A 100-Piece Puzzle
Symonds Elementary is known as a go-to school for social-emotional learning: they help students who've had behavioral issues. Symonds believes that they're often able to make inroads with students who have struggled in other schools because they work to create a supportive environment addressing all of a child's needs, not just his or her academic needs.
Some of this is done through strategies from the Responsive Classroom approach to learning, which emphasizes students' social and emotional growth as well as their academic growth. But distilling Symonds' mindset about SEL into a single approach or practice is nearly impossible. The school's strategy is a 100-piece puzzle that involves everything from music to small-group work to teaching students mindfulness.
"Social-emotional learning for our students takes place throughout their day,” says first-grade teacher Sue Meehan. "Somebody [might] come in and teach a skills lesson. But those isolated lessons are never going to be enough, in that the children need to see it and hear it in many, many different ways."
"It really is the forum of the whole thing that makes it such a rich experience," adds guidance counselor Joan Murphy. "And because it is so integrated, you almost can't pull it apart."
Start by Identifying Feelings
Before students can start working on better controlling their feelings, they must be able to identify them. Symonds teachers start working with students as early as kindergarten on examining and naming their feelings. One of their tools is a framework called Zones of Regulation.
According to its website, Zones of Regulation is:
. . . a systematic, cognitive behavior approach used to teach self-regulation by categorizing all the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete zones. The Zones curriculum provides strategies to teach students to become more aware of, and independent in controlling their emotions and impulses, managing their sensory needs, and improving their ability to problem-solve conflicts.
The four zones are divided by color. From the website:
- The Red Zone is used to describe extremely heightened states of alertness and intense emotions. A person may be elated or experiencing anger, rage, explosive behavior, devastation, or terror when in the Red Zone.
- The Yellow Zone is also used to describe a heightened state of alertness and elevated emotions; however, one has some control when they are in the Yellow Zone. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, the wiggles, or nervousness when in the Yellow Zone.
- The Green Zone is used to describe a calm state of alertness. A person may be described as happy, focused, content, or ready to learn when in the Green Zone. This is the zone where optimal learning occurs.
- The Blue Zone is used to describe low states of alertness and down feelings, such as when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.
The zones are used throughout the school, starting in first grade with a series of eight sessions from Murphy and occupational therapist Laura Dubois. Murphy and Dubois spend about 30 minutes during the sessions educating students about the zones, and using activities to help them learn not only to identify but also articulate their feelings. Activities include asking them what the expected zone might be for a certain situation, or talking about how their behavior might affect a group setting.
Once students can actively identify and discuss how they feel, they're ready to explore strategies for handling those feelings. This is done in either the classroom sessions or small-group settings with Murphy or the school psychologist.
Using Small Groups for Big Results
Small groups are used all the time in classrooms or as part of Response to Intervention (RTI), but Symonds utilizes these for social-emotional learning as well as academics. While different staff members may call their groups different names or utilize different strategies, they all center on helping children feel supported, emotionally regulated, and capable of handling their own feelings.
Symonds school psychologist Susan Brennan-Sawyer uses small groups during lunch and snack times to "have a smaller place for kids to interact and know that if their teacher is too busy, there's a contact person for their sort of emotional world."
"Two things that I teach them from the very beginning," says Brennan-Sawyer. "No matter what anybody says about their problems, you can always just say that you're sorry, or that you hope it will be better. So [the group is] a place where they can learn the basics of empathy and problem solving."
Brennan-Sawyer typically meets with students in groups of four to five once a week for 15 to 20 minutes, so that students still have some recess time at the end of their lunch. "I also believe that kids need to go outside," she says. "So I'm not having them choose between doing this with me and going outside. And, really, after a certain bit, they would choose to not be in my group if they wanted to go out for recess, and who can blame them? So this way, they get away from the lunchroom, which can be really over stimulating."
Brennan-Sawyer meets with different groups every day, with the intention of seeing every student at least once by the end of fifth grade. Her groups include a mix of students that might need SEL support and those who may not need as much, so that those who are better at self-expression and self-regulation can serve as role models to the others. At each meeting, the students take turns sharing a happy thing and something that's troubling them. They may also play games to help them recognize and identify their emotions, such as Fishing for Feelings.
"I have just a myriad of social-emotional games," says Brennan-Sawyer. "I could have a group that has more anger control problems, so I would do more games focused on anger control or self-regulation, but it depends on the kids." She works to keep the structure of the groups consistent so that students will know what's expected of them. "I do a lot of affirmations," she explains. "We say the same repetitive thing, and it simulates what they maybe didn't have at home . . . so that they have a sense of security when they go into the world."
