Rowland Hall is committed to teaching the whole child. To be successful academically, students must also have the skills necessary for social and emotional well-being.
At Rowland Hall, we offer a robust social-emotional learning (SEL) program that builds skills around empathy, identifying and managing strong emotions, peaceful problem-solving, and respectful disagreement. We encourage students to use these skills to show compassion, kindness, perseverance, and cooperation. Plus, students are proactively supported by teachers who have received SEL training and by our own in-house experts: we have social-emotional support counselors in each division, because when adults meet regularly to discuss each one of their students, every child is well-known and no one slips through the cracks.
Social-Emotional Learning & Support: Why it Matters
Social-emotional skills empower students to make friends, resolve conflicts, and step confidently into new experiences. As students mature and enter our middle and upper schools, these skills help them decrease their anxiety so they can increase their academic performance.
Teaching social-emotional skills is the cornerstone of Beginning School work. Our dedicated faculty help our youngest students learn:
how to feel valued and secure in their relationships;
how to identify and regulate their emotions and express their feelings in appropriate ways;
the importance of community and what it means to be a community member; and
how to engage with trusted adults as resources.
In 3PreK, children are becoming independent. They learn how to enter play and invite others to join them, and they begin to take turns and to share with one another. These students practice resolving social conflicts and look at each others' faces for emotional cues.
In 4PreK and kindergarten, students are introduced to Second Step, a social-emotional curriculum that focuses on empathy, recognizing strong emotions, strengthening focus and attention, being kind and compassionate, and problem-solving.
The McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor visits kindergarten classrooms throughout the school year, including delivering small-group lessons targeted to this special age.
The social-emotional learning program in the Lower School offers instruction using curricula focused on empathy, recognizing strong emotions, mindfulness, and peaceful problem-solving. Social-emotional learning lessons complement and build upon our Responsive Classroom principles, including cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
In addition to classroom-based lessons, the McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor provides friendship, mediation, coaching, small-group support, and short-term individual meetings.
Social-emotional learning is critical during the middle school years—a time for increasing freedom, for making mistakes and learning from them, and for laying the neuro groundwork for a successful future. Social-emotional learning permeates grades 6–8, from advisory groups to curriculum, field trips to service learning. In-class examples of social-emotional learning include maintaining a growth mindset in math, examining a character’s motives in a novel, and analyzing historical figures.
Middle schoolers are grouped in supportive grade-level advisories, where they build on social and emotional competencies through hands-on activities. Each advisor is a point person for connecting with students and their parents/caregivers. Advisory lessons are carefully planned to ensure continuity, fresh perspectives and activities, and research-based practices. Our Middle School community also comes together for an assembly every Monday where we share important updates, learn from one another, talk about ways to strengthen our community, and celebrate students. Plus, middle schoolers attend monthly interfaith Chapel sessions to build community and discuss important values.
We prioritize prevention and evidence-based learning surrounding drugs, alcohol, and mental health. We value growth, progress, and discipline over punishment. Therefore, we encourage struggling students to advocate not only for themselves but for their peers and community. Our middle and upper school social-emotional support counselors are licensed clinicians available to support students one-on-one. Plus, through our implementation of the SafeUT app, middle and upper schoolers can report problems anonymously or in person to a trusted adult. SafeUT, a statewide initiative run through the University of Utah's Huntsman Mental Health Institute, is a confidential crisis text and tip line, and provides real-time crisis intervention to youth and adults right from their smartphones or computers. The app is installed on all Middle School iPads, and students are trained on its appropriate use.
Upper School is a time for students to learn independence and self-sufficiency in earnest, while still having access to supportive, caring adults to guide them. With this in mind, Rowland Hall's Upper School social-emotional learning programs focus on students building a healthy understanding of themselves, self-confidence, and self-efficacy, as well as gaining the information they need to transition into healthy, happy adults.
Students are assigned to an advisory in their first year in the Upper School and remain with that advisory through their years at Rowland Hall. Advisors develop deep, lasting relationships with students that not only offer a supportive and caring base for advice, advocacy, and assistance, but also provide them with an adult who understands them and can help them start, from their unique beginning points, to learn the skills needed to navigate adulthood.
Our ever-growing ninth-grade first-year experience and health II classes are intensive wellness courses that teach students skills and information they will build on through their high school years. These classes encourage healthy, evidence-based habits and give students vital information for their social, emotional, and physical well-being so they can make the best choices for themselves as their independence grows. To complement our health and wellness curricula, we also bring in outside experts to present educational programming in advisories and assemblies, supplementing learning in important subjects such as alcohol and drugs, healthy relationships, mental health, and more.
