Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What is Social Emotional Learning for Academic Success?

“Focusing on academics while struggling with trauma is like trying to play chess in a hurricane” (Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, and Kincaid, 2011). Students in the classroom today are coming to school with more and more complex needs. The drop out rate continues to be a major concern in communities across the nation. One in five students are living in conditions that expose them to trauma that has a direct impact on their probability of graduating from high school. Research shows that trauma has a significant impact on brain development and it is now known that survival trumps new learning. How do we find time in our high stakes assessment focused classrooms to meet the social emotional needs of our students? We must find the time because social emotional learning is the primary marker for academic success and graduation.

Complex Trauma has a dramatic impact on the academic success of students. The definition of Complex Trauma can best be described as the experience of multiple or chronic/prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of a personal nature (sexual or physical abuse, family violence, war, community violence) and early life onset (WSU Area Health Education Center, 2007). With ever-shrinking funding for early childhood agencies, schools are faced with the challenge of meeting the increasing diverse needs of students. Only one in ten children with a diagnosed mental health disorder ever get treatment. Only 50% of CPS referrals are investigated while less than 1/3 of those referrals receive any services. Meanwhile, all of these students are coming to school each day.

Several studies have taken place over the past several years that provide some very shocking information. In a study of middle school students in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University (2009) found a direct correlation of the following:

If a student is:
  • Failing math or reading
  • Developing an attendance problem
  • Developing a behavior problem
  • That student has only a 25% chance of graduating from high school.
This is an alarming statistic! From this study, if we know this about our kids at an early age, we must do something different so that we can change their path in order to help them be successful. In a similar study, Washington State University Area Health Education Center did an Incidence and Prevalence Study in 2010. Classroom teachers were surveyed on a random sampling of 2100 students in ten elementary schools around Spokane County. Five schools were Title I schools while five schools were not. In this study, it was discovered that one in 5 students have been exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). That translates to a conservative figure of 15,000 students in Spokane County. The study showed that there was a direct correlation in the number of ACE’s and the increased risk of academic failure, severe attendance problems, severe behavior problems, and frequent health problems. Nationally, there are roughly 30% of children who experience complex trauma. In poverty areas, this exceeds 50%. Interestingly, our state’s drop out rate hovers at about 30% or 309,000 students per year.

The impact of complex trauma on brain development is significant. Researchers used to believe that the brain only developed until about age three. However, new research has shown that the brain continues to develop into young adulthood and that it depends on rich relationships and mastery of emotional responses. When children experience trauma, their brain often can only function at the very basic level of fight or flight. There is often a lack of ability to get to the reasoning or emotions part of the brain. Therefore, their ability to learn becomes hindered by the trauma that has taken over their brain functions. Persistent stress is epidemic in children and places brain development at risk. This can be as high as 30% in the general population and 85% in marginalized populations. If we address this in early childhood and K-12 systems, we have a better chance of improving childhood development and system success. Many students who have survived these early experiences and become resilient, point to teachers as being the reason for their success (Blodget, Harrington, et al, 2010).

In our high-stakes academic world, schools have been pressed to show results. This pressure has often come at the expense of addressing the social emotional needs of children. It is too often stated by teachers that they don’t feel they have time to spend on relationships anymore because there are too many academic demands. Dealing with the social emotional needs of students can often be viewed as “something else on the plate”. I firmly believe that social emotional learning IS the plate on which everything else should be placed. In the absence of a firm foundation in social emotional learning and relationships, academic success becomes an unattainable goal. The role of social emotional learning has a big impact on the focus of high-stakes testing. We may not be able to control how we feel, but we can learn to choose how we act. In his book, Mark Katz (1997) states,

Looking through the trauma-sensitive lens… Not realizing that children exposed to inescapable, overwhelming stress may act out their pain, that they may misbehave, not listen to us, or seek our attention in all the wrong ways, can lead us to punish these children for their misbehavior… if only we knew what happened last night, or this morning before she got to school, we would be shielding the same child we’re now reprimanding.

Resiliency must be the goal for our many students who are functioning in a world of trauma. Resiliency buffers the effects of trauma. As educators, we must shift our thinking from “what is wrong” to “what is right” with a child. This is a shift from a deficit model to a strength model. Teachers must find ways to always empower students and never dis-empower them. We must educate our children with unconditional, positive regard in a safe and caring environment. All students deserve an environment where high expectations are coupled with high support and where consistent routines are the norm. It is our imperative that we help calm the hurricane in order to guide our students to success.


  • Keep the focus on the educational mission
  • Build meaningful relationships
    • Foundation to support learning and mastery
    • Engagement to parents
  • Create safety and predictability
  • Promote skill development from where students are
  • Accountability as an essential survival skill
  • Meaning-making (reasoning and problem-solving)
  • Development of universal trauma sensitive social emotional learning standards
Anda and Felitti:  Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (1995 to Present)
Blodgett, Harrington, et al. (2010). ACEs and their Consequences in Spokane Elementary Schools (unpublished). WSU Area Health Education Center, Spokane, WA.
Johns Hopkins study of Middle School Children in Philadelphia  (9/09)
Katz, M. (1997), On Playing A Poor Hand Well. WW Norton and Company.
Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, and Kincaid (2009). The Heart of Teaching and Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success. Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Blog written by:
Kevin Peterson, Principal
Midway Elementary School
Mead School District

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What about Student Learning Communities?

