Character and Social Emotional Learning in the Lower School

Should schools teach values? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Research supports that Social Emotional Learning (SEL) encourages not only social responsibility, but also cultivates habits that lead to more effective learning, and therefore to greater academic success. It is not enough to only feed the mind. The field of social and emotional learning has emerged from our new understanding of what leads to success and happiness. A child’s emotional intelligence (EQ) is enhanced through social and emotional learning, giving them an enormous edge in their personal and professional life.

In the Lower School, we firmly believe this to be true. We have worked under the umbrella of the Responsive Classroom for years. Among its guiding principles is a belief that students, “…who develop social skills like cooperation, assertiveness and empathy can achieve more academically.”1 This is not a program that is based on a certain number of explicit lessons on character; rather it is a philosophy, which pervades every classroom, every activity, and every encounter in which a child engages.

Our teachers look for excellence in their teaching and set high standards of behavior so that all students can maximize their learning. Our teachers truly believe that their mission is to educate the “whole” child, developing their minds, as well as their characters. I am constantly amazed, (and, of course, I should not be) at all the little things that take place each day in various classrooms that no one is aware of. It is these activities, discussions, and projects that truly define the added value of our teachers and school. It is part of who our teachers are, not just an add-on. Let me proudly give a few examples, though not nearly an extensive list.

 As young as our little Pre-Kindergartners are, it is never too early to learn about “kindness.” The little ones have a Kindness Jar in their classroom, and if they see someone being kind to a classmate, they can put in a pom-pom, and in no time at all their Kindness Jar gets filled up. They celebrate with a “party,” which is nothing more than a little dance party to celebrate and highlight doing for others.

In one Kindergarten, there is a Peace Corner. This is not a punishment area, but more a place where children can take time to reflect on their behavior and its impact on their friends. Children come to understand feelings and behaviors, their own as well as others, allowing empathy to grow. The Kindergarten Peace CornerThere are times when relaxation is built into their day, giving their bodies time to renew and reenergize, so that any tension can dissipate, allowing them to learn and be caring citizens.

In first grade, there is daily recess reflection time. Learning how to learn is one thing, but learning how to play is equally important, providing an open forum where students can discuss their feelings in relation to others. Students do not use names in these discussions, but talk about situations that came up where they might have felt left out or treated unfairly. This forum allows voices to be heard, and allows others to develop a sensitivity to their friends’ feelings. They also put together a Kindness Quilt, which is built upon the bookThe Kindness Quilt; however, their Kindness Quilt is up all year long to remind them that we value character and kindness.

The students in Grade 2 have been working all year on “grit.” Their second-grade Haiku explained it best when they wrote, We care very much that the children who come through our doors understand that being a good student does not mean completing tasks and assignments with ease.  In fact, it may mean just the opposite…sticking with something that is difficult and finding your way through it, despite the challenge, is what creates strong character and solid learning habits!” Embracing this notion is strengthening the characters of the second graders and leveling the playing field by allowing each student to work on a personal challenge and hoping that others will learn to encourage their friends’ determination.Sunshine Jar A “Sunshine Jar” also exists in their classroom. If a student does something to brighten the day, spreads kindness, or even shows grit with something difficult, another student can fill out a sunshine ray to be read during Sharing Time each Friday.

Grades 3 and 4 are combined once a month and broken into small groups called Diversity Groups. These groups come together monthly to discuss important issues and reflect on situations, heightening their awareness of themselves and others. This month they took part in an activity that showed the results of uneven distribution of resources, and wow, did this ever provoke incredible conversations about themselves in relation to others in and outside of their community.

On a more general, school-wide level, we have a building-wide “Caught in the Act” campaign. It is based upon the premise that there are everyday heroes performing acts of kindness right here in our Lower School and it is our job to catch them! We are all looking to catch someone having compassion, inspiring others, or being awesome!  If students see anyone doing anything wonderful, they write it down on anEveryday Hero form found throughout the Lower School. At Lower School Morning Meetings, a few people will be highlighted for their heroic acts.  What a nice way to celebrate kindness and to recognize that small acts can make a big difference.

Caught in act 2

Role-playing is used in myriad ways to sensitize the students to situations, feelings, and behaviors. Mr. Gerlach, our drama teacher, and well as many teachers help students by having them “act out” or “walk in the shoes” of others. This concrete action is very powerful. Dr. Pager, our friendly psychologist, is known and loved by all the children. She goes in and out of classrooms, reading to them or just joining in whatever activity they are doing. She comes to know the children, and throughout the year pulls together what we call “Friendship Groups,” allowing her to help students get to know others in their class or grade, and she can help facilitate ways to engage in conversations that help build respectful friendships. The children all want to come to her office, as she is viewed as a friend.

There are so many explicit opportunities for us to embed character and social emotional learning into our students’ repertoire, and we take advantage of every opportunity. Buddies between the younger and older grades promotes understanding; specific read-aloud books can highlight various topics for discussion; and just small-group instruction and cooperative learning, under the auspices and guidance of our teachers, help mold appropriate, respectful behaviors socially, allowing for concentration and focus on their learning.

To highlight core values that made a difference, during our Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, we had our students at the various grade levels choose a value that was important to Dr. King’s success – kindness, equality, courage, cooperation, and grit – and think about it in relation to themselves. We wanted our students to know that it was the values he was driven by that led to his success and his impact on the world.

Isolated character education lessons have little lasting value. In the Lower School every day in every classroom, out at recess, in the dining room, as we walk the halls, we expect respectful citizens, and should we not see that, we take that teachable moment to address it. We try and engage our students in reflective thinking. The behavior section of the report card is every bit as important as the academic benchmarks. One has, and will continue to have, a huge impact on the other. “If students are to grow, learn and become productive adults, they must be taught how specific behaviors control their destiny.” 2 We cannot afford NOT to teach values.

  1. Responsive Classroom,
  1. Huffington Post, Jim McGuire, “Do We Need a Little Character Education Today?”,


Lower School Philosophy

The Lower School strives to instill within each child a balance between individual development and commitment to the community. Our invigorating and supportive environment stimulates and promotes ethical, social, emotional, physical and intellectual growth in every student. In a program that recognizes each child’s unique timetable and needs, the measure of success is in the on-going process rather than the finished product.