We prioritize prevention and evidence-based learning surrounding drugs, alcohol, and mental health. We value growth, progress, and discipline over punishment. Therefore, we encourage struggling students to advocate not only for themselves but for their peers and community. Our middle and upper school social-emotional support counselors are licensed clinicians available to support students one-on-one. Plus, through our implementation of the SafeUT app, middle and upper schoolers can report problems anonymously or in person with a trusted adult. SafeUT, a statewide initiative run through the University of Utah's Huntsman Mental Health Institute, is a confidential crisis text and tip line, and provides real-time crisis intervention to youth and adults right from their smartphones or computers. Upper School students are encouraged to have the SafeUT app installed on their phones and other devices.
That’s what a group of students in Lynelle Stoddard and Camilla Rosenberger’s 3PreK class were trying to determine one cool November day, as they looked through each other’s personal photo albums.
Weston, as a baby, looks like he’s crying, one student observed. Another thinks he must be mad because he’s in a crib, and cribs are not fun. Weston can’t remember what he was feeling, and he really wants to look at his other pictures.
We use this year to work on how they treat each other and deal with situations.—Camilla Rosenberger, 3PreK assistant teacher
What the students were doing on this late fall day is a central goal in the 3PreK classroom: they were learning to name and hold their feelings, and how to turn those feelings into positive actions—life skills that will support them long after they leave the preschool classroom. To build these skills, the teachers have provided a selection of books for the students to read, including Silly Sally and When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry…. They have also been singing songs such as "If You’re Happy and You Know It," and have explored feelings while reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt as a class and then searching for a stuffed bear hidden in the Nature Yard. And along the way, there have been many conversations about how feelings play out in different ways.
“This is such an important time for their social-emotional progress,” said assistant teacher Camilla about the three- and four-year-old students. “We use this year to work on how they treat each other and deal with situations, through their education.”
Lead teacher Lynelle agreed. “We want them to learn strategies to manage their feelings, like taking big deep breaths to calm their bodies. When they’re angry, we encourage the strategy of ‘pretend to sniff a flower, and then blow out the candles on a birthday cake.’”
And, as illustrated on that November day, it’s important to the teachers that their students aren’t only dealing with their own feelings. The children are also learning how to identify what others may be feeling, and they interact with each other based on those cues. “Feelings photos” are part of these lessons. Every child has a set of photos taken of them displaying different emotions, and then the children look at their own faces before putting an emotion to each expression. This practice helps the students learn how to read each other’s faces, and to read the faces of those outside of the classroom as well.
We do activities like looking at your neighbor and asking them, ‘How are you feeling today?’ Or we will identify what emotion we see them displaying and we ask how we can help them deal with or work through that emotion.—Lynelle Stoddard, 3PreK lead teacher
“We do activities like looking at your neighbor and asking them, ‘How are you feeling today?’” said Lynelle. “Or we will identify what emotion we see them displaying and we ask how we can help them deal with or work through that emotion.”
Determining appropriate actions for emotions is another part of the students’ social-emotional growth. The teachers help the children work through which actions can help improve a situation and which ones may cause more problems. They may have conversations about sharing, consideration of others, and the importance of being a first-time listener—that is, following instructions without being asked multiple times.
“We have a lot of books that are based on turning feelings into actions,” said Camilla. “No Biting, Louise is a favorite one, lately. Books like these help the kids discern what are good actions and what are not.”
The 3PreK students may be little, but their emotions are big, and by helping them name emotions, understand them, and maybe control them (even a little bit), their teachers are giving them a foundation on which to learn, grow, and become people the world needs. Even if the individual lessons aren’t remembered, and the book titles fade from memory, the central message will remain.
At the beginning of June, rising Rowland Hall senior Samantha Lehman began an internship for the Utah House of Representatives majority staff. She spent two weeks sitting in on appropriations and caucus meetings, communicating important information through social media, and researching everything from local procedures for foreign diplomats visiting Utah to water and transportation policy (did you know that 32,933,228,764 miles were driven on Utah roads in 2019? Neither did Samantha!).
While working at the capitol, Samantha was approached by Harry Hansen, communications manager and podcast host, who asked to interview her for the Utah House of Representatives Podcastabout her experience attending high school during a pandemic. She said yes, and when Harry asked if there was anything specific she wanted to talk about, Samantha immediately answered, “Mental health.” Below, Samantha, a Rowland Hall mental health educator and this year’s student body president, reflects on why she chose to focus that discussion on the toll the pandemic is taking on students' mental well-being.
Mental Health and the Pandemic: A High Schooler’s Perspective
By Samantha Lehman, Class of 2022
The movies don’t lie when they say that high school is tough.
I, and many other students, found it hard to stay motivated and to care about things we were previously interested in. I felt alone, helpless, burned out, and like I was a failure for not being more engaged. It was as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly increased: everything looked the same, but it was harder to lift myself up.
