Teaching kids to cope

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About this project

About this project

By the time they arrive at school in the morning, their insides are often in knots. Perhaps they had a difficult time with a strung-out mother, are frustrated by a father’s absence or just experienced a rowdy and threatening bus ride.

Until recently, students on the South Shore high school campus who faced such problems had someplace to turn. Teachers were in ongoing training to help them relate to students’ problems and students had access to community resources in their school designed to help them.

But this year, much of that support disappeared.

Two of South Shore’s four small schools had worked hard to design an initiative, dubbed Barriers to Learning, focused on social and emotional learning, says Pam Warner, a counselor at the School of Entrepreneurship. District officials promised to pay for the program for five years. That promise, however, was broken.

“They cut it off after only two years, and we are pissed,” Warner says.

Given the district’s previous piecemeal attempts at social and emotional learning in Chicago’s pubic schools, South Shore’s teachers and counselors shouldn’t be surprised.

Social and emotional learning is the term used to describe the deliberate teaching of behaviors and values in schools. Some advocates believe these skills must be taught using scientifically tested curricula, but others are open to less tangible ways of providing students with direction and personal connection.

In the past, efforts to address social and emotional learning have come and gone with grant money and leadership changes.

Vivian Loseth, a nationally recognized expert, argues that educators need to shift how they think about social and emotional learning.

“We need to change the way we relate to children,” says Loseth, executive director of Youth Guidance, a nonprofit agency that is working with some schools on social and emotional learning. “It extends to the way in which we relate to one another. Instead of tearing each other down, it is about building each other up. And it has to percolate through the schools, not just be an extra program or in one classroom or another.”

Today, as a new group of grant-funded pilots take shape, there are signs that the district might be ready to take a more comprehensive approach. Outside pressures give CPS no choice. Four years ago, Illinois made social and emotional learning a requirement, becoming the first state to pass standards and set benchmarks. Shortly after, the district approved a policy to address social and emotional learning and train teachers in every school.

Advocates point to convincing research that links social and emotional learning to academic achievement. An analysis of 207 studies found that students who participated in social and emotional learning efforts scored 11 points higher on standardized achievement tests than those who did not receive such instruction.

Also, students in the studies behaved better and displayed less emotional distress, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.
Pressure is coming from inside, too. In the first-ever districtwide survey of students last spring, CPS students were asked a number of questions about their own and their peers’ social and emotional development. One question asked whether peers stop and think before they do anything when they get angry.

The results showed that social and emotional learning is the No. 1 area students identified as needing improvement. 

Bryan Samuels, chief of staff to CEO Arne Duncan, got the message and has made comprehensive social and emotional learning a top priority. As the former head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Samuels sees a need to improve emotional well-being in school.

He points out that while foster children are dealing with a specific set of problems, troubled students in the city’s public schools can be upset for myriad reasons.

“Challenges of children in the welfare system are not unique,” he says. “I want to see what pieces relevant for that system might be relevant here.”

Increasingly, principals and counselors are looking for social and emotional curricula to help them solve lingering issues with discipline and student engagement. Their hope: that emphasizing self-control and making personal connections will stem fighting, dropouts and other negative behaviors.

But Samuels and others note the challenges ahead. Cost is one, since a comprehensive curriculum and the teacher training for it ranges from $700 to $1,500 per person. Getting teachers to buy into the idea is another challenge. Some teachers are hesitant to take on responsibility for social and emotional learning while they already are pressed to prepare students for high-stakes tests.

Ranjana Bhargava, director of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ Connections Programs, insists that schools need to do a better job of reaching out to students who face stress outside of school. Her program works with children whose parents are in prison, but Bhargava says other youngsters need the same attention and that schools too often ignore students who are emotionally distraught.

Teachers who use a social and emotional learning curriculum tend to know their students more intimately and ask questions about their lives, Bhargava says. There’s also more opportunity for these students to share and talk about their troubles in class.

“Many of these children feel so intimidated, and these are subjects that are never, never talked about,” she says.

Such programs can be especially important for children whose parents are absent,  Bhargava adds. Children in this situation need both self-confidence and self-awareness—two of the main principles of social and emotional learning.

“They think that [their parents’ absence] happened because of them,” she says. “It leads to a lot of questioning of themselves.” It’s difficult for these students to focus on school when there’s so much turmoil elsewhere, she adds.

‘Reality of it all’

Principal Beryl D. Guy says Hay Community Academy in Austin has long recognized the importance of social and emotional education. Written on poster boards that are taped on two gray pillars near the entrance to the school is a list of seven characteristics children are expected to develop.

They include showing understanding and empathy for others, working in teams, making ethical and constructive choices about behavior, and knowing one’s strengths and limitations.

Guy says this holistic approach to educating the mostly African-American student population is intuitive. Beginning next year, however, Hay will join 12 other schools in a pilot that will make social and emotional learning more deliberate. (See related story on page 10.) Now, Hay’s staff is selecting which curriculum to adopt next year. 

CASEL Vice President Mary Utne O’Brien says connecting the inclination to address well-being with curricula that deliberately infuses it into the school day is key. When CASEL was founded 12 years ago, the intent was to apply scientific rigor to various social and emotional curricula being used by schools.

O’Brien argues that social and emotional learning and the skills it teaches are important for all children, regardless of socio-economic background. Self-awareness and self-management are tools every child needs when confronted with choices and dilemmas.
School District 181 in Hinsdale, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, recognized this a few years ago when it embraced social and emotional learning, citing the need for their students—perhaps being groomed to be high-powered CEOs—to be able to work in groups and be good problem solvers.

