Updated, 4 p.m.: PDF added.
NORWALK – The notion that empathy, cooperation, self-awareness and similar life skills can count for as much as IQ in predicting workplace success was a radical concept when it emerged in the mid-1990s.
More radical still was the suggestion of a link between pro-social classroom behavior and improved standardized test scores. Offshoots of science journalist Daniel Goleman’s bestselling 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs have since caught fire, fueled by studies confirming a close relationship between healthy emotions and a child’s ability to learn.
Small wonder that Norwalk Public Schools are establishing their own SEL programs, as Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers informed the Board of Education last week, in a presentation on its benefits and challenges.
“Social emotional learning is the process by which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions,” Myers said.
While educators have long known that children perform better in a nurturing, supportive environment, the belief that managing emotions, resolving conflicts, and making wise decisions should be taught alongside traditional subject areas is relatively new.
Among SEL’s primary objectives: To build healthy emotional relationships among students and faculty to help prevent or repair emotional trauma by allowing all parties to express thoughts and feelings when conflicts arise.
Successful resolution hinges on everyone’s willingness to learn SEL’s restorative practices. That may prove more difficult for staff than for students, outgoing Board member Julie Corbett pointed out, since teachers might first need to unlearn decades of previous communication proclivities.
Norwalk Public Schools Chief of School Operations Frank Costanza acknowledged the “counter-argument out there that social and emotional learning isn’t valuable, and that there isn’t hard data to support what it can do on a positive level.”
On the contrary, he said, citing a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving 270,000 students that showed it “absolutely links to student learning gains in a variety of areas.”
The World Economic Forum rates SEL skills such as group collaboration and self-regulation higher than students’ ability to achieve a certain level of proficiency on standardized tests, Costanzo said. In fact, academic performance among students who participated in SEL interventions increased by 11 percentile points compared with students who did not.
Joining Costanzo and Myers at Tuesday’s presentation were representatives of Norwalk schools where SEL is already being used. One, LaShante James, assistant principal of Roton Middle School, defined restorative practice as “a philosophy” that requires “a shift in mindset.”
“It’s just switching the way you say something. Instead of accusing someone and pointing your finger, you’re saying, ‘I felt disrespected by that comment, and I thought we agreed to honor respect in this space.’ You’re not pointing your finger at the person, you’re acknowledging that the action broke the relationship.”
Restorative practices also help teachers when conflicts arise between students, James said. Such interventions allow all parties to articulate their thoughts and feelings, often crucial for young students struggling to navigate classroom and relationship problems. While SEL strategies take time to learn, James said, his staff is “very open to it.”
Other educators explained additional tools and approaches used in SEL. Silvermine Dual Language Magnet School decided to add a bilingual SEL specialist, and to pilot an application called Kickboard that digitally tracks student behavior and organizes incidents, Principal Elizabeth Chahine said.
Another platform, rethinkED, is being used to train Registered Behavior Therapists in the district, as well as to identify students’ moods by having them associate their energy levels and emotions by color, Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said.
In the workshop that followed the presentation, parent and social worker M.J. Chirona described herself as “very passionate” about SEL and said “it has been wonderful over the past four years to see every school focusing on social and emotional learning.”
Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski directed board members to write SEL into policy and to seek community partners for future initiatives. The program’s effectiveness will be measured and tracked as education officials build the program into NPS’s Strategic Operating Plan.