Math. Science. Reading. Spelling.
These are some of the things most parents expect their children to learn in school. But what about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making?
These five areas make up what educators refer to as social and emotional learning, and there’s a growing awareness among educators that this type of learning is just as important as academics, noted Jim Tauzel, interim superintendent for the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic schools.
“It’s become a frontline area that all schools are kind of working towards,” Tauzel said.
Early last summer, the diocesan Catholic Schools Office received a $60,000 grant, to be used for the development and implementation of a new social and emotional learning curriculum at the Rochester diocese’s 18 Catholic elementary and middle schools. To develop that curriculum, the schools office partnered with The Children’s Institute, a Rochester-based organization whose mission is to equip and support those who work with children to ensure the success of every child.
The staff of the Children’s Institute has partnered with many public-school districts and private-school systems on projects intended to strengthen children’s social and emotional health. Social and emotional learning, which is sometimes referred to as simply SEL, is the process of developing a set of skills and competencies, explained Elizabeth Devaney, director of the Whole Child Connection division of The Children’s Institute.
“It’s a developmental process. We’re all still working on it as adults,” Devaney said. “It’s things like being able to communicate well, being able to set goals and make plans, understanding how you may have an impact on other people.”
Over the last two decades, such factors as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which tied federal school aid to measurable student progress, and an increased focus on standardized test scores combined to create a classroom environment that was not necessarily conducive to SEL, Devaney said. In recent years, however, educators have begun to recognize the connection between SEL and academic success, she said.
“You can’t separate kids’ brains from their hearts. Essentially, to be able to learn, you need to have these skills in place,” she remarked.
In 2018, New York became one of 15 states throughout the nation to adopt a set of SEL benchmarks, which spell out which skills — related to social and emotional learning — children should have by each grade level, Devaney said. Upon reviewing these benchmarks, Tauzel and Ann Frank, coordinator of assessment and professional growth in the diocesan schools office, realized many of the actions discussed in the document already were being done at local Catholic schools. It was relatively easy, then, to infuse the benchmarks with Catholic identity and teaching, and create a document that could provide guidance and strategies to teachers in Catholic schools, Tauzel said.
“It actually fit really well with what we already teach in our religion curriculum,” he said, noting that the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit fit into the benchmarks in an especially seamless way. “The benchmarks would say things like ‚Ä¶ identify the strengths of people around you. The fruit of the Spirit that goes with that is generosity of understanding ‚Ä¶ how your gifts can be used to help someone else, and someone else’s gifts can be used to help you. The fruit of self-control goes with some of the (benchmarks) about recognizing and controlling your own emotions and choosing the right reaction to a situation.”
Each school has put together an SEL team and started training staff using modules from The Children’s Institute, which earlier this year conducted studies to determine which areas of SEL each school needed to focus on first.
The SEL team at St. Joseph School in Penfield has been talking about the importance of giving students choices whenever possible, and using various means to empower them and build their confidence, said Principal Amy Johnson. Encouraging students to use their gifts by participating in various liturgical roles at school Masses is one way the faculty empowers St. Joseph students, she added.
“When we’re feeling good about ourselves and our environment, we are going to be so much more open to learning,” Johnson said.