Social-emotional learning put into action at Shelter Island School

It’s not just about reading, writing and arithmetic anymore. In a fast-moving world that has increased stress for youngsters, educators are turning their attention to SEL — Social and Emotional Learning.

For many years, schools have had social workers and/or psychologists on staff. But on Shelter Island, those two staffers aren’t just sitting in offices with students in a one-on-one environment. Instead, they’re bringing their skills into classrooms, playing games and engaging in exercises aimed at making the entire educational experience more integrated.

School Social Worker Michele Albano and School Psychologist Danielle Spears have embraced how their roles have changed thanks to the philosophy about dealing with the whole student, not just the academic side of the individual.

By training and circumstance, they would intervene in a student’s life if the student sought their help, or parents or teachers called on them to deal with a specific case. But Ms. Albano and Ms. Spears at times felt they were strangers to these children. Now they see students regularly in classroom settings and, for example, open their office doors to groups of students who want to join them for a pizza party. They are becoming more of a seamless part of the educational process.

What’s more, with neither of them functioning as teachers, they’re gaining an appreciation for what classroom teachers do and how they can incorporate social and emotional learning into the everyday academic experience.

The fuller engagement with the students allows them to deal with issues that once might have resulted in an upset child being sent home for the day to parents without resources to deal with their child’s emotions without help. The result was a lost day of school, instead of perhaps a half hour’s intervention that could have the child back in class and learning.

The SEL initiative started with a state mandate to incorporate a social/emotional curriculum into classrooms, but was furthered by first year Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ph.D., who was familiar with the concept when he arrived in the district last September.

The idea is simple, Mr. Doelger told the Board of Education last fall. Using a pre-developed kit — called “Harmony” kits — as a guide for teachers, social workers and psychologists, children in pre-kindergarten through grade 6 learn to manage their emotions.

The Harmony kits are provided without charge to schools and nonprofit organizations thanks to a collaboration between philanthropist T. Denny Sanford and the private, nonprofit, San Diego-based National University System.

The components of the kits and the lessons are designed to improve communication and connections among students and plant the seeds that can help them grow into compassionate and caring adults.

The lessons in this first part of the program, aimed at children from pre-school to grade 6, are age-appropriate. For the younger children, it’s a meeting with Z, a green figure who, the students learn, is an alien. As the children come to know Z, they hopefully open themselves to know and appreciate one another for their differences.

Through the grades, the lessons become more sophisticated, aiming to develop empathy among students, a concept Ms. Spears and Ms. Albano admit is more difficult.

In practice, Ms. Albano and Ms. Spears said, it’s more complex than the theory appears, but they’re learning, along with teachers and students, and finding the approach productive.

“The students have been phenomenal,” Ms. Spears said. 

In the elementary level classrooms, the concept starts with students learning about one another to better understand each individual’s interests, moods and concerns. One day, each child was asked to bring an item of importance with them to school. Yes, there were a few who brought cellphones. But for most, it was items such as a baby blanket or a stuffed animal. Children had an opportunity to explain why the item has been important to them and in doing that, they’re revealing information about their personalities and needs.

Through songs, games and role playing, students are developing the skills they will need as they mature.

What Ms. Albano and Ms. Spears have observed is teachers becoming more engaged with the program and incorporating some of its concepts into academic lessons.

With time, the program will be extended into secondary school classes.