levels such as these will be highly beneficial in the classroom. I am looking forward to testing out the strategies used and tracking the change in energy-related outburst.

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