Frustrated, Curious, Optimistic: How Teaching Social-Emotional Learning Benefits Students & Teachers

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by Alyssa Warren
Senior Associate, Rocketship Schools Team
Aiden and I started the year off strong. At our home visit before the school year had started, we played “Chutes and Ladders” and ate ice cream and he showed me all of his books, reading the title of every single one. He was a new first grader, excited to start at a new school with uniforms, multiple teachers, dancing, and his big brother across the hall. Aiden was a quick learner, eager to participate, and always winning new friends at recess with his bright eyes, wide smile, and silly jokes.  

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Clip-charts like this one help our students monitor and regulate their behavior.

As the year went on, Aiden began to have tantrums or shut down, putting his head down and refusing to speak. Some days, he would proudly clip up to pink, which is the top level on our schools’ behavior clip charts, in Math class, and then end the day on blue, which is the second lowest level on our behavior charts, in Humanities. Other days, he would score 100% on his Humanities assessment but then scribble over every single math problem, breaking pencil after pencil. Aiden’s mom and I would communicate every day via phone, text, email or all three, spending countless hours of brainstorming, problem-solving, and commiserating. Behavior plan after behavior plan, buddy lunches with Aiden and his friends, or teachers, or school leaders, counseling, joining a soccer team — we felt like we had tried everything, but nothing was working. While I never considered giving up on Aiden, I felt like my skills were maxed out. I had nothing left in my bag of magic teacher tricks.

But one particular day with Aiden changed everything. An enormous tantrum was followed by a shutdown in which he refused to tell me what the problem was. Aiden and I stayed in the classroom while the rest of the class went out to recess. Frustrated, I walked over to our bowl of Kimochis feelings — plush, colorful circles that have an emotion written on one side and the corresponding facial expression on the other — and threw them across the carpet in a Hail Mary pass. Shocked, Aiden froze and looked at me like I was crazy. I walked back to my u-table, sat down, and started grading homework.

Minutes passed. Aiden began to play with the feeling words, turning them over, reading the words, putting them back, sorting them, rolling them around. The next time I looked up, he had three feelings in his lap.

I asked, “Hey, Aiden what are you doing?” No response.

“Did you think it was silly when I threw the feelings?” Silent nod.

“Did you pick some feelings out?” Silent nod.

“Can I pick some out too?” Silent nod.

I walked to the carpet and picked out my feelings.

I showed him the feelings I grabbed: frustrated, curious, optimistic.

He showed me his: sorry, embarrassed, tired.
I asked if he wanted to know why I picked mine. Silent nod. So we took turns.

My turn: frustrated. I told him I love him and wanted to help him and I had no idea what the problem was, so I didn’t know how to solve it.

His turn: sorry. He was sorry he had made a mess in the classroom and ripped up his work.

My turn: curious. I was curious what was going on in his brain.

His turn: embarrassed. All of his classmates saw him have a tantrum, and he was embarrassed.

My turn: optimistic. I told Aiden that I was optimistic that we would be able to solve the problem together even if it took a long time.

His turn: sleepy. He told me he hadn’t slept the night before because a new baby was crying in his apartment building so he couldn’t fall asleep. That morning, his usual 5 am wake-up for daycare was simply not enough sleep.

It clicked.

All of the sudden the root cause of his behaviors were clear – Aiden was 6 years old and he was tired. He had never learned how to communicate this to a teacher before, he didn’t know what to do when he was expected to solve math problems but his eyes kept slipping shut, he didn’t know what to do when he kept nodding off and knew he was not allowed to sleep in class. He didn’t know because we had not taught him how to communicate his feelings to us.

That moment with Aiden was when I truly understood the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL). That moment was when I became a missionary for teaching our students the skills they needed to understand their emotions. This is the first step toward helping them regulate those emotions, so they can build healthy relationships and responsibly solve problems.

At Rocketship, we believe that all kids should be explicitly taught the skills they need to be successful every day at school and outside of the classroom as members of their community. For this reason, our schools have adopted Kimochis as well as RULER, a research-based social-emotional curriculum (the name stands for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions). This curriculum is for all students, not just students who need additional behavior support. With Kimochis in the lower grades and RULER in the upper grades, our students are building the foundation they need to navigate the challenges they will encounter on the way to, through, and after college. Paired with our emphasis on individual supports and building a network of collaboration, these tools help us create the safe learning environment students need to thrive.  

If you’re curious how the story ended for Aiden that day, he took a nap in my Kimochis cool down corner for the rest of recess.He went to Humanities and ended on purple that day, exceeding expectations on our schoolwide behavior clip chart. The next day, he brought back his math homework and his classwork from the day before, completed and signed by his mom. This day was the first step on a new path for Aiden that included additional social-emotional instruction and many more visits to the Bowl of Feelings. These supports allowed Aiden to spend more time engaged in academic material, and he surpassed his goals in both math and literacy — with the highest literacy growth in the whole class.

If you’re curious how the story ended for me, the answer is that the work had just begun. I’ve since transitioned out of the classroom and joined the Schools Team, where I work to support Positive Interventions and Behavioral Support (PBIS) implementation. In this role, I have had the opportunity to think strategically about how we reach the Aidens in all of our schools and how we proactively teach our students the SEL skills they need before the problems surface, and how we equip our teachers and school leaders with the tools they need to teach these soft skills. By giving our Aidens — and our teachers — the tools they need to navigate through their emotions, we believe we’re helping our students become not only successful students but also healthy, productive human beings.

When did the concept of social-emotional learning “click” for you?  Tell us ➟ @RocketshipEd

Alyssa is a Senior Associate on Rocketship’s Schools Team and works primarily on supporting schools with PBIS implementation, promoting positive school culture, and overseeing enrichment programming, including 4th and 5th grade science camps. Prior to joining the Network Support Team, Alyssa taught 1st grade Math and 4th grade Literacy at Rocketship Discovery Prep as a Teach for America corps member.  A proud Bay Area native, Alyssa was thrilled that Rocketship helped her find her way back home after completing her studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and spending a year teaching English in Kosovo on Fulbright Scholarship.

 

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