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Editor’s note: This story was produced in conjunction with On Campus, a Civil Beat podcast series that tracks the first year of a new school in Hawaii and examines big education issues in America.
Nothing about the classroom looked abnormal.
Seventh-grade teacher Allison Harkey stood at the front of her Wheeler Middle School homeroom class. Kids peered over their notebooks, pencil in hand, at a PowerPoint presentation. Several students raised their hands to volunteer answers as the lesson went on.
But they weren’t learning math, language arts, history or science. Finding the right answer wasn’t as simple as solving an equation or bubbling in a circle.
Instead, students were challenged to think critically about their past behavior, and to better prepare for vexing social situations in the future.
Traditionally, schools have revolved around the academic development of students. But Wheeler Middle has joined the growing, national “social and emotional learning” movement that aims to prioritize kids’ personal growth too.
On the 800-student Wheeler Middle campus, about 97 percent of kids come from military families. Educators say transiency makes it tough for students to connect with their peers and teachers.
“Go ahead and think of a time where you did one thing, but later wished you did something different,” Harkey said. “We’re journaling so we can look at our progress through the year.”
Harkey’s students were learning to create “If–Then Plans.” A cartoon video taught students that if they create specific plans to deal with tough scenarios ahead of time, then they can react quickly, responsibly and thoughtfully. One character in the video wrestled with what to say when his friends gossiped about another child.
“Since we know difficulties happen, we should prepare for them, right?” the narrator said. “But how?”
One student said he regretted getting angry when peers ate his unattended lunch. Another remorsefully mused about ordering a caramel Frappucino from Starbucks instead of a blueberry-flavored drink.
In the past several years, social and emotional learning has become a trendy topic in education. The theory behind SEL is that kids perform better academically when they’re taught to understand their emotions, articulate their needs and navigate relationships with others.
Academic benefits aside, educators say SEL simply teaches kids to be better people.
Critics of SEL say those lessons should be taught at home instead, students shouldn’t be measured by their personal growth, and lessons may interfere with a child’s natural self-development.
Despite some skepticism, SEL is becoming more popular, according to a 2015 Education Week survey of more than 700 educators.
It’s part of the “whole child” educational movement, which has also gained traction in the past decade. Schools focused on the whole child try to ensure students are healthy, and feel safe, supported and challenged.
Some Hawaii schools go even further and have incorporated “trauma-informed instruction.” Teachers are trained to interpret students acting out as a sign of trauma outside of school — not resentment toward the teacher or bad behavior.
Divorce, abuse, homelessness and substance abuse problems at home can all be sources of trauma.
Trauma-informed instruction is a fairly new concept nationwide that’s just starting to gain momentum in Hawaii, said Godwin Higa, a retired California principal from Hawaii. At San Diego’s Cherokee Point Elementary School, Higa was a champion of the movement.
Trauma-informed instruction is all about respect, Higa said. Instead of suspending students who get into a fight, staff should make the kids talk through their problems and feelings.
“When they act out, don’t say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ask, ‘What’s happening to you? That’s not you,’” Higa said.
Schools along the Waianae coast and the southeast side of the Big Island have begun to implement similar practices.
“When we understand that behavior is a symptom of a broader need … sometimes we can address the need in school.” — Joy Hohnstine, DOE educational specialist
The Project AWARE and School Climate Transformation grants were to be distributed over five years to Oahu complex areas Nanakuli-Waianae and Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua, and Kau-Keaau-Pahoa on the Big Island.
Hawaii schools have used the money to pay for staff training sessions and materials, behavioral health specialists, curriculum and data-tracking software that may show the academic impact of SEL lessons.
At the Nanakuli-Waianae complex area, Kelly Stern leads efforts to improve student mental health and school climate. Stern learned about trauma-informed instruction from Higa.
Teachers in the area are taught to greet students at the door, smile at kids and squat down while talking to them, Stern said. For every correction teachers make to a student’s behavior, they’re trained to give the student another five compliments.
“They could’ve come (to school) with watching their father arrested the night before or a domestic violence situation,” Stern said, adding the school avoids suspending students whenever possible.
