In Shannon Gillikin’s kindergarten class at Jackson-Via Elementary, students begin the day sharing their feelings. After a school year of learning to name and understand their emotions, the students were able to talk about their worries and other feelings with their peers without judgment.

“One thing we talk about all the time is, however you feel is how you feel, and we want to affirm that,” Gillikin said.

The recent school year marked the debut in Charlottesville City Schools of a social and emotional learning curriculum in all preschool and kindergarten classrooms.

The program will expand to higher grade levels each year. Officials are hoping that this new systematic and consistent approach will give all city students a common set of tools and language to interact with their peers, to be aware of and control their own emotions and to seek out help when needed, among other skills.

Gillikin said social-emotional skills are fundamental to student learning.

“I think without social and emotional learning, you aren’t going to get much more learning done,” she said. “Especially as they get older, they need to be able to self-regulate.”

Social-emotional skills will be part of the core instruction that all students receive, similar to reading and math lessons, said Patrick Farrell, the intervention and support coordinator for the division. After one year of this approach, officials and administrators said they are optimistic about its future.

Social-emotional learning addresses the skills that help students learn and become independent adults. Similar to reading, math and other subjects, social-emotional skills cannot be learned in one year or at a school assembly, Farrell said. It’s ongoing.

“Many of our kids come to our school with a lot of these skills in place. Many of our kids don’t,” Farrell said. “Just like everything else, let’s not treat it as you are operating at a deficit. You just haven’t been taught. We’re going to take on the responsibility of teaching you these things.”

Nationally, a growing number of school systems are focusing more on social and emotional skills. The issue even received a brief mention during one of last week’s Democratic presidential debates.

“We need to start dealing with the trauma that our kids have,” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan said during a debate discussion on gun policy and school shootings. “We need trauma-based care in every school. We need social-emotional learning in every school.”

Charlottesville schools have been testing social-emotional learning practices and strategies in select elementary classrooms since 2017.

“We started there because, frankly, we needed to start somewhere, and we knew that,” said Jodie Murphy, a social-emotional learning and mental wellness specialist for the division.

After working in those classrooms at Greenbrier and Clark Elementary schools, she and Farrell worked to find a way to incorporate social-emotional learning into classrooms throughout the division. They landed on using two programs — Second Step and Zones of Regulation.

Second Step is a K-8 curriculum that directly teaches social-emotional skills, while Zones of Regulation gives students a way to talk about and understand their emotions, as well as the tools to manage themselves.

Sheila Sparks, preschool coordinator for the division, said social-emotional learning has been part of the preschool program for years.

“But this gives us something that’s really structured,” she said. “ This is a common expectation that we are going to work toward this, and we are all going to use the common language.”

Preschool, which is for children 3 to 4 years old, is the foundation of the school system, so it’s important to build a solid foundation and have consistency for students, Sparks said.

“That, for me, is paramount to everything else,” she said of social-emotional learning. “If they don’t have that solid emotional regulation and the social skills, then they can know math and they can know literacy, but they are not going to be able to really use it effectively. That social and emotional learning is really important because we’re building people.”

Sparks hopes students who grow up with these skills will be able to use their words to express their emotions and resolve conflicts in a productive way.

“They are going to have their own jargon that they’ll work with in their head,” she said. “That really is our goal — that it becomes part of their fiber.”

Color-coded common language in class

In the Zones of Regulation framework, people can be in the blue, green, yellow or red zone. Green is the goal, and it means the individual is ready to work, happy and speaking calmly.

When Gillikin kicked off her class at Jackson-Via, she asked students what zone they were in. On that morning, most students said they were blue, meaning they were either tired, not feeling well or hungry. The rest said they were green.

During a school day, students can move throughout the zones. On the playground, they might be in the yellow zone when they are excited and yelling. When they get angry and frustrated, they would be in the red zone.

Gillikin stressed that all the zones and the associated feelings are OK. She worked throughout the school year to teach her students how to identify which zone they were in, how to get back to green and why it’s important for them to calm down.

“If we’re not in the green zone, we aren’t going to do our best learning,” she said.

Gillikin has used the zones in her classroom for a few years. She likes it because it gives her and her students a common language to talk about their emotions and where they want to be. The system also can be used at home.

“As a grownup, zones have given me a language for myself to recognize my feelings and be more mindful,” Gillikin said.

Last summer, Murphy worked with other preschool and kindergarten teachers to prepare for the rollout of the curriculum.

Second Step is a scripted curriculum that didn’t require much training, Farrell and Murphy said. However, with Zones, teachers have more autonomy in how they use it with their students and set up their classrooms.

Gillikin’s room looks like most kindergarten classrooms. But among the alphabet posters and number signs are four sheets of paper identifying the different zones. The red zone paper is filled with stomping feet, a crying face and a fist.

Gillikin said she worked with students at the beginning of the year to make the posters. As she introduced the different zones, they talked about what they would look like and feel like.

The posters hang above a small area known as the Take a Break space, where students can work through a box of tools to refocus and get back to green.

There’s a pinwheel that they can blow on and a bag of lavender for smelling. During the school year, Gillikin taught her students different breathing exercises to help them to calm down.

Building wellness for academic success

During the morning lesson, Gillikin asked some students if they needed to take a break when they seemed distracted or fidgety. Some students go to the space on their own, she said, and it doesn’t take very long for them to be ready to rejoin their peers.

Farrell and Murphy have heard concerns that the division has so many programs or initiatives geared toward mental wellness that teachers, students and parents can’t keep them straight.

To help with their planning efforts, Farrell and Murphy developed three areas to focus their efforts on — improving student and adult social and emotional learning competencies; intentionally building connected communities; and creating and sustaining safe and equitable school environments.

“In the very big picture, that says we are going to teach you these skills, and then they are going to use these skills to be able to problem-solve, be able to create communities, to be able to have these independent adult skills that we want them to have,” Farrell said.

Currently, students at Walker Upper Elementary, Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools are focusing on applying social-emotional skills.

Farrell and Murphy are still working on what a social-emotional curriculum will look like at those three schools and what skills they want students to have at different grade levels. They’re working on building out the full scope and sequence of a K-12 social-emotional curriculum this summer.

“What does it look like in kindergarten and what does it look like in 12th grade?” Farrell said. “So that way, we aren’t saying, we do Second Step. No, we do social and emotional learning. Second Step gets us to this. But maybe it’s not for the high school. And for the high school, how else are we going to skill-build in high school?”

At the elementary level, some schools are interested in rolling out Second Step and Zones of Regulation more quickly than Farrell and Murphy had planned, they said. Jackson-Via already uses zones school-wide, Gillikin said.

“One remarkable thing, almost no one is pushing back, saying we don’t need this,” Farrell said. “It’s more, we want to do this and what’s the best way to do this? And that’s a great conversation ... This is almost as important as the academics. Because it puts kids in a place to be able to access the academics.”

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