Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A+ for Empathy: Districtwide Social and Emotional Learning

The Hudson Public Schools embrace emotional-intelligence activities and approaches as integral features of the school day.

March 13, 2003

Hudson Public Schools superintendent Sheldon Berman and Mary McCarthy, the school district's director of community-service learning and character education, hold the banner it received for being a district of character.

Credit: Courtesy of Hudson Public Schools

The children in Amy Hamilton's fourth-grade class know exactly how their day at Mulready Elementary School, in Hudson, Massachusetts, will begin. After they hang up their coats and backpacks, they know to put their homework on their desks. Then they read Mrs. Hamilton's message on the chalkboard, which can be anything from a comment about the weather to a question to ponder.

After that, they head for the red rug and the Morning Meeting, which includes a greeting ("Say hello to the other students as a character in a book" may be the opener), sharing, activity, and news and announcements.

"Let's start a pass-along story," says Hamilton. "Once upon a time . . . ." And so the story goes around the class, becoming a tale of a Valentine's Day bear who has to go to the pharmacy to take care of cuts and bruises from a lightning bolt.

They also talk about what they plan to do during the upcoming vacation week. "Sleep in!" says one student. "How late do you sleep in?" asks another, showing an example of active listening.

Teacher Amy Hamilton delivers an encouraging message or a reflective question to her class during Morning Meeting.

Credit: Courtesy of Hudson Public Schools

The Importance of Structure

"It puts a really specific structure to the classroom," says Hamilton, referring to both the Morning Meeting and the end-of-the-day, reflective Closing Circle. "That's important, because kids need to know what to expect. It makes them feel secure."

The Morning Meeting is part of a program called Responsive Classroom that addresses young people's social and emotional needs as well as their academic needs. And the social and emotional aspect of education, says Hudson Public Schools superintendent Sheldon Berman, "is an essential and central element" of districtwide reform.

"A school system has to create an environment where learning is a positive experience and the climate in the school is such that it supports children taking risks, feeling safe, feeling accepted," Berman says. He adds that the instructional program and social and emotional initiatives are "mutually beneficial and necessary."

A 1998 survey of Hudson parents confirms the importance of programs that address students' social and emotional needs, both for behavioral and academic results. The survey found that parents believe that safety and a caring environment, fair treatment, and responsiveness of the faculty to parents' concerns are the top indicators of the success of a school system. Challenging academics came in fourth.

Empathy, Ethics, and Service

When Berman, who has a background in conflict resolution as a founder of Educators for Social Responsibility, came to Hudson eleven years ago, a group of teachers unhappy with destructive student behavior asked him to tighten the discipline code. He felt that harsher punishments weren't the answer, however, so he formed a committee to consider the request; its consensus was that a discipline code alone would not create an atmosphere of respect and responsibility. What would, though, members decided, was a comprehensive program of social and emotional learning, service learning, and character education: "Empathy, ethics, and service" is a favorite district refrain.

The district has a variety of programs designed to build respect and a caring community: Responsive Classroom, Second Step (an empathy-development and conflict-resolution program), and a program of service learning in grades preK-12 that has received wide recognition. Responding to research showing the academic and social benefits of small schools, Berman is creating high school student "clusters" who stay together for three years with one teacher. Berman has even appointed one of the nation's few districtwide directors of community-service learning and character education, Mary McCarthy.

National School of Character

Hudson Public Schools was the only district in the country to receive the 2001-02 National Schools of Character Award from the Character Education Partnership. Berman cannot break down how much specific reforms -- curricular and social and emotional -- contributed to positive changes in the district, but he says improvement won't come without both. He notes that since he took over as superintendent, test scores are up, absences are down, and more students are seeking to come into the district than leave it, a reversal of the situation when he started.

Karen Rundlett, a teaching assistant, says that during her recess duty, she sees evidence of the success of Second Step lessons she teaches a half hour a week to various classes at Mulready. "I hear students say, 'We'll use I-messages.' Rather than 'You were mean,' they say, 'I feel bad when you call me a name.' That's exciting. I think they get it, and they really enjoy it."

A Second Step lesson on empathy, for example, recently involved looking at a laminated card with a picture of two young girls who had broken a neighbor's window with a baseball. Part of the discussion included the fact that nobody had seen them throw the ball. What to do? Do you tell the neighbor you broke the window and offer to make reparations? Do you run and not say anything? Students answer in a variety of ways, Rundlett says. But they always have to ask themselves four questions: "Is it safe?" "Is it fair?" "Will it work?" and "How will people feel?" Once the students answer the questions for themselves, they do role-playing on the question.

Sue O'Keefe, a psychologist at the district's Farley Elementary School, also trains teachers in Second Step. "The empathy portion is the foundation of the program," O'Keefe says. "That's why I like it so much." She adds that the program has definitely changed the climate of the school from one in which students acted out, called each other names, and got physical when there was a dispute to one in which they try to understand the other person's point of view and come to a verbal resolution of a dispute.

"Empathy is important, because it helps children solve problems to benefit more than just themselves," O'Keefe says. "Understanding another person's point of view, which is part of empathy, is important when people are trying to come to a solution that benefits everyone."

The First Six Weeks

In the Responsive Classroom program, the first six weeks are considered crucial for creating a feeling of safety and belonging, setting reasonable limits and boundaries for behavior, introducing the schedule, routines, physical environment, and materials of the classroom, and establishing expectations about the curriculum and how the children will be taught. Guided discovery, in which children have practice sessions of important behavior, such as eating in the cafeteria, sitting down in the school bus, or using materials properly, is also an important element of Responsive Classroom.

Other features of the program include rules and logical consequences, academic choice (in which children get to choose a learning project), family communication, and strategies for arranging materials, furniture, and displays to encourage independence, promote caring, and maximize learning.

And the effort to create a caring community with involved students who feel they belong never stops. In the works now are plans for a cluster model of high school organization, in which students are grouped into units of 100-150 kids. The clusters would be based on broad areas of student interest such as communications, media, and the arts; science, health, and the environment; technology, business, and engineering; or social service, education, and social policy.

Students would stay in the same cluster for three years and work together on service projects, presentations, and cluster discussions, as well as take some courses together. Student-government representatives would be chosen from clusters, thus giving more students an opportunity to lead.

Berman is also instituting the practice of providing clusters with an hour a week of school time to, among other things, discuss and solve issues of importance to the school as a whole. Students, Berman says, will even have a say in hiring of school staff.

One of the reasons Berman's character and service approach to learning has caught on is that he lets the results speak for themselves. He never mandated that Responsive Classroom be used. Instead, he offered training in it to a few teachers. Their colleagues then saw the changes in classroom atmosphere and student learning and voluntarily joined the program. Today, 90 percent of the elementary school and middle school teachers in the Hudson Public Schools practice Responsive Classroom.

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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