Yet the need for social and emotional learning is more pronounced in schools where most students come from poor and fractured families, O’Brien explains. These schools must establish early on that they are safe and caring refuges where students can feel comfortable. Once students feel cared for, they are much less likely to drop out or turn to other negative behaviors, she adds. “A really big part of this is giving teachers what they need to connect to a child,” O’Brien says.

Teachers won’t ‘trip out’

At South Shore, where test scores are stubbornly low, counselors often encountered students who were stymied in school because of problems at home or in the neighborhood.
Warner describes a 16-year-old boy who faced the responsibility of caring for a 6-month-old son at home, combined with the burden of a mom on drugs. At school, Warner and the boy’s teachers are left to try to convince him that he needs to concentrate on algebra.

“We try to deal with the reality of it all,” Warner says.

Johnny Banks, who founded and runs a nonprofit youth outreach organization, says reality is not the only thing that hinders students—fear also does. Banks’ program, called A Knock at Midnight, was brought into South Shore to lead what are essentially group therapy sessions as part of its social and emotional learning plan.

Training teachers is also important. It helps them realize the roots of apparent disrespectful behavior, Banks says. When young people are expected to act like adults at home—dressing and feeding siblings, for instance—it is often difficult for them to make the transition to behaving like students at school. If teachers know what is going on in students’ head, “maybe then these teachers won’t trip out,” he says.

But the counselors don’t have the time to hold student sessions, like the ones A Knock at Midnight had been holding at the school. A one-on-one therapy session with a student means pushing aside loads of paperwork, they say.

South Shore counselors say they do not know why their Barriers to Learning program was cut. Frustration is evident. “These kids will never learn if they don’t find peace inside,” says Warner.

Responsible decisions

The sentiment by counselors at South Shore is echoed throughout the district. The counselor to student ratio in Chicago is 350 to 1, about 100 students more than is recommended by the Washington D.C.-based American School Counselor Association.

Lisa Krotiak, the counselor at Burnham Mathematics and Science Academy, says that when she went to college in California, she envisioned spending much of her time talking to students about their problems. But as it turns out, in Chicago she was called upon to coordinate testing and work with special education students.

By herself, she began going into classrooms and talking to students about good character and values. “Someone needs to tell them that it is OK to be angry, but then give some instruction on what does it mean to be cooperative or make responsible decisions,” she says. “How do you handle conflict in a good, safe way?”

This year she and her principal jumped on the chance to be part of the pilot program for all the teachers in the school to be trained on social and emotional learning.

Other principals and counselors point to concerns about behavior and discipline as chief reasons for wanting to be a part of the new pilot.

Getting a handle on bullying and fighting has given Von Humboldt Principal Christ Kalamatas a sense of urgency to ramp up social and emotional learning.

Sue Baley, the dean of students at Tilden High School, says the school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood tries to head off problems among students. But too often they end up in fights. When that happens, she feels as though she has no other recourse than to suspend or eventually expel the student. Last year, Tilden expelled more students than any other school, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of Board of Education expulsion reports. Baley finds herself in a similar predicament when a student talks back or is rude to a teacher.
But Baley is well aware that spurning students doesn’t help them change their behavior. “They are not learning if they are sitting at home,” she says.

The biggest obstacle for schools involved in the pilot is getting teachers to buy in. Von Humboldt teacher Bill Sherwin says some teachers worry that social and emotional lessons will cut into time they have to spend teaching reading or math. Others don’t see the immediate impact.

“I try to convince them that somewhere down the line, when kids pick it up, they will see some progress,” he says.

New crop of programs

Loseth from Youth Guidance says she’s not surprised that teachers are hesitant to embrace social and emotional learning. She says the No Child Left Behind law, which focuses on test scores, creates pressure on schools and makes them feel compelled to respond with quick solutions and superficial assessments.

But she says it behooves teachers to pursue it. “One of the common things you find with bad teachers is that they have not found a way to connect with students,” she says. “If you can connect with kids and teach them how to manage their own behavior, then it frees up time for math and science.”

Ken Papineau, deputy director in CPS’ Office of Specialized Services, says that the district has long recognized the importance of social and emotional learning and in 2004, the district created a social and emotional learning team in the school health unit. 

Though all of CPS’ current social and emotional programs are funded through special grants, Papineau notes that training all the teachers in 13 pilot schools is the most comprehensive approach so far.

“The idea is to build capacity throughout [each of] the schools,” he says.

Also, there’s additional state money so that all of the pilot schools will have a person from a social service agency on hand to provide mental health services.

Another big grant being used by the unit will install alcohol and drug abuse programs at eight elementary schools and four small high schools housed in South Shore.

Samuels is taking stock of all district and school level activity around social and emotional learning. He expects to announce a wide-ranging plan before September.

His aspirations are tempered by the district’s inability to take previous programs to scale.
“We have homeless students, we create homeless programs,” Samuels says. “But we never address the overall issue that not enough students come to us ready to learn.”

Instead of looking at groups of students as isolated, Samuels says the district needs to address the health and well being of students overall.

Banks, whose Knock at Midnight group is working with a number of elementary schools, hopes district officials are ready to commit to making social and emotional learning a permanent part of school curricula. When programs come and go, like the one at South Shore’s small high schools, students wind up hurt. After spending a year in the schools, Banks says students sought him out when they needed to talk or were feeling angry.

Now that he’s gone, he has lost regular contact with the students. When he runs into them occasionally on the street, the trust has waned and students’ shields are back up.

“I have come to know that once [students] are impacted with programs like this, everything else gets better, from their general attitude to their school work,” Banks says. “The problem is inconsistency. There becomes a disconnect, and they are right back where they started.”

Contact Sarah Karp at (312) 673-3882 or karp@catalyst-chicago.org.