As the guidance counselor, Murphy uses small lunch groups for a similar purpose, but may use different techniques or tools. One recent example involved the Zones of Regulation to help students discuss appropriate behavior and uncomfortable situations.
“The particular focus was that there are different times of the day, and different experiences that we have that create different feelings," says Murphy. "We read a playful book . . . and then have them talk about different times during the school day and recognize how they might be feeling. Next we ask, 'Is that feeling expected or unexpected during that time of the day? And how do others feel if they're with me and I'm acting in an unexpected way?' So to get them to understand what their feeling state is, and if it's an uncomfortable feeling state. 'What tools do I have to bring myself back into the Green Zone?'"
Support Without Stigma
By making the groups a fun schoolwide practice, rather than a punitive one, Murphy and Brennan-Sawyer are able to help students that need SEL supports without stigmatizing them with their peers.
"There are so many groups going on simultaneously," says Murphy, "so nobody feels like they are standing out in an uncomfortable way. From our morning meeting, we are known entities. So, it's not like, 'Oh, I only go see Mrs. Murphy when there's a problem.' All of us try to interact with the kids in a variety of ways, all day long."
Fifth-grade teacher Gretchen Hoefer agrees, pointing to the groups' direct benefits in her classroom.
"The kids would happily be involved in lunch groups like every day if they could," says Hoefer. "They love that social piece, because they love talking, [and] it's really their chance to connect with other kids, to think about what’s on their mind . . . In that small lunch group setting, it's a safe place for them to let out what’s been weighing them down a little bit . . . That's hard to do with a full class of 21 when you want to really talk about something and break it apart." But in smaller groups of two or three, she observes, "Everyone has that opportunity to share and be heard. And then they bring that kind of energy and that feeling back into the classroom. It can be really helpful."
Mindfulness is another practice that Hoefer finds helpful in her classroom. Symonds piloted the practice in 2014, but the idea of using mindfulness in schools has been around for years, through programs like the Mindfulness in Schools Project or the MindUP™ program, which is part of what Brennan-Sawyer uses.
"I started with mindfulness because I've been teaching self-regulation to the kids who have emotional issues," she says. "And it was always as if they knew, in hindsight, what the answer was. 'Well, I shouldn't have called my teacher stupid. I should have done this or that instead.' . . . But when the situation came . . . the kids would just react. And I realized that [calming their brains] was something that they couldn’t do."
So Brennan-Sawyer began asking teachers if she could come into their classes and teach mindfulness. Some weren't onboard at first, but others, like Hoefer, decided to give it a try.
"I didn't know how it would work out, [but] it's been amazing," says Hoefer, adding that Brennan-Sawyer has had a really positive effect on the class. "They've had a chance to realize, 'Oh, when I'm really feeling stressed out, I'm going to stop, take some breaths, slow myself down, think about what's going on, and be in a better place or be more ready to handle what's happening in my day.'"
Brennan-Sawyer visits classes once a week for 15 minutes and teaches kids to be aware of their thoughts and their breathing, and how to take a moment to pause and be in themselves when they're feeling stressed.
After some initial wariness, Hoefer saw her students warming to the process. "[They're saying,] 'I'm feeling stressed, and I can see that now. Either my heart's going faster, or I'm feeling sweaty,'" she says. "And a couple of kids have even approached Susan in the hallway and been like, 'Oh, Mrs. Brennan-Sawyer, I was at home and this was happening, and I was getting really worried, and then I remembered what you shared with me in class, and I tried it, and I felt so much better.' So that was really neat to see the connections that they're making with mindfulness, not just here in school but also at home or in any part of their day."
While not all Symonds teachers are using mindfulness, those who are see a clear benefit in their classrooms and are bringing more of their peers to the practice each year. Brennan-Sawyer hopes that eventually, with her modeling, the teachers can implement the practice on their own without setting aside times for her to come to their rooms.
Making Connections Regardless of Resources
While many of the strategies outlined here involve staff members other than teachers, Brennan-Sawyer is quick to point out that you don’t need a school psychologist or guidance counselor to begin using these practices.
"Teachers everywhere are implementing mindfulness in their classrooms," she says. "There is an abundance of books, articles, curriculum. There are videos online, even through PBS Sesame Street. [Things like lunch groups] could be more informal with anyone. The purpose is to provide an opportunity to express real concerns or joys in a safe place with a caring adult and a group of peers. I see teachers having lunch with kids they have a special relationship with. That is good, since the single most important healing tool in children with many adverse childhood experiences is a relationship with an adult who believes in them. I always tell teachers, that person could be you. It may not be, but it could be. That is what has kept me going, anyway."