Experts And Educators Present New Models For Educating The Whole Child
by Deb Alter
School reform and academics are at the forefront of the education discussion, but a crucial issue that is often neglected is the social-emotional development of students, and their mental health. To address this, Hoosick Falls Central School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Ken Facin, is incorporating Mindfulness Education and Social Emotional Education as an integral part of the District’s philosophy and curriculum. [private]
The District has launched an initiative that will help students to develop both their emotional and academic selves through mindfulness practices. As part of the initiative, the school hosted a symposium for Hoosick Falls Central staff as well as educators from other districts on Monday, February 1 entitled “Academic Mindfulness: Merging Social-Emotional Development and Learning.”
Introducing the morning program were Dr. Larry Myatt, co-founder of Education Resources in Boston, and Superintendent Ken Facin. They emphasized that students are more successful if schools work to develop the whole child, including social-emotional aspects of the learning process. “Social-emotional support is an achievement strategy,” Dr. Myatt said. Students are disconnected, and adding a social emotional aspect to their education in conjunction with mindful breathing will help them be proactive in understanding our rapidly changing world, and their own selves. Focusing on the social emotional will help students succeed in the distracting, difficult environment that they live in. “We’re getting kids into a position to learn,” said Facin.
Featured speakers were Dr. Gil Noam, Founder of Program in Education, Afterschool and Resiliency (PEAR) at Harvard University, and Dr. Roberta Bennett, who is board certified in neurology and psychiatry. Participating in the first panel discussion were both presenters, Dr. Myatt, Jane Aibel, Director of operations for PEAR, Dr. Bruce Crowder, former NYS Assistant Commissioner of Education, Dr. Phil Fusco, NYSSOC Coordinator for Academy for Character Education at the Sage Colleges, and Facin. The second panel featured Hoosick Falls Central Schools’ psychologist Corie Linehan, Director of Special Education Kristen Philpott, Principals Amy Netti (elementary) and Stacy Vadney (junior/senior high school), and Dean of Discipline Mario Torres.
Dr. Myatt and Facin both spoke about how life is about connections, the sum of our interactions, but students today are disconnected. They are distracted by all the glitter and constant barrage of information, and worried by the uncertainty and violence all over the world.
Dr. Noam presented a talk called “Developing a Social Emotional Learning Climate in 21st Century Schools.” He explained the “Clover” model that he and PEAR have developed.The framework, which has been 25 years in the making, will help educators understand human developmental needs as well as providing a common language with which to communicate with and about children and youth in the context of the world today.
“Education has to be about mental health,” Dr. Noam said in his presentation. “Education needs to help children develop resiliency and persistence and stay in tune socially, emotionally and cognitively.”
Being social-emotional educators means opening our hearts to what kids bring in to school with them each day. For some kids, he said, it’s heroic that they even come to school with all the trouble they may be having at home. Kids who are angry or lash out have a back story, he said, and that’s what the behavior is about. And they need to know that they are in a caring community and they have to develop the skills to cope with the 21st century.
His Clover Model was developed to address this. In contrast to the widely accepted “staircase model” in which children finish one stage of development, then go on to the next, then the next, and so on, the Clover Model is about balancing among the four “leaves” of the clover: Active Engagement, Assertiveness, Belonging, and Reflection. According to PEAR, while many individuals tend to specialize in a specific “leaf,” we each possess all the leaves to a greater or lesser extent. People specialized in one leaf often demonstrate particular strengths and struggles. Striving for personal balance among the four leaves of the Clover can help students (and adults) achieve positive mental health.
Active Engagement represents body, impulse, and movement; it is about connecting to the world physically. Assertiveness refers to voice, choice, and executive function. It is about self-control, negotiating rules, roles and boundaries, making decisions for oneself and having the capacity to act. Belonging describes the need for friendship, empathy and support. This leaf is about strong, positive relationships with peers and adults, mentorship and group acceptance and identity. Humans live in a society, and belonging to a society is important to all people. Reflection is about the need for thought, analysis, insight, observation and understanding. This leaf explores self-discovery and meaning-making. It involves making sense of one’s own experiences, emotions and thoughts to create a sense of identity.
Clover is helpful in identifying the basic needs that kids have. By designing programs accordingly so each one of the leaves gets nourished; students can work towards their own individual Clover balance to be healthier mentally, emotionally, and academically.
Dovetailing with the social emotional piece is the Mindfulness Learning practices that the district put in place starting in September 2015. The “Neurobiology of Mindful Practices” was the topic of Dr. Bennett’s presentation. She spoke in depth about the different parts of the brain and how each works. She talked about the evolution of the human brain, neuroplasticity, how experience is generated, and how we are pattern seekers. Using illustrations, graphics, and scientific pictures of the brain, she explained how the amygdala, the part of the brain that is the center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation, calms down during meditation or mindful breathing. When things in their lives are distracting students and interfering with learning, she said, mindfulness practices help them to calm down and put things in perspective.
In the first panel, Dr. Fusco discussed the social-emotional climate of schools, saying this must be created through school-wide initiatives, not just isolated programs such as an anti-bullying program. When a school is successful at this, “communities of character” are created in students help each other to develop character. Aibel said that PEAR has been working closely and extensively with schools and will be working with HFCS for at least two years.
Facin said that his faculty has “hit the wall” with the emotional damage from ten years of State and Federal Education initiatives and tests. But he believes crisis can be an opportunity, and that Mindfulness and social emotional education are key. “We can give kids ownership of their own learning,” he said. “Every moment we have with a kid is special, every word we use is important.”
Dr. Crowder thinks that active teaching is the answer, that schools must look at their curricula and consider academics and social emotional learning. “Social emotional education is not at the expense of academics. Kids come to school to capture hope and opportunity, to find pathways to the future,” he said.
Dr. Noam said that it is important that policymakers allow for experimentation. Innovative schools like Hoosick Falls Central can show that creative implementation of the ideas being discussed for social emotional education work, and can be an example to other schools.
The second panel was closer to home, as all of the panelists were HFCS school leaders. They addressed what they have been experiencing in Hoosick Falls schools. Linehan said, “We are all teachers,” including the counseling team and administrators. Philpott said, “we know our learners. Every kid in the building knows an adult that has their back.” Netti said that morning meetings were helping kids to focus and connect. “We can’t assume that kids have all the skills they need to handle every situation, stress or a crisis,” she said, and social emotional education will help the school help the kids to develop those skills. Another emphasis was how staff talks to students. “The words we use help kids get a sense of identity and inclusion and can escalate or de-escalate a situation,” she explained.
Vadney said that to reconcile the pressure of high academic standards with social emotional learning is to “work smarter, not harder.” She said that when students’ awareness of self through the development of their social emotional skills, they can focus better. It also gives them resiliency beyond high school and helps them stay in college.
As Dean of Discipline, Torres said he generally sees “kids who are having a bad day.” When they come into his office, he has them just sit and breathe for a few minutes, so they can calm down and react more appropriately to the situation. He said the Mindfulness training has helped a lot. He believes that mindfulness and social emotional education are about changing the culture of the school and making kids feel like part of the process.
Myatt closed the morning conference by saying that education is at a “point of chaos and opportunity,” implying that this is the time for educators to grab the opportunity to transition to a learning environment aimed at developing the whole child.
Facin thanked everyone for coming. In the afternoon, teachers participated in small group workshops that addressed the issues that were explored that morning.[/private]