Education leaders push social, emotional skills

New lessons to be made available to all school districts

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Educators have always taught students to read, write, add and subtract. But now they are also expected to teach students to assess their feelings and those of the people around them.

Schools in recent years have increased their focus on what’s called social-emotional learning, the life skills needed to work with other people and build lasting relationships.

“We need to teach these skills just like we need to teach every other content skill, and schools have a role in this,” said Elizabeth Devaney, director of the Rochester-based Social Emotional Learning Center. “Today more than ever, it really isn’t sufficient to focus on just academics.”

Devaney was speaking Monday to the Board of Regents, as state education officials considered new benchmarks of social-emotional learning and how schools can incorporate those into all aspects of education.

The benchmarks focus on three areas of development: building self-awareness and self-management skills; developing and maintaining positive relationships and demonstrating ethical decision-making and responsible behaviors.

Under each area of focus, the new guidelines specify skills and what students should be able to do at different grade levels.

When it comes to recognizing personal qualities and external supports — one example of the skills outlined in the new benchmarks — early elementary students should be able to describe likes and dislikes, strengths and challenges. By high school, students should be able to develop and implement plans for meeting personal needs or overcoming challenges.

But the intent of the social-emotional learning guidelines is to push districts to think about them in the context of the broader education strategy – from curriculum to discipline. Educators should be considering social and emotional needs as part of everything they do.

“This isn’t just a program,” Carri Manchester said. “This is a philosophy; this is a paradigm change.”

Many districts have long emphasized social and emotional learning in the classroom. Schenectady and Niskayuna were among 10 districts around the state to participate in building classroom lessons that incorporate such skills. Those districts are working on different grade levels and subjects, and the sample lessons they’re developing will be available to other schools.

“We need to first make sure (students) are well fed and provided for and all their social, emotional needs are addressed, or we are never going to get to math and reading,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said. “It’s really fundamental.”

Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, who represents the Capital Region and North Country, highlighted a daily practice she saw while on a recent visit to Canajoharie schools. Each morning as the students walk into class, they get to decide how they want to be welcomed, giving the students a chance to assess their mood and how they want to be greeted: a handshake, a hug, a high-five.

“I can’t wait to go back,” she said.

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