Professional learning communities (PLCs) are the topic of many conversations within education: the culture that is imperative for success, the goals we choose to focus on, the protocols we should follow, the structure that must be in place, and the realities that we face. There is an abundance of research I have read to support how PLCs are necessary in improving students’ learning. I myself belong to an amazing PLC (as well as many micro PLCs within my PLC). But my thoughts lately have been on how to take the characteristics of successful PLCs and apply them within the walls of the classroom for students.

How do you create a student learning community? And by that I don’t mean by way of just classroom management, nor do I mean learning time that is strategically organized by the teacher. These are just general necessities within a learning environment. I am now in search of the next level of a learning environment; a classroom atmosphere that will support 21st century learning. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011) advocates for a learning environment that encompasses the learning and innovation and life and career skills demonstrated in the Framework for 21st Century Learning. So I constantly ask myself, what are the essential characteristics of a student learning community that would be needed to foster these types of skills?

This Framework is frequently on my mind as my teaching partner, Ann, and I strategically implement new strategies, ideas, and content discovered through our collaborative efforts within our PLCs. As Ann and I heavily value personalized learning and individual learning goals for our students, we send the message everyday to them that “we are in this together.” Ann and I strategically plan learning endeavors that will grasp our students’ attention, establish essential questions that will provoke critical thinking, and collaborate with students to identify individual goals and continuously monitor their progress. Thus, we are finding five “must-haves” within our productive student learning community, as they seem to have a direct positive impact on student progress. These “must-haves” also seem to be facilitating an environment that allows us to naturally integrate in the 21st century skills as we discover ways to do so.

Five Components for Student Learning Communities

  • Respect: Students should learn to appreciate the diversity within their learning community.
Ann’s and my overarching goal is meeting students where they are and addressing their individual needs by way of their learning styles and multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2011). Students learn to appreciate each other as learners through the discussions and celebrations of our unique abilities, characteristics, and personalities. Overall, students have the understanding that we may all be in different places with a specific target or goal, but we benefit by working together, sharing knowledge and expertise, and conversing throughout each day.
  • Retention: Students should understand that true learning is when you can retrieve the information.
You should be able to pull knowledge out of long-term memory and apply it in new situations, make connections to previously learned knowledge, and continue to build upon one’s personal schema. So the mantra in our multiage classroom is “learning is remembering.” We use Marilee Sprenger’s 7 Steps of Memory—reach, reflect, recode, reinforce, rehearse, review, and retrieve—with our students so they can understand the structure of learning (2005). We now even use two of the steps (recoding and reflecting) as thinking strategies, which coexist with metacognition, visualizing, determining importance, synthesizing, etc. With the understanding of retention, students have a daily purpose which is no longer to “sit and get” but rather “go out and gather.”

  • Responsibility: Students should learn to be advocates for their own learning.
Learning is a huge responsibility and requires a “Backpack of Strategies,” or various life skills. Within our classroom the teachers are not a student’s first resource. We encourage students to be problem solvers and find a solution that fits their needs. Our purpose is for students to become efficient in setting goals, monitoring progress, managing their time, and contributing to the student learning community. We want them to understand and experience that learning is an ongoing process, rather than a disjointed set of tasks.

  • Resources: Students should learn what resources best fit their needs as learners.
To empower learners is to provide them access to a variety of tools and resources. Students must learn what specific tools they have at their fingertips, and they must be taught how to use the resources effectively. However, tools are meant to be utilized, not sit on a shelf or table. They need to discover how to choose a tool that will best fit them as a learner, as well as help them accomplish their task or project. Exposure to various resources allows learners the ability to dissect and devour their goals in order to obtain success.

  • Reality: Students should be made aware of the skills they will need as they move forward into the 21st century.
Technological tools, media, and communication should be a part of students’ daily lives. Students should be exposed to the skills they will need in their future. Their real-world success depends heavily on their educational experience. Students also need to understand the reality of how our moment to moment choices can directly or indirectly affect ourselves and other people. When we are mindful we can approach each moment successfully, but making poor choices affects the common student learning community goals and the personal growth of the individual.

I have witnessed these components to be beneficial and aid in the success of each and every student within our classroom. Through offering one another respect we can encourage each other’s growth. Thus, supporting the overarching objective of the community to retain information, whether it is regarding content-based knowledge or the use of specific strategies, in order to build our knowledge base and collectively grow. While on the journey for retention, each individual in the classroom must recognize their personal responsibility to the learning community and themselves. They must understand that our choices can positively or negatively affect others, but the choice is always our own. As students work towards meeting their goals, they must be aware of the resources around them and take every opportunity to self-sufficiently utilize them, yet share them with others within the community. And finally, students must be mindful of the reality they are facing within the world today and feel a sense of urgency to collaborate, work, and create within a diverse community.
Overall, they need to believe in and act upon the message, “We are in this together.”

Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Book Groups.
Sprenger, M. (2005). How to teach so students remember. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Post written by Celina Brennan, a 3/4/5 multiage teacher at Salnave Elementary School in the Cheney Public Schools district and recipient of Washington State ASCD’s 2011 Outstanding Young Educator Award. She is a district leader in literacy and has opened her classroom to educators as a model of differentiated instruction that meets the social, emotional, and academic needs of all learners. Connect with Brennan on the ASCD EDge® social network and on her blog, written with her teaching partner Ann Ottmar.