At the School of Engineering and Sciences, the request from history teacher Mari Edwards was simple: “Stand up if you’ve ever seen someone being bullied at school.”
Almost all of her students rose.
The students at the Pocket area school are among the first high school freshmen in the Sacramento City Unified School District to participate in an expanding program on social and emotional learning – or SEL.
The aim, Edwards said, is to move students toward “responsible decision-making and making ethical and constructive choices about themselves and their social behavior.”
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Though social learning is not new, the Sacramento school district is incorporating it into traditional academics as never before. In an eighth-grade science class at Engineering and Sciences, think brain function and how that relates to emotion. In Edwards’ ninth-grade class on contemporary global issues and geography, think empathy and how acquiring a greater appreciation of diversity can be a bulwark against bullying. In English classes, think character development.
“It’s integral to learning and the district as a system,” said Mai Xi Lee, district director of social and emotional learning. By 2018, she said, SEL will be central to learning in all district schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, she said, up from nearly half of the campuses today.
Sacramento is one of eight districts nationally to embrace the program developed by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. The Sacramento City Unified effort, now in its third year, is supported by a $750,000 grant from NoVo Foundation, dedicated to changing attitudes that perpetuate injustice.
Vicki Zakrzewski, education director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, said there are plenty of reasons to focus on students’ social learning.
She cited a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology by researchers Eva Oberle and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl that looked at what effect self-control and peer acceptance have on math achievement. The examination of fourth- and fifth-grade math students found peer acceptance key to students’ academic success.
“We know that negative emotions really tend to shut us down,” Zakrzewski said. “But when we feel safe and accepted, then we experience more positive emotions. They make us more creative in our thinking.”
Science teacher Aaron Pecho, leading an eighth-grade class at the School of Engineering and Sciences, said he capitalized on students’ growing knowledge about the brain to discuss how individuals react to stress.
“How would you act if you were angry? If you were nervous, what would you do? What about anger?” Pecho asked in an exchange devoted to bullying.
“I see a side of my students I don’t normally see,” Pecho said later. “SEL requires the students to participate. And I see them engage and connect with me on a different level” than with other instruction.
One of Pecho’s students, Raymond Olivo-Bernardo, 13, said the program is making a difference on and off campus. “People have been rethinking what they have been doing” on the bullying front, he said.
At Oak Ridge Elementary in Oak Park, sixth-grade teacher Nicole Quinn connected a discussion about brain activity to information about stress.
“When I have stress, I react to that stress,” Quinn told the class. “I have an emotion. I’m scared, or I’m worried, or I’m nervous, or I’m angry.
“Is it wrong to have those emotions?”
The class, in unison, issued a soft “No.”
“No,” Quinn said in agreement. “Those emotions are natural. Those emotions happen in our brains.”
She then described ways to respond.
“I stop and say, ‘OK, it’s not that important.’ Or I stop and say, ‘Here’s my plan of attack. Here’s how I’m going to handle that problem.’ And I breathe. Maybe I go to a quiet room and I sit down and be by myself for a little while. And I’m calm again. That’s my recovery time.”
Lee said the aim is to give students the foundational skills they can take with them to be successful wherever they go after high school. Empathy, a strong message in SEL, is key to a better global future, she said.
“We’re in silos,” Lee said. “We work in isolation. I think what really connects us is our humanity, our ability to be aware of other people and to make good, sound decisions and recognize how those impact other human beings.
“It’s about what kind of future generation are we creating within our current set of students and what kind of world do we want to model for them? Social and emotional learning is at the heart of education. It has got to be. Otherwise we’re lost.”