Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Karol De Falco: Implementing Social and Emotional Programs in School Districts

February 22, 2001

Karol De Falco, a New Haven, Connecticut, middle school facilitator for the Social Development Department in New Haven Public Schools, describes the challenges and commitment essential to creating an effective social and emotional program.

1. What do you mean by "social and emotional learning?"

Social and emotional learning includes skills in the social area and the emotional area. In the emotional area, it involves skills that pertain to oneself. Impulse control, anger management, goal setting, identifying one's feelings -- those are emotional skills.

Social skills are skills one would use in dealing with other people, such as problem solving, decision making, understanding and accepting others. Together, they are social and emotional learning and here in New Haven, that's called the Social Development Department.

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2. How do you know the social development lessons are making a difference with students?

When the program first started, I was a classroom teacher, doing this curriculum in the middle school. And some of the results happened right there in the classroom and in the school. I can think of three situations in my own classroom. One was with an individual student, William, who had trouble controlling his emotions, problem solving, and getting along with the peers in his classroom. One of the things he used to do was approach me for help with work when I was already working with other groups of students. I would say things like, "Not now, William," and William would get indignant and slam the desk and say, "You're no good! You don't want to work with me! Why are you a teacher in this school?" He'd shove the chairs, walking back to his desk and calling me names, pouting, and slamming into his seat.

That was the class in which I first started doing the Social Development lessons. One of the lessons in that curriculum has to do with timing, for example, when is the best time to try your solution? Is it when the person is by herself or with a group of people? Do you want someone else with you? Who should be around? Who shouldn't?

I had done that lesson with this class and maybe the next day or later that week, I was working with a group of students, and I see William coming towards me. I know the scenario and I know he's going to ask me for help. And he does. "Ms. De Falco, I need help on this math problem." And I said, "Not now, William. Timing." And it was like a light bulb went off in his head. He said, "Timing? Ms. De Falco! I get it! I can ask you at another time, right?" And I said, "Yes, William." And he went back skipping to his seat. It was just such a change that he all of a sudden realized that something that was being taught in the classroom actually had application to his life and could make a difference in his life and a difference in his relationship with me.

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3. How is the program assessed?

What the department does now is work on collecting data on what changes are happening in kids' attitudes and behaviors. We do that in a number of ways. The biggest way we do it is an assessment called the Social and Health Assessment. It's an assessment that consists of probably 150 questions. It's administered to sixth, eighth, and tenth graders, every two years and it assesses changes in their attitudes and changes in their behaviors in two different areas: attitudes and behaviors regarding social issues, and attitudes and behaviors regarding health issues.

What we have found over the years is sometimes startling. For example, the number of students now engaged in intercourse dropped dramatically from the years 1992 to 1998. The number of kids who are carrying guns has dropped. The number of kids who are suspended from school has dropped. The children's attitudes towards fighting have changed dramatically. They now believe that fighting is a less appropriate response to given situations. Their feelings about race relations have also improved.

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4. What is necessary for teachers to be effective in implementing social and emotional learning?

Training teachers to implement social and emotional learning curriculum is not the be all and the end all. Just because we as teachers go to training sessions doesn't mean that we are going to make huge changes in our kids' attitudes and behaviors. It takes more than just sending us to training. In addition to being trained, in addition to having an excellent curriculum, we need support.

The Social Development Department offers that kind of support to teachers. After the training is over, the Social Development Department is there for modeling lessons in our classrooms, giving feedback to teachers on their lessons, answering questions for us, and getting supplies and resources for us. If the Social Development Department wasn't there to coach and support teachers, educators would just go back to their classrooms having gone to a training and continue doing whatever it was they used to do.

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5. What are some things school districts should consider before starting a social and emotional program?

For school districts that are thinking of implementing a program like this, my words of caution would be it's not easy. It's not a quick fix. There has to be a vision. There has to be a plan. It's long range. It's not one activity. Calling all the fourth graders to the auditorium for a talk because there has been too much fighting on the playground -- that is short term. It's not lasting and you're not developing any skills in kids. Here in New Haven, it took six years to develop the curriculum part only, and then in addition to that, it's the constant and ongoing monitoring and support. The connections to the community, the connections to the police department -- it's broadening; it's not just classroom oriented now.

It's a big commitment. It takes a lot of time. It took a lot of years for us just to develop the curriculum part of it. However, seeing the changes in students' attitudes and students' behaviors is rewarding. Realizing that we are educating not only the academic portion of the child, but also the affective portion of the child is what it's all about. That's the whole child.

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