In Vermont schools today, educators strive to help students grow not just academically, but socially and emotionally, as well. To do this, school staff implement a social-emotional learning (SEL) framework, which promotes five keys skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (PBiS Rewards, n.d.). At Lothrop Elementary and Middle Level School in Rutland County, the staff is committed to SEL practices that benefit their students and thus the entire school community.
The five key skills taught in social-emotional learning. Retrieved from http://www.vermontafterschool.org/resources/sel/
The acquisition of these SEL skills help students 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” (CASEL, n.d.). The video below describes the five skills taught in SEL in more detail, as well as how the successful implementation of this framework can positively impact students (Edutopia, 2013, May 21).
5 Keys to Social and Emotional Learning Success. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/DqNn9qWoO1M
Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory (SLT) was coined by psychologist Albert Bandura and is considered to be a “bridge” between the Behavioral and Cognitive schools of psychology (McLeod, 2016, February 5). According to Bandura, children learn behaviors by observing others’ actions, particularly those of adults, older children, and individuals that they admire or interact with regularly (McLeod, 2016, February 5). Once a behavior has been observed on several occasions and mentally flagged, children watch to see if there are any rewards and/or consequences that occur. After weighing the pros and cons of imitating the action, children decide whether or not to mimic the observed behavior(s).
This psychological theory is pertinent to SEL because educators often use modeling and role play to teach skills to students and reinforce behaviors. SLT supports the idea that if children witness school staff and peers using these skills and being positively reinforced, they are more likely to imitate the desired behaviors. A 2016 study found that preschool children who received SEL and Mindfulness-Based Intervention (MBI) showed significant growth in self-regulatory outcomes, such as task orientation (i.e., engagement and behavior control) and orientation to experience (i.e., curiosity and acceptance of new experiences) (Lemberger, Carbonneau, Atencio, Zieher, & Palacios, 2018). Similarly, researchers observed that children used more sustained kindness language and behaviors with their peers on the days that they received SEL and MBI instruction (Lemberger et al., 2018). Thus, both SLT and SEL research support the notion that children who are repeatedly exposed to SEL skills and positively reinforced for imitating the desired behaviors are more likely to develop this skill set for use in the classroom and beyond.
Lothrop Elementary and Middle Level School has approximately 200 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, and serves the communities of Pittsford and Florence, Vermont. Thirty-three percent of students are classified as low income and 72 students received free or reduced meals during the 2017-2018 school year (Vermont Agency of Education, 2018). Additionally, many young learners are victims of trauma and/or have mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mood disorders. While the majority of these students receive mental health counseling through Rutland Mental Health Services (RMHS), teachers and support staff also help students to manage their behaviors. Implementing SEL initiatives is one of the ways that these educators help students to be successful in the classroom.
SEL is a relevant teaching framework at Lothrop because many children utilize the state’s mental health services. In 2017, for example, 976 Vermonters in Rutland County received aid through “Children’s Services” at RMHS; twenty-two percent of the clients served were between zero to six years old, thirty-six percent were between seven and twelve years old, and forty percent were between thirteen and nineteen years old (Harrigan, Leno, Chornyak, & Horton, 2018, March). Of the youth receiving support from this agency, the majority of children were diagnosed with anxiety and other nonpsychotic mental disorders (48%) and Mood Disorders (41%) (Harrigan et al., 2018, March). Given this information, it is important that educators understand and utilize interventions that support students’ social and emotional growth and development, in addition to academics.
SEL at Lothrop: Interviews with School Support Staff
Two individuals who utilize the SEL framework daily in their work with students are Jed Pauls, the school guidance counselor, and Vickie McCuen, the RMHS case manager assigned to Lothrop. When asked how SEL impacts Lothrop students, Jed responded:
From my perspective, social emotional intelligence is foundational to a child’s ability to benefit from the educational process. More than literacy skills or number sense, social-emotional and interpersonal skills frame the entire school experience for children. A lot of energy goes into selecting and crafting the best curricular materials in order to achieve the district’s academic objectives. But if one expects children to succeed along this path, they must learn to regulate their own behaviors and level of engagement within the complexities of the average public school. Toward that end, emotional awareness is a prerequisite. (J. Pauls, personal communication, December 3, 2018)
Vickie agreed with Jed’s sentiments; she said, “to me, it’s [SEL] as important as math and reading and writing. . . . I think that it’s a tool that everybody can use” (V. McCuen, personal communication, November 29, 2018).
While these two staff members largely work with children who have mental health issues, they believe that SEL initiatives are beneficial for all students. Vickie said:
I think social-emotional programming is beneficial to everyone because it fosters the ability to develop coping skills. . . . There’s life challenges for everyone, and so if you develop at a young age the coping skills to deal with those challenges, you’ll be a better citizen and a better adult. Life doesn’t discriminate. (V. McCuen, personal communication, November 29, 2018)
Jed said, “I think the SEL activities benefit everyone. . . . Emotionally, we all mirror and/or feed off of others’ experiences/behaviors. So being able to settle and focus in the midst of distraction is good for anyone, I think” (J. Pauls, personal communication, December 3, 2018).
