When a three-year-old tosses a game piece or flips the game board after a loss, that’s a teachable moment.
Denise Moody, assistant director of student services at Rochester Public Schools, says it’s a teachable moment for someone of any age. Moody is helping schools district-wide roll out social emotional learning curriculum this year.
Social emotional learning refers to a person’s ability to handle relationships, manage emotions and deal with setbacks.
One of Moody’s goals for the social emotional curriculum is to teach that those skills can be taught.
“When we lose a game, it’s very developmentally appropriate for a three-year-old to get upset and throw that game piece,” Moody said. “That’s why we all play Candyland — even though it’s a terrible game — it teaches valuable lessons.”
Older students who have trouble handling a loss or setback might have that behavior dismissed as a character flaw.
“Sometimes we ascribe innate characteristics to students that might struggle in different areas,” Moody told the Rochester School Board during a meeting in August as the SEL curriculum was about to be introduced districtwide.
Many students are struggling with developing emotional skills that are essential for people entering the workforce.
A survey last year of 9,688 RPS third- through 12th-grade students found 463 reported they can’t control their emotions when they need to. More than 590 students reported they were unable to stay calm when things go bad.
Moody said no one factor has contributed to that need, but in her 15th year at RPS, she said she has seen the need for teaching SEL skills grow.
In November 2017, Megan Hansen, a fourth-grade teacher at Harriet Bishop Elementary School, attended training in positive behavior and culturally sensitive teaching skills. Hansen said she learned SEL skills were the foundation for any of those teaching tools to be successful.
“It’s really the one thing,” she said. “These are the skills people lose their jobs for or keep their jobs with.”
She helped pilot a SEL teaching program at the school.
“It’s just so important for kids to know how to regulate themselves,” she said. “If you’re not emotionally in the right place, all (the other teaching) goes out the window if you can’t manage stress or manage your emotions.”
Bishop introduced SEL to second- and fourth-grade students the second half of the 2017-2018 school year. An SEL curriculum went school-wide the next year.
Once a week, Hansen introduces her class to the week’s core lesson. The lesson takes about 30 to 45 minutes and usually involves understanding or identifying emotions and responses to them. The rest of the week, she holds short “check ins” on the lesson, usually providing examples in which to apply the lesson.
“So much of this is situation based,” said Jared Groehler, school principal. Teaching kids to identify passive, assertive and aggressive behaviors and identify the differences between the three helps students handle conflicts on their own, he added.
“I think that it’s super empowering for kids,” Groehler said.
“We don’t often ask kids about their feelings,” Hansen said.
SEL gives them a vocabulary to talk about their emotions.
Learning doesn’t end at the lessons, she added.
“In general, any time we talk to the kids, that gives us areas to explore,” Hansen said.
Those lessons have translated to saved class time, she added. It used to take about 10 minutes to get students settled and in their seats after recess. Since introducing SEL, it takes five, she said. Conflicts are settled more quickly, she said.
At most schools, SEL will be introduced by school counselors. There are three levels of teaching under the current curriculum. Some students need more one-on-one and intensive SEL lessons, Moody said.
For Bishop counselor Jovan Kristo, school-wide SEL lessons means he can focus more on students who need more SEL-related guidance.
“Those students that were struggling with this before are now getting this in the classroom,” he said. “Now I can go a little deeper in practicing with individuals.”
Students will be asked how they rate their ability to regulate their emotions to help measure how effective SEL teaching is.
As the district moves forward with the SEL curriculum, officials will have some additional help measuring the results.
Sarah Abolt, RPS special education teacher and masters in special education student at Staint Mary’s University of Minnesota, was given permission Tuesday by the school board to study how SEL affects students’ self regulation strategies and skills.