Joy Hohnstine, Stern’s counterpart at the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area, said schools are trying to raise awareness of mental health issues by holding movie nights that depict difficult topics such as trauma. The films are used as a starting point for discussing those issues and what local resources are available to help.
In a rural area, she said distance can be a barrier for students trying to access mental health, violence or substance abuse services. The Big Island has higher suicide rates than many areas and Hohnstine said “suicide is an extreme concern for us.”
“When we understand that behavior is a symptom of a broader need … sometimes we can address the need in school,” Hohnstine said.
Wahiawa’s Wheeler Middle School, located on the Wheeler Army Airfield, is one of the first schools in the state to pilot a new, web-based version of SEL curriculum called Second Step. Twice a month in homeroom, students journal, watch videos and discuss powerpoint presentations designed to support and socially transition students from elementary school to high school.
Lessons tackle age-appropriate — but sometimes heavy — topics such as mitigating rejection, managing anxiety, strengthening friendships and combatting sexual harassment.
The $8,000 curriculum was purchased with federal grant funding.
John Walje IV, Wheeler Middle vice principal for 8th grade, said schools that are recipients of the grant have another two years to experiment and decide what works for them.
“If the school really, really likes it, then they can pull it out of their own funding to pay for it,” Walje said. “Of course we’d like it to be a whole state initiative … and I do see a lot of that coming this way.”
With so many students from military families, the school’s enrollment is transient. Three-hundred kids come and go in the 180-day school year, Walje said.
The frequent moves can make kids feel like there’s no point to trying in school, he said.
Some of Wheeler Middle’s teachers are military wives who sympathize with kids from military families, Walje said, and those teachers believe in the potential of SEL curriculum to support those students.
Staff and students do what they can to make kids welcome. An “aloha ambassador” welcoming committee greets new students with a lei, then takes them to a “transition coordinator,” Walje said.
“We don’t have kids that grew up with each other since kindergarten in the same neighborhoods,” said Principal Brenda Chun. “All of our kids come together for the very first time — in and out.”
For many years, only students with special needs were singled out for special education, Chun said.
That started to change at Wheeler Middle about a decade ago, during the Iraq War. Many families were separated by deployment and some kids saw their parents return with health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Walje said.
As more soldiers were deployed, educators noticed students with parents in the military were affected, too, Walje said.
A 2010 study of children from military families during the War on Terror found “wartime parental deployments can be one of the most stressful events of a child’s life.” Changes in school performance, extreme sadness, difficulty coping with separation, lashing out and disrespecting authority figures were observed in those children.
These problems were exacerbated by media coverage of the war, the study found, and one in four children exhibited signs of depression.
Wheeler partnered with Tripler Army Medical Center to build a “small hospital” on campus, he said. Its patients include students with mental health issues, special needs and substance abuse problems.
School counselors can refer students to the hospital and students having a breakdown can be treated immediately, Walje said. Every week, school and hospital staff meet to discuss each individual student receiving special services.
Thanks to an agreement with the DOE, Tripler staff can share patient information with school staff.
School staff wanted to extend those resources to elementary students and high school students losing the progress they made at Wheeler Middle. With some help from Queen’s Medical Center, similar services were established at Wheeler, Solomon and Daniel K. Inouye elementary schools, and Leilehua High School.
Educators say extending mental health resources and integrating SEL into Hawaii schools is important, but there’s more work to be done statewide.
“Hawaii has struggled to meet the needs of its students,” especially those that are needy, have disabilities, or wrestle with their mental health, said George Sugai, a DOE consultant for 20 years and co-director of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
PBIS is a federally funded nonprofit that helps states, districts and schools organize their resources to support the emotional and behavioral needs of students.
School climate is one of three priorities Sugai says schools should focus on. Attendance, dropout rates and substance abuse issues are all things he said could be improved by ensuring kids learn social skills, and feel welcome and safe.
Another of his priorities is improving “school-based behavioral health,” or finding ways to connect struggling, high-risk kids with community resources. Difficulties with mental health, literacy, and social skills can make it harder for students to respond to bullying, homelessness or traumatic events at home, he said.
“I think Hawaii has done a great job of trying to do things, but they’ve been trying to do too many things,” Sugai said, adding the DOE should try to stick to initiatives that have proven successful.