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Social Emotional Learning is a priority at St. Bernard’s this year

St. Bernard’s School students learned Social Emotional Learning by drawing their feelings on the first day of school. (Photo provided)

Due to the sudden shutdown in March, almost six months passed before children returned to school. Let’s keep in mind the critical socio-emotional supports that schools provide. Some children experience high levels of strife at home. Some are in families struggling with illness. Some parents may be out of work, perhaps having lost a job due to the pandemic. Some families struggle with addiction. Poverty is a stressor for many families. In March, the usual support system of teachers and classmates was suddenly reduced to screen time, or even stopped for students who found the virtual environment difficult to access or embrace. We all need to be concerned about the socio-emotional well-being of the children for schools to effectively advance academic goals.

St. Bernard’s School endeavors to help students develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Students build capacity to thrive even in the face of adversity with a variety of protective factors such as increased resilience, stronger empathy and heightened self-efficacy. School provides reliable, consistent and positive relationships with adults and peers.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) teaches children how to navigate challenges in healthy, productive ways. All the teachers began the SEL curriculum in class from the first day. This curriculum encourages connection, healing and relationship building. St. Bernard’s School educators are encouraged to offer a prolonged transition period before phasing in new academic content, spending time focused on preparing the individuals through activities and discussion to address aspects of the socio-emotional health of students. Additionally, parents are provided with activities and suggestions for engagement in natural ways at home and are thus empowered to create increased continuity for the children.

On the playground, at lunch and in classrooms, adults look for situations that are Social Emotional Learning opportunities for the children. Having shared recess duty with Principal Mrs. Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, I observed her address certain issues in ways that have a positive impact on the children’s understanding and interactions. For example, on the first day of school, when a new student was standing apart and seemed to feel forlorn, she began to consider which student in his grade might be willing to invite him to play. She considered the long-term resolutions based on the well-being of the individual student, the class and ultimately the school community.

On the second day, at a spontaneous second-grade soccer game during recess, Mrs. Kilbourne-Hill observed an opportunity to demonstrate a positive way to acknowledge the importance of all the players’ well-being, having apparently seen an upset child. She knelt and spoke to the children, and they knelt with her and listened attentively. She explained that when someone seems upset or hurt, it is important to stop and ask if things are OK. All the children were happily empowered to do the right thing.

First-grade students played games that encourage the children to interact and start conversations while discovering things in common. They had a class discussion related to having different feelings at the same time, such as the feelings one might have about returning to school.

The teachers of each grade eat lunch with the students, providing excellent modeling, and insightful conversation designed to intervene when called for and to enhance appropriate awareness of and interest in their peers. Improved manners are likely, too!

Soon we will introduce the Digital Citizenship curriculum offered by Common Sense Media, another critical facet of socio-emotional health. We are all aware of the pervasive threat of cyber-bullying. The several weekly lessons designed for each level K-5 will provide guidance for increasing awareness, developing good judgment and making good decisions as all students acquire computer skills appropriate for the grade levels. We will provide perspectives and suggestions for families to help keep the discussion about online behavior open and productive.

Positivity, respect for all persons, and faithfulness to what is right and good are values conveyed daily through demonstrations of trust, kindness, helpfulness, gratitude, generosity, building community and ensuring a sense of belonging. The adults of St. Bernard’s School are committed to caring for every child’s well-being, to teaching explicitly and implicitly through words and actions consistent with the values we hold. St. Bernard’s School is helping to ensure the health of our greater community by educating responsible, caring children who share in the inheritance of the world we create.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this very special Christian community of teachers, students and families.

Thank you for taking the time to read about St. Bernard’s environment cultivated to safeguard our students as they embrace their education with courage and perseverance.

Sylvia Hough is the family support coordinator for St. Bernard’s School in Saranac Lake.

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