When you’re meeting someone, do you turn your body toward that person? Make eye contact? Speak clearly and directly? How we communicate is who we are, and it’s critical in forming relationships throughout our lives.
Students in our Junior Kindergarten (JK) and Senior Kindergarten (SK) program do all these things and more each day at their morning meeting. It’s just one small part of the social-emotional learning (SEL) that is emphasized in their curriculum, and it’s merely the beginning of a program that extends all the way to graduation.
Perhaps one of the most obvious ways we bring our mission to life at MICDS is our commitment to supporting the social and emotional needs of every child. Our counselors, learning specialists and faculty are deeply invested in the development of a solid framework that encourages every student to learn self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The tenets of SEL include an intentional focus on relationship skills and awareness of one’s own body and needs. Children learn what to do when there is a crossing of boundaries, how to seek and offer help and the importance of social and ethical norms for behavior.
Director of Student Services Vicki Thurman explains SEL in relationship to the MICDS experience: “SEL is what we do as a school to provide an educational experience geared toward the whole child. The classroom covers the academic mindset and focuses on children as students, and SEL is the piece that takes care of the child’s social skills and emotional intelligence. It’s interpersonal leadership and character education. Students are learning to manage their emotions and how to cope with stressors. SEL is also a global education, a way of developing interpersonal skills in learning to work with people who are different than them.”
The foundation is built early, beginning with counselor-led programming in the Lower School. JK through fourth grade students are immersed in the Responsive Classroom® approach with social-emotional learning at the forefront. Children learn how to interact both verbally and nonverbally, and their teachers and counselors use screening and assessment to ensure those skills are progressing. Lessons include problem-solving, leadership, friendship, civility and family dynamics and extend to our school, city and even state communities. Some teachers appoint student “Rambassadors,” whose job includes noticing when a visitor arrives and welcoming them to the classroom. Leadership programming evolves as children grow.
In Junior Kindergarten, small groups of six or seven children have role play and discussion time regularly. They focus on how to communicate an idea, how to make a friend and how to enter group play. They even tackle what to do if there’s difficulty with a friend and how to stand up for themselves.
In Senior Kindergarten through third grade, large group lessons and discussions about a particular topic like problem-solving, friendship skills and how to report a concern to a teacher are regularly scheduled. For both JK and SK, play-based curriculum is a vehicle for interactive, joy-based development of skills.
Lunch groups begin in third grade, where six students are assigned a day to meet with Lower School Counselor and Learning Specialist Ashley O’Toole during lunch to continue the conversation. “The goal for each session is to be responsive to the individual and collective interests of the group and to be flexible in the course of action while still identifying a general framework of topics, ideas and questions for discussion,” says Ms. O’Toole.
Fourth grade groups are divided by gender, in preparation for gender-responsive classrooms in the Middle School. Monthly sessions are tailored to developmental and social needs, and students cover body changes, friendship, problem-solving difficulties and feelings of worry or anxiety.
In fifth through eighth grade, a partnership between grade level teams, the Middle School Counselor and Learning Specialist results in a program that covers friendship and bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety, and the myriad physical and emotional changes adolescents experience. Topics are discussed informally in advisory groups, and guest speakers complement in-school resources. Dr. Sarah Garwood, an adolescent medicine physician, for instance, visits to discuss puberty and its relationship and social aspects. Representatives from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse talk to students about the skills needed to resist the pressure to use and abuse drugs and alcohol.
Middle School students and faculty commit to a Community of Kindness and highlight a specific theme for each grade level that coordinates with SEL. Fifth graders focus on “stepping up,” sixth graders are learning about “taking charge,” seventh graders are “embracing change” and eighth graders are “becoming young adults.” Middle School Counselor Kara Friedman says, “These are such important years for children in terms of growth. They come in as little fifth graders and leave prepared for high school. We make sure that the bridge they’re crossing is full of exposure and pertinent conversations about personal growth, and opportunities to question how they cope with becoming more independent.” Middle schoolers are also learning about equity and inclusion, similarities and differences. Ms. Friedman says, “We tackle all the -isms: racism, ageism, sexism, ableism and biases.” Ultimately, the goal is for children to think more deeply about who they are and who they are in relation to the MICDS community, the St. Louis community and our world.
By the time students reach the Upper School, they’re tackling more issues independently in addition to having a robust support system with a wide variety of programs. While all four years have comprehensive mental health, equity and inclusion, drug abuse and character-building curriculums, each grade focuses on a variety of wellness and relationship issues. Freshmen tackle alcohol and cigarettes, body image and healthy relationship choices. Sophomores delve into stress and anxiety, online sharing, sexual health, sexual harassment and how alcohol affects the brain. Juniors explore sexual assault prevention and awareness, depression and mood disorders. Seniors cover binge drinking and addiction, personal safety, stress and sexual health.
“Through books they read, advisory meetings and formal programming, students learn about a range of social-emotional issues from global topics such as building character strengths and developing a strengths-based mindset, to more specific skills like time management to ensure adequate sleep, study habits and goal setting,” says David Hotaling, Upper School Counselor. Activities focused on community service, interactive leadership and team building, along with special events such as the Day of Caring and Leadership and Honor Council sessions, support the program.
The Upper School student support team also provides social-emotional guidance one-on-one, meeting individually with students to help them navigate challenging situations with peers and teachers. Guest speakers from organizations like CHADS Coalition for Mental Health—which sends experts to discuss awareness and prevention of depression and suicide—bring attention to important but sensitive topics. MICDS also supports a variety of groups and clubs that can influence SEL, such as identity-based clubs like the Black Student Union, the Jewish Student Union and iDentity. By the time students reach 12th grade, they’re ready for enrichment through Peer to Peer Mentors and Senior Leaders, programs that embody our clear focus on building these skills for many years for our students.
The Peer to Peer program began this year as a way for Upper School students to help their Middle School classmates through informative, interactive sessions.
Resources extend into the digital realm, too. Middle and Upper School students have access to the TxtAboutIt service, an anonymous means to report problems, incidents and concerns such as bullying, threats of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, thoughts of suicide and more. Students who may not feel comfortable taking concerns to an adult in person, or who don’t know how to reach out at first, have a way of connecting.
Social-emotional learning also happens at home, which is why MICDS offers a wide variety of parent-education programming to support the work that’s happening at School. MICDS counselors work with the leaders of the Parent Education Committee to promote learning opportunities that supplement topics students are exploring. Guest speakers and session topics are specifically timed to align with what the students are learning, which hopefully promotes a deeper understanding and helps generate conversations outside of School.
The evidence behind social-emotional learning programs is compelling. Research and studies conducted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and partner universities show the lifelong benefit of SEL. Beyond immediate improvements in mental health, social skills and academic achievement, students immersed in an SEL environment continued to have positive social behaviors and attitudes, better empathy and teamwork skills and strong academic results. They had less emotional distress and lower drug use. Those students also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression and better attitudes about themselves, others and school.
Visitors on campus first notice that our students are polite, that they hold open doors and thank their teachers and substitutes after every class. They soon realize that these behaviors are just the beginning of a comprehensive, thoughtful program designed to help students become prepared to not only navigate a global world, but to help shape it.
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