Homework, studying, and the epic highs and lows of extracurriculars are enormously stressful, so a balance between friends and work can help make school manageable. However, the pandemic meant students were isolated in their rooms, unable to be around their friends, making school feel more strenuous and boring. Additionally, in-person class is hard to replicate on Zoom. There’s just not the same energy, and focusing is near impossible when a) you have been staring at a screen for hours at a time, and b) the world of the internet is at your fingertips (I’ll be fully transparent here: I definitely watched The Office instead of paying attention in class more than a couple of times). As the year went on, many students found it harder and harder to keep up with work and make themselves pay attention to what they were supposed to be learning, even if they were able to be in person at school some of the time. I, and many other students, found it hard to stay motivated and to care about things we were previously interested in. I felt alone, helpless, burned out, and like I was a failure for not being more engaged. It was as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly increased: everything looked the same, but it was harder to lift myself up.
Another problem with school during a pandemic is repetitive thoughts. When you’re stuck at home all day in front of a computer with nothing but your brain to keep you company, repetitive thoughts become a real problem. My brain kept telling me, “You should be doing better at school,” or, “You’re a horrible student and don’t deserve to be here,” and, “You’re a failure.” After hearing those things again and again, I started to believe them. Unfortunately, many of my classmates had this experience as well, and they struggled with school and their mental health as a result.
For some students, having their routine dramatically switched up by the pandemic was a huge challenge. For others, they enjoyed being online for school, perhaps because they are uncomfortable in many social situations, so going back in person towards the end of the year was a hard adjustment. Maybe a student lost a relative or a friend during or to the pandemic and didn’t get the community support they needed. Regardless of the reason, the pandemic impacted every student’s mental health in some way, and that may have long-lasting effects, even if this school year looks a little more normal.
I think it’s important to realize that mental health is not a reason a person isn’t strong. You can be strong and still struggle with your mental health.
I think it’s important to realize that struggling with mental health is not a reason a person isn’t strong. You can be strong and still struggle with your mental health. Take Simone Biles, for example. She has 31 Olympic and World Championship medals and pulled out of the Olympic team competition to prioritize her mental health. That’s strength if I’ve ever seen it. A person also doesn’t have to be diagnosed with something like anxiety, OCD, or depression to need to take time to prioritize their mental health. Brains are weird and life is hard.
As we continue to navigate the pandemic, the advice I’d give to parents and guardians is to remember it’s important to realize that kids need time to recharge and get their heads on straight to succeed. It’s OK for kids to feel tired and want to take breaks from work, and caregivers should encourage them to prioritize their mental health as well as support their kids in times of struggle. My parents support me by reminding me that they are there for me and by never judging or criticizing me for struggling with mental health.
Additionally, as students, we need to remember to support each other. There is never a bad time to tell a friend that they are doing great and that you are there for them. As a community, we need to continue to uplift each other and give each other the space to put mental health first.
2020 may well be remembered as the year of overwhelming stress, and research shows that it’s not only adults feeling the pressure—students feel it, too, and it plays a big role in how they learn.
Schools have long known that they play a critical role in supporting students’ mental well-being. Even before 2020, a heightened understanding of how mental health initiatives contribute to students’ welfare and their ability to learn shifted curriculum and priorities at Rowland Hall. Today, a strong social-emotional learning (SEL) thread runs through all school divisions, and a variety of resources that support students’ mental well-being—from trained counselors, to grade-level advisories, to SEL-based curriculum—are in place. Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund explained that the shift toward this support structure began in 2010, as educators across the country began to better understand how an overly anxious mind affects learning.
You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill.—Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education
“You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill,” Ryan said. “We knew we needed to focus on the whole child, giving them tools to free their cognitive load so they can give greater attention to learning and social connections.”
Upper School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Dr. Mindy Vanderloo said that a good way to think about this approach is to remember the phrase “Maslow before Bloom,” which underscores the theory that human beings must have their basic needs met before they can take on higher-level desires or thinking.
“If you don't have your basic needs—home, security, food, mental health—then you can't do those things that are higher up on hierarchy,” said Mindy. “Research has demonstrated the relationship between academics and mental health. We understand the importance of identifying and treating mental health problems; we also know that incorporating SEL can improve mental health.”
And while this is true in any academic year, it has become even more important in 2020, when heightened anxiety around issues including COVID-19, the election, and social unrest can further impact students’ mental well-being—which was already concerning mental health professionals. Mindy pointed to American Psychological Association research released in 2019 that found that the percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders—serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts—has risen significantly over the past decade. Though there isn’t a clear cause why, she said, issues like social media, political divisiveness, and climate change may play a role.
“Mental health disorders have increased over time, and there isn't a known cause,” Mindy explained. “Prevalence rates are going up—and it could be we feel more comfortable talking about it now, and so we notice it more—but there is something categorically different that has changed over generations. Schools, appropriately, have responded and said, ‘This is a bigger problem than it used to be, for whatever reason, and we need to address it.’”