When asked about SEL activities that can be used with students in the classroom or a small group setting, Jed spoke about how he often uses restorative circles to help students resolve conflict. He said:
The restorative circles are particularly powerful. Where breathing or meditation might be used by an individual to gain clarity and focus, restorative circles can do the same for a community. The process makes room for difficult dynamics to be diffused or examined. And the practice is a really great way of subverting power dynamics or social hierarchies. (J. Pauls, personal communication, December 3, 2018)
(The video below explains the practice of restorative circles and how they can be used to help students reflect on their behavior (Edutopia, 2018, February 5).)
Restorative Circles: Creating a Safe Environment for Students to Reflect. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/1-RZYSTJAAo
Vickie had similar thoughts on how SEL activities can help students to solve problems and repair relationships in the classroom; she said:
Social-emotional learning in the classroom for everybody is that it sets up routines and rituals and a safe environment for everyone. . . . Having different activities during morning meeting that we always do, or, like, a whole group check in/check out system, or having these restorative circles where we’re talking about a specific thing that’s happening socially in the class and getting the kids to come up with ideas so they’re involved in making decisions. . . . and involved in doing repair work with their peers. (V. McCuen, personal communication, November 29, 2018)
To conclude, both Jed and Vickie find value in using a SEL framework at Lothrop. In their experiences, this type of teaching benefits all children, not just those with trauma backgrounds or mental health issues. This is because “life doesn’t discriminate,” so all children need to learn how to identify and solve problems, build relationships, and regulate their behavior in order to be successful in school and life.
SEL’s Positive Impact on a Lothrop Student: Alex’s Story
Alex is a kindergarten student (five years old) from a low income white family. She’s an only child with young parents and has been raised in a multigenerational household, though she rarely interacts with anyone besides her mom and dad. Alex is intelligent and eager to learn, but lacks self- and social awareness and self-management. School staff suspect that she is on the Autism spectrum and has experienced or is currently experiencing ongoing trauma at home. As a result of these factors, Alex is often demanding, attempting to control every aspect of her school day, experiences rapid mood swings, and is physically aggressive toward school staff.
The Zones of Regulation. Retrieved from https://heshergott.weebly.com/the-zones-of-regulation.html
SEL lessons in the classroom and individualized instruction with Vickie have helped Alex to learn self-awareness and self-management skills. Prior to these lessons, Alex had difficulty identifying and verbalizing her emotions and lashed out when she was frustrated, angry, or sad. Since learning about the Zones of Regulation, Alex is able to identify when she is in the blue, yellow, or red zones and get the emotional support she needs in order to return to the green zone and be safe in the classroom. Additionally, Alex has been observed using the “take five” breathing technique while sitting at the rug during lessons, presumably to help herself focus and/or calm down if she’s feeling anxious or emotionally overwhelmed.
“Take 5 Breathing.” Retrieved from https://youtu.be/sh79w9pn9Cg
There is still room for Alex to grow, but as all of the staff who have worked with this student can attest, SEL initiatives (as well as structure, consistency, and help with transitions) have helped this child to develop in ways that did not seem possible when she first arrived at school. Thus, this case study illustrates how the implementation of SEL activities at Lothrop has positively contributed to students’ social, emotional, and intellectual development and their corresponding success in the classroom.
CASEL. (n.d.). What is SEL? Retrieved from https://casel.org/what-is-sel/
Christie: Childhood101. (2015, April 16). Take 5 breathing: A breathing exercise for kids[Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/sh79w9pn9Cg
Edutopia. (2018, February 5). Restorative circles: Creating a safe environment for students to reflect [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/1-RZYSTJAAo
Edutopia. (2013, May 14). 5 Keys to social and emotional learning success[Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/DqNn9qWoO1M
Harrigan, E., Leno, S., Chornyak, C., & Horton, D. (2018, March). FY 2017 statistical report. Waterbury, Vermont: Vermont Agency of Human Service Department of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://mentalhealth.vermont.gov/reports-forms-and-manuals/reports/statistical-reports-and-data
Hergott, A. (n.d.). The zones of regulation[Image]. Retrieved from https://heshergott.weebly.com/the-zones-of-regulation.html
Lemberger, T. M. E., Carbonneau, K. J., Atencio, D. J., Zieher, A. K., & Palacios, A. F. (2018). Self‐Regulatory growth effects for young children participating in a combined social and emotional learning and mindfulness‐based intervention. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(3), 289–302. https://doi-org.hartness.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/jcad.12203
McLeod, S. A. (2016, February 5). Bandura – Social learning theory. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html
PBiS Rewards. (n.d.). Teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom. Retrieved from https://www.pbisrewards.com/blog/sel-in-the-classroom/
Vermont Afterschool. (n.d.). Social & emotional learning[Image]. Retrieved from http://www.vermontafterschool.org/resources/sel/
Vermont Agency of Education. (2018). Child nutrition programs annual statistical report: Percent of students eligible for free and reduced price school meals, School year 2017-2018.Vermont. Retrieved from https://education.vermont.gov/documents/nutrition-2018-free-reduced-eligibility-report
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APA cite in text as: (Irons, 2019 b)
APA cite in full References as: Irons, M. (2019b). Social-emotional learning at Lothrop School. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from https://wp.me/p4elXk-Bq
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Megan Irons is an educator, dog mom, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Senegal 2014-2016) from Vermont. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology/Sociology from Saint Michael’s College and is currently pursuing a degree in Nursing. In her spare times she enjoys cooking, listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and hiking with her pit bull terrier, Weezy.
View Megan’s other article about Enrique Balcazar.