Posts Tagged social-and-emotional learning

Restore Kindergarten to Boost Social Skills

Published by EducationNews.org — What’s most fun for young kids is also what best prepares them for success.  So why are schools eliminating playtime?

kindergarten

Picture wriggly, shrieky, busy 5-year-olds exploring the kindergarten play yard’s treasures.  The sandbox brims with budding builders, diggers, landscape designers.  Some kids need mostly to run and scream.  Others settle into swinging, climbing and kicking balls to each other.  The luckiest kids have a bit a nature where they can make fairy houses for a community of imaginary beings living through dramatic, magical adventures.  They learn the arts of taking turns, helping one another on projects and solving their own problems.

Maria Montessori said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

Picture a wise adult or two, standing at a distance, perhaps out of earshot, eyeing the elements of the kids’ evolving social world.  The adults respond when asked to admire an accomplishment or play a role, but stay out of disputes unless it gets out of control.  A new kid or loner needs adult help connecting to others.  Grown-ups might redirect the aggressive impulses of a little bully and try to help her develop empathy by walking in her classmates’ shoes somehow.

But those were the kindergartens of yesteryear. 

These days kids spend precious little time playing at all in school.  Play and socializing might happen during short breaks between academic instruction, but many schools did away with recess altogether.  Now kindergarten teachers teach first-grade skills and have no mandate to help 5-year-olds develop the social skills that will serve them for life.  The Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten says, “Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school.”  That assumption is wrong.

And recently yet more research shows how wrong the assumption is.  In “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health:  The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” Drs. Jones, Greenberg and Crowly examine the value of what they call the “non-cognitive” skills, or those skills not associated with IQ or achievement.  They argue that these playing-nicely-in-the-sandbox skills actually support the “cognitive,” or academic, abilities of the child.  The researchers mined the rich longitudinal data from the “Fast Track” study of low-income neighborhoods which collected teacher descriptions of a large sample of kindergartners starting in 1991 and then followed those kids’ outcomes 13 to 19 years later — until 2000.

Their studies reveal that when kindergarteners develop strong social skills, they have significantly higher odds of future success in a range of domains from physical health to academics.  Little kids who cannot manage feelings or negotiate well with others are more likely, statistically, to become young adults who use drugs, struggle in school, get involved in the justice system, be unemployed, and so on.

“Kindergarten” means “child’s garden,” where kids grow organically.

Common Core, while marvelous in some ways, is only the most recent instrument of pushing academic instruction into kindergarten.  In the 1990s, when computer-scored testing became cost-effective, states and their schools became obsessed with boosting their public image and value by increasing their scores.  I’m all for testing as a way of checking on the equity and quality of certain academic efforts, but schools became all about testing, needlessly squeezing everything else out.  Many early childhood experts are aghast about it.  Losing supervised play as the best and most natural way for young kids to learn cripples curiosity.  Developing self-control, cooperation and solving their own problems will produce the desired academic results, but only in good time.

Pre-literacy and play are not mutually exclusive. 

By all means, steep kindergartners in rich literature and intriguing stories.  Nourish the curiosity of those yearning to unlock the mysteries of reading.  Build out their vocabularies at every opportunity.  But mostly, let them love being at school — socializing, exploring.  That will do far more to boost 3rd-grade reading than un-fun reading instruction.

Kindergarten teachers wouldn’t mind teaching social skills if they weren’t also saddled with the pain of pushing instruction that many argue is inappropriately premature.  Harder, faster, younger isn’t working out.  And oh what a turn-off it is for so many kids.

So restore play in kindergarten.  Play is how children learn and how adults relax, recreate and restore well-being.  It’s the ultimate restorative practice.  In a world gone mad with aggression, you’d think we could agree that giving the kids a rich year of supervised play, learning empathy, would set them up with a higher quality of life.

Indeed, research strongly argues it will.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day

Published by EducationNews.org — Setting aside downtime helps nurture the skills that let kids be successful.

recess

Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Puberty, The Elephant in the Middle School Classroom

Published by EducationNews.org — Early adolescents are roiling in a whitewater transition, but the ed industry isn’t talking about it.

