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CATS OR DOGS — Students from Holden’s class were tasked with finding out more about their peers, specifically whether or not they had pets.

New elementary school program focuses on skills to help the social and mental health of students

A new program at Jefferson Elementary is geared toward helping students develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.

The Caring School Community program is through Center for the Collaborative Classroom, an Alameda-based nonprofit that’s focused on “providing teachers with engaging curricula and ongoing professional learning that supports the academic as well as the social and emotional development of the students we all serve,” according to their website.

The program aims to specifically focus on the development of SEL skills by having students build relationships with their peers and learn self-discipline. According to the introduction booklet put out by the program, fostering relationships among students, school staff and parents will create a mutual respect between everyone involved, as well as help strengthen “the students’ sense of belonging at school and their relationships in many ways.”

“This has been a long time coming,” said Jefferson Principal Susan Yakich. “The staff has been asking for some kind of school-wide behavior expectations program for quite a few years. The demographics have been changing in Cloverdale and the students are coming with more and more social and emotional needs. There’s a lot of trauma in the homes, and so we wanted to explore something that was for behavior but also would address social and emotional learning. So when our dean of students came on board, that was one of the first things she looked into.”

Programs like this one are being integrated more and more into classrooms across the country, said Jefferson Dean of Students Robin Murdock. After creating a committee and researching different programs for possible adoption, Murdock brought four options that were voted on by staff.

“Our students are coming to school with anxiety, they’re coming to school with depression, they’re coming to school not having the tools to self-regulate themselves and how to advocate for themselves,” Yakich said. “We’ve increased our counseling time now to five days a week and counseling is important, and that is an aspect of this, but it’s actually a school wide community issue that we’re facing.”

The program will be implemented at varying levels school wide (grades TK-4). Each morning at 8:20 a.m., Yakich will get on the Jefferson intercom and lead a morning greeting. While the greeting on Aug. 19 provided some affirmations to students, she’s playing with the idea of having a different theme every day. She may tell a joke on Friday mornings, she said.

Following the morning greeting, each teacher will gather their students for a morning circle activity that will likely encourage them to get to know their classmates better — during Michelle Holden’s circle on Aug. 19, each student had to go around and find peers that had pets.

Different grade levels will spend different amounts of time on the morning activity, Murdock said. TK and kindergarten classes will spend 10 to 15 minutes, first and second grade will spend 15 to 20 minutes on the activity and third and fourth grade will spend 20 to 30 minutes on it.

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GATHER ’ROUND — Students from Michelle Holden’s Jefferson class sit in a circle on Monday, Aug. 19 listening to directions for their morning activity.

Trying to get increased SEL-specific programming isn’t Cloverdale-specific, Murdock said.

“It’s pretty much everywhere,” she said. “It’s just a skill that they have not been taught — like reading. We have to teach explicitly these skills; they just don’t know them, so it’s hard to act accordingly if you’ve never been taught.”

When asked why she thinks these skills are lacking, Murdock cited the fast-paced nature of today’s society coupled with a possible increase in at-home stressors.

“Everyone’s just working to survive,” she said.

While different grade levels spend different amounts of time on the morning activity, they’ll also focus on different things.

“For kindergarten, it’s pretty much all about teaching you how to get along with others through the whole year,” Murdock said.

“But for third and fourth grade, they have little topic books — like same and different, preparing for a sub, or if they’re having problems with stealing, tattling or excluding others — so whatever problem you are seeing in the classroom, you hit that one that week. Teachers have the flexibility to spotlight what they see going on in the classroom.”

As the year progresses, Yakich said that they may be integrating more tools from Caring School Community. However for now, she wanted the school to ease into the program.

By having guidebooks and packets for teacher, Murdock is hoping that it will provide a consistent base for students and teachers.

“We want to all be on the same page so that our students have the same expectations from grade to grade and school wide, because we’re lacking that and they know they can get away with things when everyone knows we’re not on the same page,” she said.

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