Long before social-emotional learning became a buzzword in schools, two forward-thinking educators pledged their commitment to students’ well-being by establishing a school that put students first in every way.
Marilyn Gatlin and Betty Anderson were graduate students at the University of South Florida who wanted to work in a school that reflected their child-centered vision. In 1968, the women founded Independent Day School—now Corbett Prep—on the philosophy that happy students are more open to learning.
Students who are respected as individuals and allowed to “play, investigate and be themselves,” as Gatlin and Anderson wrote, will develop a positive view of school and become more motivated than students who are expected to behave, think and learn in ways that adhere to a one-size-fits-all standard.
Creating a school climate where students feel safe, engaged and, yes, happy, remains a priority for Corbett Prep more than 50 years later.
We know it’s more important than ever for schools of all kinds to commit to students’ emotional health at this time of stress and uncertainty over physical health. A social-emotional learning (SEL) program helps students identify and manage emotions, act responsibly and empathetically, maintain healthy relationships and set goals.
It also can help students academically, research says. Students who participated in evidence-based SEL programs demonstrated an 11 percent gain in academic achievement compared with students who had no access to those programs, according to a CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) review of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students.
At Corbett Prep, we are fortunate to have a multifaceted SEL program delivered by highly trained teachers to provide students with support as we push them to succeed. Our teachers encourage students to develop a growth mindset to persevere when they meet obstacles in their learning. They use strategies for classroom management to reduce distractions and create camaraderie through class builders, minimizing misbehavior and freeing time for teaching and learning.
While a dedication to emotional wellbeing starts at the top with school leadership, I believe it takes an entire school community to ensure students have a protective and supportive place to learn. Parents, teachers and administrators bring different strengths and perspectives to the table and will have the most powerful effect on students’ wellbeing when they work together.
What can parents do?
Whether they are looking for a school for their children or want to build upon their current school’s efforts at home, parents play an important role, starting with asking what the school offers to support student wellbeing.
On school tours or during open houses and back-to-school nights, see how the school establishes a safe climate for learning. Find out if teachers draw from a specific social-emotional curriculum such as the 4 Pillars of Wellbeing. Do they tap into community resources such as Frameworks of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that partners with educators, parents and students? Keep the lines of communication open and attend parent-teacher conferences to learn how you can help, and share your concerns with teachers or administrators as needed.
At home, model what you want to see in your children. How do you react to stress? Do you show kindness and express empathy for others? Practice gratitude together, pause for mindful breathing or discuss resilience when hurdles appear. Try some of the school’s strategies within your own family and incorporate similar language where possible so your child recognizes a consistent approach.
What should teachers do?
Teachers can integrate social-emotional learning in many ways, from arranging classrooms to encourage cooperative learning to choosing children’s literature that reflects diverse perspectives. Corbett Prep’s youngest students use the Mood Meter, one of the anchors of emotional intelligence in the RULER program, to help them verbalize their emotions using colors. Each room also contains a class charter, written annually with input from all students to detail how they want others to treat them and steps to take to establish a respectful environment.
Teachers may carve out time for reflective activities or writing time in gratitude journals. Throughout the year, our teachers work through the 4 Pillars of Wellbeing as they guide students through developmentally appropriate lessons and practices reflecting Mindfulness, Community, Self-Curiosity and Contentment and Balance.
How does the administration support SEL?
Teachers need administrative support with access to resources and training to implement a meaningful social-emotional learning program. They need to know SEL is valued as integral to student success, and school leaders will allow time to support students and encourage schoolwide community service, mentorship or leadership programs.
The administration also sets the tone for the school. At Corbett Prep, the faculty practices many of the same techniques as students to create a healthy, positive environment — using the same tools to identify and manage emotions, expressing gratitude often and collaborating with partners and teams. The staff shares a common language of positive phrasing, and visitors will hear everyone from the front office to the catering staff to the classroom teachers speaking in a way that shifts the focus to positive actions instead of what not to do. The faculty and staff can model these strategies well for students and parents because they live them.
Communication, transparency and responsiveness cultivate positive relationships between parents and faculty, creating a strong foundation for a school climate that manages to be both academically challenging and emotionally healthy. With shared goals and the desire to work together, members of a school community can contribute to students’ social-emotional learning, and ultimately, their achievement and overall success, in ways that go beyond any individual approach.