Social Emotional Learning Across the Grades

Jasmine Kitses, Middle School Teacher at Middle School Morning Meeting

In a recent morning meeting, students in 8th grade took part in a simple activity. The prompt was to explain the work the adults in their family do—in the home, in the community, or at a paid job. Students were a little reluctant to jump in (it was 8.50 am), so I told them about my grandfather who worked as a milkman, a bus driver, and a bartender. As kids began to share, we learned about family members working in hospitals, businesses, and the arts—about journalists, therapists, teachers. We learned about community organizers and lawyers, caretakers, and homemakers. By the end of our twenty-minute conversation, the room felt a little different. Despite the masks, we could all see each other a little more clearly.

Morning meetings, along with our weekly advisory classes in middle school, are part of Synergy’s commitment to SEL, or Social Emotional Learning. According to CASEL, a 1994 initiative dedicated to SEL in schools, “SEL is the process through which all young people…acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” With its longtime focus on empathy and supportive relationships, SEL has always been at the core of Synergy’s educational philosophy. The Agreement System is built on a foundation of empathy and care, with its commitment to keeping a “safe space for people’s bodies and feelings” and creating “a respectful learning community free of bias.” Yet just as the social and emotional landscape of young people’s lives has changed across time, with shifts in technology, social media, and the pandemic, for instance, Synergy continues to evolve in its approaches to Social Emotional Learning.

In our present moment, SEL is more crucial than ever. As kids learn to manage the social and emotional turmoil brought on by the pandemic—online learning models, social isolation, distance from family, limits on sports and social rituals—teachers must reassess the kinds of curriculum we should offer to support them. In middle school, the decision to incorporate Second Step’s SEL curriculum three years ago really paid off during remote learning, as lessons translated well to Zoom, and the company released additional pandemic-related activities. This year, the co-op decided to expand the program school-wide, so that it is now taught in grades TK-8. Ebony Manion spoke about the benefits of using Second Step to guide conversations in the Rainbow Room (1st/2nd grades), saying that “In this time with so much uncertainty, Second Step supplies teachers with the tools to educate students about their emotions and what to do with them. My class completed a unit on Emotions. From the sample lessons, the class was equipped with real-life scenarios on being proud and disappointed.  Afterwards, we used those lessons to write Small Moment stories.”

Second Step also complements other SEL programs in place at the school, such as the Sun Room’s (2nd/3rd grades) SMARTS curriculum, with its focus on executive function. In middle school, each year of Second Step begins with a unit on Mindset and Goals, and asks students to consider not only their personal goals but also the obstacles that can derail their intentions. The unit aligns well with Synergy’s goal-setting conferences but is also valuable for discussing students’ wider aspirations and dreams, and helping them with life skills. There are additional units on Bullying and Harassment, Emotions and Stress, and Healthy Relationships, all of which center on healthy communication, advocacy, and respect. As each year repeats central themes while building new knowledge and competencies, teachers can use the lessons on a sequential or as-needed basis, moving the units around to fit the needs of their class. Middle School Math Teacher Dan Gelfand claims that “While formulaic, Second Step is structured to allow a lot of conversation around the topic it addresses. We have had a number of good talks about how to handle the cascade of emotions that occurs with the onset of puberty.”

One of the most valuable aspects of Second Step is its ethical approach to SEL and its commitment to diversity. The program regularly draws on student testimonials from a diverse group of students who talk about their experiences in a direct and real way. Kids appreciate hearing other kids talk about topics they care about, allowing them to identify with their peers and/or step into someone else’s shoes. Mac Gross, an 8th grader at Synergy, says “Second Step tells a very realistic view of what it’s like to be a teenager. It makes me feel normal for having these feelings, and gives tools for how to help.” Along with the testimonials, there are useful definitions and concepts—such as the difference between bullying and harassment—that facilitate important discussions. Finally, there are hands-on activities that draw from students’ prior knowledge and ask them to reflect on their own values and experiences, adding their voices to the topic.

As we all know, it can be difficult to be vulnerable in front of one’s peers. We honor the fact that our students—just like us—can feel reluctant, shy, or embarrassed to share their thoughts on difficult and personal topics. But as teachers, we hope to cultivate consistent opportunities for kids to reflect on the benefits of sharing their emotions, goals, frustrations, and questions along with their peers. The familiar framework of Second Step, with its supportive presentations, activities, discussions, and videos, gives students a sense of reassurance, and a starting point for this essential work.

As a school, we are continually looking for ways to deepen our commitment to SEL. Recently, middle school aide Ariel Leighton and I attended Natasha Singh’s excellent four-part workshop for educators on Sexual Literacy, which gave us tools and food for thought as we continue to support our students’ social and emotional development in these areas. We hope to continue these conversations with our community, as we all navigate this new social landscape together.

Morning meeting in the Soft Yard
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