[October 2021, KIPP MA] When KIPP Massachusetts students headed back to the classroom the last week of August, for some, it was their first time in a KIPP classroom since the coronavirus pandemic shut school building doors in 2020. To put some perspective on that, this meant that some second graders would enter our buildings for the first time since kindergarten, and our new middle schoolers were 3rd graders the last time they were on campus.
Upon re-entering, the KIPP MA team knew that this school year would look and feel different. With COVID-19 still a health emergency throughout the country, adults and children have reported experiencing higher than usual levels of stress. During the times of uncertainty, it became clear that while our students benefit from quality instruction, they greatly benefit from quality connection. And so, began the discussion of Social Emotional Learning in the classroom.
“Everything was a learning opportunity the last 18 months,” Kate Metzler, who is KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate’s Director of Counseling, said. “We’re finding now as we transition back that it had a spectrum of impact. So [we’re] making sure we have a space that honors where everyone is coming in, and really treating our students holistically as humans first and foremost.”
Treating the student holistically, as Kate said, is a large component of Social Emotional Learning. The term, Social Emotional Learning (SEL), is learning that happens that’s not content based. It can include helping a student learn how to develop coping skills, develop effective interpersonal skills, establish self-awareness, and having a toolkit to name and manage emotions.
Though Social Emotional Learning has been written about since Plato’s Republic, Plato citing: “By maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing, you produce citizens of good character,” the term and practice is still considered young in the field of education. SEL teachings first officially began showing up in classrooms in the late 90’s, but until recently, it had never been developed as a central piece of curriculum.
Re-entering KIPP buildings this school year, KIPP’s executive leaders and staff knew that they couldn’t go into the new school year business as usual. So, what did they challenge themselves to do? KIPP Massachusetts committed to hiring ADDITIONAL mental health professionals, including school-based staff with a background in mental health counseling. As it stands, between Boston and Lynn KIPP schools, there are seventeen mental health professionals. Other commitments KIPP has made include empowering students to set mindfulness goals for themselves. At all grade levels, students have started learning mindfulness techniques through meditation, breathing, and “Take a Break” boxes, which encourage students to self-reflect throughout the day Together, and stay in tune with what they are finding they need for themselves. Chief Schools Officer, Emily DoBell, began helping teachers implement changes in curricula and making discussions around Social Emotional Learning a staple in all conversations staff at KIPP MA were having.
“SEL includes building a shared understanding of how we show up in our shared spaces with all of our identities, all of our wins, all of our challenges and knowing how to support ourselves and one another to achieve collective and individual goals,” Emily shares.
By creating an environment for students where they feel safe, heard, and comfortable, staff at KIPP Massachusetts are able to teach the whole student. Yes, KIPP still prides itself on joyful and rigorous classrooms, but by helping students feel a sense of belonging in a community, there is a direct impact on how a student interacts in and out of the classroom.
The biggest takeaway from Social Emotional Learning? “It’s learning ‘how to people’,” Althea Reeves, a teaching assistant at KIPP Academy Lynn said. “It teaches us that it is okay to be our authentic selves, while respecting everyone around us.”