In 1989, a Carnegie Foundation report dared to boldly go where every man has gone before, but had hoped to forget — puberty.

Turning Points was a rare exploration of those morphing from little kid into budding adult.  Historically, middle-school kids held little interest for researchers.  And lo, over time, Turning Points (TP) also faded from view.  No new seminal work replaced it.  No innovative discussion eclipsed TP’s passionate efforts to focus attention on these kids.  No, the ed industry has reverted to operating as though gawky, spacey, changing adolescents are midway on some unbroken continuum.

Of course, everyone knows they’re roiling in a whitewater transition, letting go of childhood and grabbing for adult independence.  They’re betwixt and between.  But we’re not talking about it.

Turning Points begged educators to face the uncomfortable realities of pubescents, between 10 and 15 years old.  They might be bellowing their objections to being “treated like babies,” while secretly playing with old toys.  Most famously, they’re moody, unpredictable and easily distracted by the minutia of social clues.  He looked at me wrong.  She doesn’t like me anymore.  Am I wearing something dorky? 

Their problems are not confined to the onset of sexuality, a mind-blow of its own.  The brain itself changes.  TP says, “Cognitive growth is equally dramatic for many youth, bringing the new capacity to think in more abstract and complex ways than they could as children.  Increased sense of self and enhanced capacity for intimate relationships can also emerge in early adolescence.”

Since 1989, scientists have determined that the brain’s “executive function,” the part making good choices, doesn’t fully mature until about age 25, long after this “middle” period.  Even so, “young people enter a society that at once denounces and glorifies sexual promiscuity and the use of illicit drugs.  They live in urban neighborhoods and even in some rural towns where the stability of close-knit relationships is rare, where the sense of community that shapes their identity has eroded.”

Never mind that the educational requirements of the workforce have changed so radically, poor educations predict dismal economic prospects.

But, “all too often the guidance they needed as children and need no less as adolescents is withdrawn.  Freed from the dependency of childhood, but not yet able to find their own path to adulthood, many young people feel a desperate sense of isolation.  Surrounded only by their equally confused peers, too many make poor decisions with harmful or lethal consequences.”

In other worlds, human puberty is a huge big deal.  We can be there for them and help out.  Or we can stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, and sing loudly.

Turning Points strongly recommends “personalization,” a horribly impersonal word that means nurturing kids’ relationships with adults.  TP launched the practice of “advisories,” whereby each school professional takes, say, an hour a week to get to know 12 -15 students personally.  The idea was to avoid replicating fragmented homes and communities with impersonal school experiences.  Sadly, many teachers felt that they already “knew” their students and that the time spent discussing kids’ hopes, dreams, and fears was “a waste.”

Turning Points was influential during the 1990s.  Philanthropic organizations helped systems adopt its “middle-school model.”  Some schools became more pleasant places to be and learn.  For those of us who cared about these kids, it was a hopeful time.

Ironically, the 1990s was also when educational technology exploded.  Suddenly, researchers could collect and crunch data in volumes never previously imagined.  Excited geeks developed powerful diagnostic tools for schools, systems, and even individual kids.  The data collected for Turning Points was intended to monitor and perfect the practices with solid research — a proper use of data.

However.  Congress’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law turned educational technology into a weapon of Mass Criticism.  Researchers were sent like hunting dogs to find data proving educational failure of all kinds.  Cheating scandals erupted nationally because school personnel wanted to avoid getting beaten up by test-score data.  I’m all for assessments and data.  But these days nearly everyone admits that our country’s testing mania is full-on toxic to kids, teachers and education.  No one has any idea how to stop, slow, or better deploy this speeding data train.

So here we are, arguing with one other about teacher evaluations, Common Core, and massive new assessment and curriculum initiatives.  The plan is to put third-graders in front of computers to test the bejesus out of them.

All schools should be held accountable, whatever that means.  But Big Accountability buried Turning Points.  Empathetic values do not jive with heavy breathing about tests.

So once again, my darling, awkward, pimply, smelly, goofy middle schoolers get totally left behind.  “Puberty is one of the most far-reaching biological upheavals in the life span.”  But sorry, kids, we can’t help you with that.  You’re on your own.  Good luck with that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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