George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Jefferson County Adopts Social and Emotional Learning

A Kentucky school district aims to create healthy classrooms and helpful citizens through its CARE for Kids program.

December 23, 2009
VIDEO: Superintendent Sheldon Berman Builds a Network of Caring School Communities

Running Time: 08:32 min.

CARE for Kids, a program for social and emotional learning practiced in the Jefferson County Public Schools, in Louisville, Kentucky, is remarkable for the same qualities that define the man who created it. Superintendent Sheldon Berman could be described as a pragmatic idealist, and his districtwide effort to prepare kids for success by weaving together their social, emotional, ethical, and intellectual education, is designed not only to enrich learning but also to improve the planet.

Central to the success of these ambitious goals is a commitment to building strong relationships between teachers and students, a necessary step toward instilling solid interpersonal skills in the children. It is a lot to ask of teachers, but those who are involved in CARE for Kids (the acronym stands for "Community Autonomy Relationships Empowerment") in Jefferson County are enthusiastic.

They like the program because of its defining characteristics: They enjoy the immediate, practical benefits -- socially and emotionally adept students learn better and make teaching easier. And they are proud of the greater purpose -- there is deep reward in teaching a generation of students the skills they need to build a better world.

"It's necessary for students to understand how to resolve conflicts, how to get along with each other, how to cooperate," says Berman. "And it's become clear to me that social-skill development is essential -- not only for students to become effective citizens but also for schools to become effective places for kids to thrive."

Roots of the Program

Berman's credentials as an idealist go way back. In 1982, he founded Educators for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit resource center that assists schools to help students become individuals who can, according to the organization, "help shape a safe, democratic, and just world." Before coming to Jefferson County in 2007, Berman had been superintendent of schools in Hudson, Massachusetts. During a 14-year stint there, he cultivated reforms including civics education, service learning, and social and emotional learning.

"I believe deeply that students do not do well academically unless they feel cared about and included, unless they feel that there's a climate around them where they can take risks, where they can share their learning or even their wrong answers, and not feel embarrassed or put down," says Berman. "So when you create that kind of safe place, students are better able to learn."

It All Starts with a Relationship

CARE for Kids, now in its second year in the diverse 99,000-student district, builds on Berman's efforts in Hudson. By weaving together the social, emotional, ethical and intellectual domains, the program connects personal growth to academic success. As the CARE for Kids vision statement explains, "To nurture all four domains is to educate a child for life."

Everything in CARE for Kids starts with a positive, personal relationship between teacher and student. With that underlying support, students learn key social and emotional skills and then find many opportunities to practice those skills in a supportive community -- the classroom. Ideally, they will take the values gained in the classroom to the larger community outside the school.

"If you combine both the development of social skills and building the sense of community in the classroom, then students live those social skills in their day-to-day life and understand what it means to be part of a community," Berman explains.

Building Blocks of CARE

CARE for Kids includes practices and approaches derived from a variety of sources. The district consulted an array of published programs -- the Developmental Studies Center's Caring School Community, the Northeast Foundation for Children's Responsive Classroom, and Origins's Developmental Designs, among them -- and it provides support to practitioners.

Teachers get at least several days' of training a year, plus a binder full of resources and classroom activities. CARE for Kids has leadership teams at each school, and district liaisons provide ongoing support. Fifty-five elementary schools, plus sixth- and seventh-grade teachers at all 24 middle schools, are participating now. The district expects almost all 90 of its elementary schools and eighth-grade teachers to join within the next two years.

The centerpiece of the CARE for Kids program is the daily morning meeting, where students and their teachers get to know each other, discuss social and emotional issues, role-play positive behavior, and set a tone of mutual support. As the day unfolds, the teacher reinforces the lessons of the morning meeting, using positive language and constructive, nonpunitive discipline. As they grow into the program, teachers add end-of-day meetings to their practice, and schools add cross-age buddy activities, community-building events, and activities for parent engagement.

CARE for Kids practitioners are shaped by these six essential principles:

  • "At the heart of a caring school community are respectful, supportive relationships among and between students, educators, support staff, and parents.
  • "Learning becomes more connected and meaningful for students when social, emotional, and ethical development is an integral part of the classroom, school, and community experience.
  • "Significant and engaging learning, academic and social, takes place when students are able to construct deep understandings of broad concepts and principles through an active process of exploration, discovery, and application.
  • "Community is strengthened when there are frequent opportunities for students to exercise their voice, choice, and responsible interdependence to work together for the common good.
  • "Classroom community and learning are maximized through frequent opportunities for collaboration and service to others.
  • Effective classroom communities help students develop their intrinsic motivation by meeting their basic needs (e.g. safety, autonomy, belonging, competence, usefulness, fun, and pleasure), rather than seeking to control students with extrinsic motivators (e.g., rewards and punishment)."

Such far-reaching goals take time to accomplish, of course. But Berman reasons -- and the teachers who have pioneered CARE for Kids agree -- that the program saves time in the long run, because kids become more engaged and cooperative as they learn these essential skills.

From Students to Citizens

Berman believes that, if enough children take part in the program, CARE for Kids could help improve the social and political health of the nation. Painful demonstrations of the country's poor conflict-resolutions skills are easy to find on the nightly news, he says.

"We can have a vote that's politically split, and a Congress that's tied up and can't make decisions for years because there is no sense of community," says Berman. "We need to teach students that there are no simple answers to complex problems. That's the heart of it -- they need to respect multiple perspectives."

Educating children to breathe new life into American democracy is a daunting goal but not, according to Berman, an unrealistic one. In fact, the ideal is written into the district's guiding document on the program: "A CARE for Kids school gives our students a vision of the way the world could be."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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