An Evolution of Social Emotional Learning

by Brian Bemiss, Principal, Huckleberry Hill Elementary School, Lynnfield, MA


“Is there a laundry room in this place?” was one of the many questions I had when I arrived at Huckleberry Hill eight years ago.  It was my first year being a principal after 12 years as a classroom teacher and I was very excited to get to know the students, parents, staff and culture of HHS.  I did a lot of listening and observing in those first few weeks. What I quickly learned was that I was extremely fortunate to be working with a very professional staff with high expectations for themselves and their students.  They also collaborated more than any group of teachers I had ever seen.  They readily shared ideas, resources, lessons and effective strategies to improve and enhance the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms.

brianbesteffortAs principal, I had the privilege of visiting every classroom K-4  to observe the positive relationships teachers had with their students as well as the effective routines and procedures they had established to set the stage for effective and meaningful learning. Grade level teams collaborated with special educators, the school psychologist and the occupational therapists to learn new strategies and techniques that could help each of their students be successful.  Through this process, teachers learned that some students benefitted from taking a movement or “muscle building” break, around the school, carrying detergent bottles filled with sand.  Good news was teachers were ahead of the curve when it came to meeting the needs of their students and the bad news was that any laundry I needed to do, would have to happen at home.  

It was clear and evident that the teachers were addressing the needs of individuals, in their classrooms, but what or where were the school wide practices to support the social emotional needs of our students?

I posed this question to our School Council back in 2009 and they all agreed that having a school wide character program would be beneficial in unifying the teachers’ efforts and letting the students and parents know that we prioritize providing a safe learning environment for all.  The Council and I read, Building Character in Schools by Kevin Ryan and Karen E. Bohlin.  As a result, we developed an outline of what we thought would make for an effective character program for HHS.  The School Council also authored a school pledge that we recite every morning:  

Today, we will give our best effort in all that we do.  We will work hard to be respectful, caring citizens and excited learners.  All of us have the ability and responsibility to learn and succeed.  

briancircleThis pledge and the outline for the program was then shared with the newly formed “Character Committee” and the “Huckleberry Heroes” character program was born.  

The “Heroes” program has evolved through the years.  We began by having whole school assemblies every month to introduce a theme to students.  Respect, effort, courage, honesty, empathy and perseverance were among the many themes we shared with the students.  The Character Committee soon realized that introducing an idea or concept such as respect to a group of 400 students ranging in age from 5-10, and having them “think about it” was not an effective way to improve the day to day interactions or needs of our students.  We then focused on working with grade levels, one at a time.  We had “community meetings” that were facilitated by the teachers to talk about the aforementioned themes in an age appropriate and more meaningful way.  This was a sporadic approach to talking about heavy concepts like empathy as something separate from school work.  Social Emotional Learning, we believed, needed to happen all day, everyday, within our classrooms.  As the Heroes program entered its fifth and sixth year of existence we presented the themes as learning objectives for the whole school to achieve.  Three or four “I Can” statements (I Can ask someone new to play with me or I Can put myself in someone else’s shoes) were posted around the school every 6-8 weeks and talked about and reinforced them in the classroom.  We felt like we were on to something with this approach.

brian3Our goal with all of this is to help students develop the skills they need to be successful, happy, confident and ready to learn. What we realized over the years is that students need direct instruction of these skills if they are going to learn, internalize and apply them.  We’ve talked to our students and their parents about the Growth Mindset and the Zones of Regulation.  Teachers are trained in Collaborative Problem Solving and mindfulness and share their knowledge with students, colleagues and parents. We teach our students about expected behavior, whole body listening, “reading the room” and utilize declarative language with individuals to help improve executive functioning.  Movement breaks and cognitive breaks have been a part of HHS since before I arrived as well as class meetings and individual conferences. Social Emotional Learning has been a core value of HHS for years, however it wasn’t consistently demonstrated everywhere. SEL needs to be in the school’s structure, leadership and classroom practices, curriculum, communications, co curricular activities, even the school building itself. (Rachel Poliner, Leaders & Learners Consulting 2015). SEL was added as a goal to our 2016-2017 School Improvement Plan.   

In my conversations with teachers last year, with so many great things going on, we needed something to tie it all together and provide our students with a common language.  A team of teachers, representing grades K-4 and specialists and I attended the SEL4MA conference last spring to hear about how to best provide this instruction.  I was worried that we would arrive at the conference and they would tell us we had to start back at square one to design an SEL program.  This was not the case…thank goodness!   Rachel Poliner, one of the presenters and later a provider of professional development to our entire staff, let us know that all the strategies, interventions and supports we have can and should stay in place.  The curriculum options we would learn about were just another tool in the already effective tool box we have for our students.  

briandeskAfter the conference we had a better understanding of how SEL can be infused into every child’s day.  The skills we need to provide direct instruction for are: self regulation, thought stopping, social skills, executive functioning and flexible thinking.  On our September 7th professional development day, Rachel Poliner shared with our staff that we are feeling beings who think, not the other way around.  Emotions run our lives.  Brain research says that everytime children behave in a way they (or we) don’t understand, a teacher has the opportunity to engage in an exploration of their inner world. When painful experiences can be consciously thought about, named, and placed into a coherent narrative, children gain the ability to reintegrate dissociated neural networks of affect, cognition and bodily awareness.   By naming the emotion we can focus our efforts on effectively teaching behavior or social skills and strategies as we would for math or reading.  HHS is now using the “Second Step” program to directly teach these concepts and skills.  When we are not directly teaching a skill such as being assertive, empathetic or understanding another’s perspective, we are infusing SEL concepts in all our teaching and interactions with students.

Since the beginning of school, HHS has had ongoing conversations regarding SEL at data assessment meetings, faculty advisory committee meetings, PTO meetings as well as during faculty meeting and professional development time.  As a district SEL is a part of our District Strategy.  We talk about SEL as an administrative leadership team and district wide professional development has been provided to support teachers’ implementation of SEL concepts.  Jessica Minihan, a behaviorist, consultant and presenter recently shared her expertise with all Lynnfield teachers.  If there was one take away from her presentation (and there are a hundred!) it’s that if a child could behave, he/she would.  Behavior is communication.  We (teachers) don’t incentivize math or reading.  We teach math or reading.  We incentivize or punish behavior.  We need to teach behavioral skills like they are a part of the curriculum.   

Direct instruction of targeted skills and infusing SEL throughout every student’s day is the newest evolution of the “Huckleberry Heroes” character program.  Our goal of having our students ready to learn academically and emotionally, remains.  We are dedicated to refining our techniques and reflecting on our effectiveness.  Professional time, and for many of us personal time, is dedicated to continuing to learn of new ideas and research that will help us provide our students with what they need to be their personal best.

brianBrian has served as the Principal of the Huckleberry Hill Elementary School in Lynnfield, MA for the past 8 years.  Prior to that he taught fifth grade in Reading for 10 years and in Melrose for 2.  Brian holds a seat on the MESPA Board of Directors and you can connect with him on Twitter @HHS_Bemiss

Are you interested in sharing your ideas, insights and questions? If so, click here to sign up for a post. Julie Vincentsen, Principal of Ruggles Lane School, will reach out with specifics. Are you interested but nervous because you’ve never blogged before and don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry – as long as you know how to use Microsoft Word you will be up to this challenge. We write for our communities all the time – this just changes your audience. You probably could even take a current newsletter you’ve written and repurpose it for your colleagues!

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