ML Kindness

Junior high school is a critical time of growth and development for students. Whether they’re trying to make new friends, join an extracurricular activity or sport, or navigate a homecoming dance, youths within that demographic are full of emotions they might not know how to express or cope with.

That’s where social and emotional learning can help.

This year at New Castle Junior High School, the staff has implemented a social and emotional learning curriculum to assist students in self-management, responsibility, communication, conflict resolution, empathy and emotional management.

“Teaching students about social and emotional learning is very much needed with the population we service, the increased use of social media, and emphasis needed on the whole child,” says Jonalyn Romeo, assistant principal at New Castle junior and senior high schools. “The SEL curriculum is being written by our staff for our staff because they are more in tune with our students needs than any one program could dictate.”

Strategies for success

The idea for the program was initially brought to the attention of Romeo and Principal Carol Morell by Lou Laurenza, a seventh-grade science teacher. Laurenza and Nikki-Jo Pierce, who works in the seventh- and eighth-grade emotional support classrooms, are co-leaders for the new SEL curriculum at the junior high school.

“He recognized the need for a positive change in our school culture and how this change would directly affect academic success and raise test scores,” Pierce says of Laurenza. “It is a crucial part of our students’ learning process to be able to understand their roles as young adults in today’s society.”

The curriculum, which went into effect this year, focuses on the skills and strategies necessary for students to make a successful transition into junior and senior high school, Laurenza says. There are five main components covered within the program: self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills.

Some studies show that many students are living in somewhat of a virtual reality because they were born into the era of smart technology and social media, according to Laurenza.

“Essentially, these students are developing their values and perception of what is socially acceptable from videos they watch on sites such as YouTube,” he says. “SEL is important for students of all grade levels, but junior high represents the transitional years when children are becoming young adults. SEL programs have been proven to alleviate behavioral issues, develop an understanding of social norms, increase student attendance, improve academic success, develop strong values, and ultimately prepare students for life after school.”

‘Their absolute best’

According to Pierce, the students receive a new weekly SEL topic and a lesson at the beginning of the week. English and language arts teachers then adapt some of their lessons to incorporate the weekly SEL topic.

“On Friday, the students come together in what is called a Class Council Meeting to discuss the relevance of the topic and how it they have applied it,” she says. “As part of expanding the students’ success in this program across the curriculum, the weekly topic is announced on the morning announcements school-wide, so that every student in the building is aware and incentives are offered for students who are observed applying the topics.”

Pierce says it’s easy to see the struggles of adolescent students on a daily basis. The pressures to fit in and become part of a social group are not new obstacles, but combined with the fast-pace world of smartphones and social media may make it even more stressful.

“SEL is about raising our students to an overall level of success and opening up opportunities for them that they did not think they were capable of, while instilling motivation and drive for them to never accept anything less than their absolute best,” she says.

Romeo says educators have high expectations for their students.

“The goal is for them to use the strategies they are taught in the areas of regulating their own emotions, being mindful, using social media the way in which it was intended, to be kind and to be responsible,” Romeo says. “The more we can succeed in helping the whole child, the more that child will achieve academically and in his or her life.”

This article was originally published in Community Health for The School Districts of Midwestern Health Combine.