While educators across the country are increasingly interested in how to convey these skills to students, how they do so varies widely. The staff at Martin Petitjean Elementary School in Rayne, Louisiana, is trying to instill these concepts by handing over control to students. The idea is to make every child a leader by assigning each a role in running the school.
“They call the buses, they do the announcements, they water the plants,” said Kimberley Cummins, the school’s principal. “They truly think I just come in and unlock the doors.”
Martin Petitjean is one of over 2,500 schools around the world using a program called “Leader in Me,” which employs the teachings of Stephen Covey ‘s 1989 bestseller self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to transform schools. The seven habits are everywhere at the school. The halls bear names like Synergy Street, Win-Win Walkway, and Plan Ahead Alley.
The Leader in Me program touches on several social-and-emotional-learning principles. For example, the program’s win-win and synergize “habits” emphasize students’ balancing their own needs with others and thinking about what others get out of a relationship. The ideas align with CASEL’s call for teaching students to “establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships.” To reinforce these values, the staff at Martin Petitjean has realigned the discipline code, rewarding students when they demonstrate a habit and redirecting them when they don’t.
“In the past, we used to only celebrate the straight-A students,” said Cummins. “But now, every student sees themselves making progress and adding to the school.”
At Martin Petitjean, 84 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. That’s typical of schools that have embraced social-emotional learning most strongly, says Camille Farrington, a senior research associate at the University of Chicago and a leader in the social and emotional field.
“Take schools like Fenger [Academy] High School in Chicago, in troubled communities with little-to-no investment in a long time,” said Farrington. “The kids those teachers are trying to serve have so many needs that teachers have to spend time and resources on social and emotional learning in and of itself, while in more typical settings that can be less of a focus.”
For almost two decades, scores on math and reading tests have dominated how success was defined in American schools; low test scores led to the restructuring—and in some cases closure—of schools across the country under No Child Left Behind. But, moving forward, observers expect states to find broader measures for defining which schools are doing a good job and which aren’t.
Ten urban districts in California—including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest—collectively called CORE (California Office to Reform Education) districts, have designed a system to make schools answerable for improving students’ social and emotional skills by using data from student, parent, and teacher surveys, among other factors, to assess whether students are improving in these areas.