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Chesterfield school leaders throw support behind shift in traditional teaching model

By Vanessa Remmers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
vremmers@timesdispatch.com, (804) 649-6243

Clary Carleton

The second-grader said he was walking to his bus when someone pulled his book bag strap and then slapped him across the face.

“How did that make you feel?” asked Cynthia Staneart, his teacher. Sad, he answered.

Sitting in a circle along the edges of Staneart’s rug under a board full of math problems on that particular Friday, the Chesterfield County class then launched into a discussion of what they would do if they saw someone being bullied. Perhaps, one second-grader offered, people bully because it makes them feel powerful. And maybe the more people pull away from bullies, the more they feel alone and will continue to intimidate others.

By now, Staneart’s students at Ecoff Elementary were used to gathering around the rug and having these kinds of discussions. Occasionally, parents would join in, too.

This past year, Ecoff Elementary became the first school in Chesterfield and in the region to implement the Caring School Communities curriculum. And Chesterfield School Board members recently spent $90,000 to expand the program to Grange Hall, Hening, Crenshaw, Enon and Hopkins elementary schools next school year.

“Ecoff Elementary is a true pioneer. ... I am excited about the School Board’s plans to expand into even more elementary schools,” said School Board member Carrie Coyner, whose district includes Ecoff.

The curriculum, developed by the nonprofit Center for the Collaborative Classroom, puts in practice what is known as social and emotional learning.

A shift from the more traditional model of simply teaching students academic material, social and emotional learning focuses on a different set of skills. Students concentrate on self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, self-management and responsible decision-making. They are taught empathy, how to recognize their emotions and how to regulate those emotions, among other things.

“Self-control actually helps me a lot because I think of myself as a funny person and a lot of times in class, I just want to crack a joke. But I think in my head, ‘Should I be talking or should I calm down and just be silent?’ ” said Brayden Timm, 11.

Research has noted that all of these skills tie into how much a student can remember, stay motivated, control impulses, develop connections, resist negative pressures and solve problems.

“It’s a focus on the whole child,” said Ecoff principal Joshua Cole. He speaks of social and emotional learning as preventative, giving children the skills necessary to solve their own problems. “Before it even gets to me, they resolve the problem on the kickball field.”

Timothy Ellis, 11, agreed that things can get heated sometimes when someone might have stepped over the line during kickball.

“Most of the time when people make bad choices, they aren’t in control of their body,” Ellis said. “So it’s important to pause and get back in your body and mind.”

Morning meetings like the one in Staneart’s classroom that particular Friday are a major part of the curriculum. Staneart led the discussion using a Caring School Communities guide specifically on bullying.

The students also participate in home activities with their parents, a buddy system between older and younger students, school-wide events and more. Bus drivers, custodians and other school staff join teachers during training so that “everyone speaks the same language,” Cole said.

These kinds of programs have gained popularity in classrooms across the country, particularly in the past three decades. However, teachers, who overwhelmingly called for SEL programs in a recent national survey, have long implemented informal SEL measures in their classrooms.

“The non-cognitive traits that research shows are associated with success are typically not addressed within the schools,” said Sarah Glass, a fifth-grade teacher. Before Ecoff’s SEL program arrived, Glass pushed to create the “Empowerment Zone,” which essentially serves as a community space.

Now, Ellis and seven other fifth-graders meet in the “Empowerment Zone” and answer letters from younger students seeking advice. They respond as if they are one of several superheroes named after SEL principles like “grit,” “optimism” or “gratitude.”

“It is exciting to see Chesterfield County implementing an evidence-based practice and then when they find it is effective, that they are expanding it to other schools,” said Donna Dockery, a professor and director of clinical practice with Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education.

The Institute of Educational Sciences, considered the most rigorous in terms of measuring programs, found that the Caring School Communities curriculum has potentially positive effects on behavior; no discernible effects on knowledge, attitudes and values; and no discernible effects on academic achievement.

“That’s the gold standard. Being in there is a good thing. It doesn’t mean it isn’t effective just because they reviewed studies that met their standards,” Dockery said.

Cole offered a different picture of the curriculum’s results. At Ecoff, he said, suspensions have decreased from 58 to 13 in three years while standardized test scores have improved. A combination of teacher training and student lessons contributed to that, he added.

The particular curriculum at Ecoff has received some other favorable results among other national registries.

In general, Dockery said SEL’s benefits are backed by research.

She noted a mega-analysis of 273 different studies of SEL programs, which measured more than 215,000 students. It found that students in SEL programs benefited academically by 11 percentage points compared to those not in SEL programs.

And studies by the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute have shown that those benefits extend to students in poverty, Dockery said.

Cole said he advocated for an SEL program once demographic shifts led to more students who were dealing with trauma and poverty. Just before Ecoff teachers began informally implementing SEL practices, they noticed more students struggling to control their emotions or lacking certain social skills, the motivation to come to school or the ability to stay focused.

Forty-four percent of Ecoff’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, a figure that has increased steadily since 2010, according to Virginia Department of Education data.

Dockery said the research showing the academic benefits of SEL has increased the popularity of SEL programs. But studies have also linked SEL to improvements in other areas of life.

A national study in 2015 found that students who went through SEL programs had higher rates of employment, lower levels of substance abuse and mental health issues, lower rates of public assistance use and were less likely to have involvement with police before adulthood. A cost-benefit analysis by Columbia University researchers found that an SEL program on average returns $11 for every $1 invested.

“So it seems to be linked with better results later in life,” Dockery said. “I think some people will say that it takes time away from the classroom. But if there are fewer classroom disruptions, there is more time for academic engagement if there is a climate of safety. If it’s just about the content, it’s hard for the students to stay connected. Not being afraid to ask a question matters. Not being afraid to go to school for bullying matters.”

Staneart said she has not had a suspension in her class this year, and was confident that the conversation on Friday would help with a bullying issue she had been having in her classroom.

“I loved having the time during the morning meetings to allow them to express their feelings. You have that time where you know you can really listen to what they’re saying,” Staneart said. “It helps me be more aware of children and their situations and what they might be going through.”

On Mother’s Day, not long after two of the students’ mothers had died, Staneart’s class talked about the importance of mothers. The two students did not speak up during that meeting, but the class knew what they were going through. Throughout the day, students would come up to them and express sympathy.

“That whole emotional part of that with the other children being able to empathize has been a really strong point,” Staneart said.

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