“Please remember to lift up your chairs.” Screeching and scraping sounds permeated the room as giddy students dressed in pink and red and hopped up on chocolate assembled their chairs in a circle.

It was Valentine’s Day and we were trying something new.

“I appreciate you because you help me in math.” said a fourth-grader with two long braids reaching to her waist. “I appreciate you because you are a good friend,” said the student beside her. Around the circle, with stifled giggles and smiles, each child turned to pay a compliment to the person on their left.

Apple and stack of books
Helping students develop emotionally and honing their thinking skills goes hand in hand with teaching them core subject matter. Meliha Gojak/iStock

This is “Social Emotional Learning.” In addition to core subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic, schools in Hawaii are exploring the importance of SEL. It’s defined by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as “the process through which children acquire and apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills, to manage emotions set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

The govenor’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan adopted last year recognized the importance of SEL, stating,  “All Hawaii students need explicit social emotional learning supports to access curriculum and programs in physically and emotionally safe environments.”

SEL can take many forms.

In programs such as Art Costa’s Mindful Habits, students are taught habits such as listening with empathy, persistence and flexibility in thinking to help them navigate complex situations. Philosophy for Children is another practice in which student-led inquiry fosters intellectual safety and community building.

“Peace Paths” are used in schools to help students learn about conflict resolution. Teachers are also using “The Tribes Agreements” focusing on attentive listening, appreciation, mutual respect and the right to pass. In “Global Learner Outcomes,” teachers collect data and assess students’ ability to be complex thinkers and community contributors.

Teacher conferences are being held to talk about SEL in schools. The “Elevating and Celebrating Teachers” conference at Stevenson Middle School is bringing together 100 teacher leaders to share about SEL programs in their schools.

Presenters will share strategies on how to help students build self awareness, self management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness. Teachers will gather to discuss what is working in their schools as well as challenges faced when experimenting with SEL.

Recent events are no longer just a call to action. They are a scream for help.

The hope is that teachers will bring what they leaned back to their school to create a safe and welcoming environment for their students.

Some may question the importance of time spent on developing social and emotional skills. Some may think the time would be better spent on the core academic subjects. However, SEL does not diminish the importance of the core academic subjects but rather equips students with skills and attitudes that can help them navigate in a future that is rapidly changing.

One would be hard pressed to find a job in which SEL would not be beneficial. It is needed in government to maintain positive relationships and in health care to have empathy with patients, just to name a couple. Students need to be fluent in relationship skills, goal setting and regulating emotions in order to make a safer, more equitable future.

After our first-ever “compliment circle,” students worked together in pairs to revise and edit their autobiographies. Positive feedback flowed freely.

“I love the way you added so many details,” said one.

The critiques were well received. By explicitly practicing giving and receiving compliments, students were more prepared and engaged in this writing activity. As the day came to a close, we gathered together as a community to exchange small treats and Valentine’s cards.

On the same day, at a public high school in Florida, students scrambled as gunshots were fired. From under tables and desks, they captured the mayhem on their cellphones. Over the wails of terrified children, one shouted, “Oh my god, our school is getting shot up!”

Seventeen people died at the hands of a 19-year-old former student.

I wondered what I would be like to have a student like Nikolas Cruz in our circle. Described by classmates and faculty members as depressed and violent, what compliments would be given to this student? Sometimes those who are the hardest to compliment are the ones who need it the most.

Recent events are no longer just a call to action. They are a scream for help.  Without legislation, teachers have been thrust onto the front lines to keep our schools safe.

By prioritizing Social and Emotional Learning in our schools, we are taking a step in the right direction to keep our students and our future safe.

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