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Area schools tackle social & emotional learning needs

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"They're the well-adjusted, well-educated, socially responsible decision-makers we want to be our neighbors, colleagues, civic leaders and employees."

That's how Eric Taubery, area administrator at Fox Lake's Grant High School, describes his vision for all high school graduates.

His concept, shared by educators across the state, combines social and emotional development with academic acumen and is at the heart of a new three-year grant implementation program challenging select area middle and high schools to develop plans fully integrating new statewide social and emotional learning standards into classroom curriculum.

"As educators, we've always known that self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decisionmaking are skills we need to teach, right along with reading, writing and math," explains Taubery, a former social studies teacher. "It's why many of us become teachers — to make a difference as we prepare tomorrow's leaders in our classrooms today."

With its 1730 students and 185 staff members, Grant High School is one of only three area high schools and 14 local elementary schools selected to participate in the statewide grant program and charged to formulate three-year implementation plans for the social and emotional learning standards.

"The first year is targeted for information gathering, looking at where we are as a school and what our needs might be," Taubery notes. "To date, student and staff surveys have helped provide important benchmarks. This month we'll gauge parental response at a special meeting."

Timing couldn't be more critical, Taubery says.

"Many of our teachers discover that they are already addressing many of these topics in their classroom," he says. "With double digit mental health issues in high schools today and challenges of school violence, diversity, tolerance and more, it's time to formalize our social and emotional learning efforts."

According to Marjorie Cave, director of Professional Development Services for the DuPage Regional Office of Education, one of six regional offices helping to support first-year implementation for school sites through additional staff training and ongoing coaching support, Illinois is at the forefront when it comes to acknowledging and implementing social and emotional learning standards within the educational system.

"As educators, we've always known that students who are socially and emotionally grounded do better in school," she notes, pointing to statewide social and emotional learning standards, age-appropriate goals, benchmarks and performance descriptors adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2004.

"While the initiative is new, I've always believed that students who don't feel safe and valued in the classroom, aren't ready to learn," she states. "In our region, several schools in DuPage, Kane, Lake, Will, Grundy, Kendall and McHenry counties have written grants and received funding support and coaching services as they take a close look at curriculum and make important links to the social and emotional learning standards systemwide. All children deserve an equal opportunity to learn. Teachers spend so much time with our children and, ultimately, have the greatest impact on their learning both academically and socially."

The grant program, she explains, challenges schools and districts to systemically research, develop and implement plans, imbedding social and emotional learning efforts into the system and throughout classrooms. "

In addition to Grant High School, teams at Adlai Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, and Oswego High School, as well as elementary districts in Woodridge, Lombard, Lake Forest, Mundelein and Crystal Lake are among the first to tackle social and emotional plan development and implementation.

"In looking at curriculum and students, our current academic efforts and school improvement goals, we're examining our mission, vision and values as well as benchmarking efforts focusing on the whole student," states Marilee Muirhead, substance abuse prevention coordinator at Stevenson.

With its 4500 students from Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire, Long Grove and parts of Diamond Lake, Vernon Hills, Kildeer and Hawthorn Woods, Muirhead says her team's goal is an integrated, strategic plan incorporating existing efforts such as the school's World of Difference program and diversity awareness initiatives.

Patti Marcinko, Ph.D., director of student services at far west suburban Oswego High School, concurs on the need for a comprehensive and systemic approach.

"Our team is actually looking at each and every department to see what's already being offered in the curriculum," she states. "For example, in our English classes, discussion can focus on social and emotional learning by exploring ethical and societal factors that influence behaviors of characters in literature. During our student advisory periods, teachers are focusing on connecting the SEL standards to the pillars of our Character Counts program. We're trying to focus on all facets of the educational experience and look at each of our 1600 students as a whole."

The bottom line, she notes, is to answer the question "What skills do we want our students to be able to demonstrate upon graduation?"

"State testing shows we do a good job academically," she says. "Now is the time to formalize some of those less tangible things like work ethic, responsibility, awareness and social competency."

What is social & emotional learning?

Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire knowledge, attitudes and skills needed to recognize and manage emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions and handle challenging situations constructively, according to Caryn Curry, Mental Health America of Illinois representative who oversees the three-year statewide implementation program for the Children's Mental Health Partnership and current efforts to help educators better understand and implement the new learning standards.

"Developing social competency and skills such as anger management, problem solving and interpersonal communications can pave the way for academic success," she says. "The learning standards give Illinois children a leg up in terms of helping each and every child have the best possible chance for success in life. Competence in the use of skills is promoted in the context of safe and supportive schools, family and community learning environments in which children feel valued, respected and engaged in learning."

"There is a great deal of data indicating that large numbers of children are contending with significant social, emotional and mental health barriers to their success in school and life," Curry says, "Research indicates that children from all walks of life show significant academic improvement on standardized achievement tests when social and emotional skills are taught."

According to Curry, a total of 87 Illinois schools and 41 districts across all six educational regions within the state, are already involved as the state focus shifts to helping educators provide high-quality social and emotional education for their students from kindergarten through grade 12.

There is a strong research base indicating that social and emotional competencies improve student's development, readiness to learn, classroom behavior and academic performance.

Drafting Illinois' social and emotional learning standards was a collaborative effort between the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Children's Mental Health Partnership and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), according to Curry.

According to Dick Carlson, former Illinois State Board of Education member currently consulting on refinements to educational standards, each social and emotional learning standard includes five benchmark levels describing what children must know and be able to do in the early elementary (K-3), late elementary (grades 4-5), middle school (grades 6-8), early high school (grades 9-10) and late high school (grades 11-12) levels. Performance descriptors, he says, soon will be modified to reflect individual grade levels.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) currently sharing expertise and research with pilot project schools, there is a vast amount of data indicating that large numbers of children contend with significant social, emotional and mental health barriers to their success in both school and life. In addition, they indicate many children engage in challenging behaviors which educators must address to provide high quality instruction.

According to a 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, six percent of U.S. youth ages 14-17 did not go to school on one or more of the previous 30 days because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to and from school. Some 7.9 percent said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during this same period. Nearly 28.5 percent of these youth reported having felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in the last 12 months that they stopped doing some usual activities and 13 percent reported having made a plan to attempt suicide during this period.


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