Resources that support students’ mental well-being are available in all Rowland Hall divisions, starting in the beginning and lower schools, where a supportive SEL foundation is first established. Guided by Emotional Support Counselor Chuck White, Rowland Hall’s preschool- and elementary-aged students begin building their social-emotional skills through programs like Second Step and Responsive Classroom. Faculty and staff also cultivate strong partnerships with caregivers during these years, providing resources that advise adults on how to talk to young learners about issues such as COVID-19 and social unrest or the election, as well as how to have healthy conversations around topics such as race.
As students move to the Middle School on the Lincoln Street Campus—and begin a phase of life known for a great deal of change—educators take even more action to help them understand and manage their own mental wellness.
“It's important to remember that in middle school brains are changing at a high rate,” said Middle School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Leslie Czerwinski. “Then on top of brain changes, hormones start to change.”
At the same time, students are learning to navigate the world in new ways, with an increase in online time—including, for many, access to social media, which can add new layers of pressure, such as the need to present perfection. It is therefore important to help these students find healthy coping strategies that they can practice in Middle School and carry into their Upper School years, and beyond.
That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged. I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.—Ryan Hoglund
“The goal is not zero stress; that's really important to emphasize,” said Ryan. “Stress is normal—it drives us to deadlines that keep us accountable. But how do you keep it productive?” To do this, he said, Rowland Hall focuses on productive struggle, also known as the zone of proximal development, a sweet spot for each learner where the student has found balance between being too comfortable and too overwhelmed.
“That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged,” said Ryan. “I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.”
Productive struggle not only prepares students to build resilience and succeed under the pressures of life, but to learn how to head off more serious issues, like chronic anxiety, that can develop under too much stress. In the middle and upper schools, this skill is purposefully encouraged by faculty and staff in classroom conversations as well as in advisory, a program designed to help build community and promote student wellness. Advisory now plays a major role in the Rowland Hall experience—one that is so important that sixth graders’ placement into their advisory groups is a thoughtful process handled by the middle and upper school counselors, principals, and assistant principals, who understand that identifying the best advisor for each student can lead to strong relationships that support mental well-being throughout their years on the Lincoln Street Campus. This is necessary, Mindy noted, because research shows that one of the biggest ways to protect students against mental health problems is to give them access to consistent, healthy adult mentors.
“Individual connections to supportive adults is one of the best things we can provide for students as a school,” she said.
Healthy adult role models also help students discover their own leadership capabilities. During their time at Rowland Hall—particularly as they move from sixth to twelfth grade—students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence.
During their time at Rowland Hall students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence. This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum.
“In the Upper School, what we want to do is build self-efficacy and empower students to take care of themselves. They've learned skills in advisory through informal discussions with teachers—and so how do they take the next step?” Mindy said. “We shift from a focus on adults teaching students to what students can teach each other and take into their own hands.”
This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum. In support of this goal, in 2019 Mindy created a student group called the Mental Health Educators, whose mission is to help build awareness of and combat stigma around mental health issues. Since its founding, Mental Health Educators has played a vital role in normalizing mental health discussions on the Lincoln Street Campus—members address peers at chapels and morning meetings, and they build long-term relationships with students through advisory groups, where they lead discussions around topics like stress and anxiety, as well as offer tips on areas like healthy coping mechanisms.
“The school’s been doing a good job trying to reduce stigma around mental health,” said Samantha Lehman, a Rowland Hall junior and Mental Health Educator. “The Mental Health Educators are working to improve mental health resources, and I think we’ve already seen a lot of improvements and a lot of good feedback from the student body.”
They’re also continuously finding new ways to bring their mental health training to their peers. For example, Samantha used some of the topics the group discussed—like motivation, relationships, and the importance of mental breaks—to create Instagram challenges that engaged and connected students during the long weeks of quarantine this spring. Senior Mena Zendejas-Portugal applies her mental health knowledge to her work as a member of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee. And this fall, the entire Mental Health Educators group partnered with Dr. Carolyn Hickman, English Department chair, and Mike Shackelford, political science teacher and debate coach, to present Deliberate Dialogue, an initiative Carolyn and Mike designed to help reduce student stress during a contentious election season by giving them opportunities to practice civil discourse. Over two weeks in October, the Mental Health Educators taught the five skills of Deliberate Dialogue—open-mindedness, speaking, listening, responding, and reflecting—to all students in grades nine through eleven, as well as helped them practice constructive conversation techniques, which center around exchanging perspectives openly, challenging viewpoints respectfully, and building empathetic understanding. Samantha said the initiative fits in well with the Mental Health Educators mission “because you’re coming to the conversation seeking to understand, seeking to listen.”
We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID.—Dr. Mindy Vanderloo, Upper School social-emotional support counselor
Mena added, “Once you learn how to have Deliberate Dialogue in your everyday life, that really helps you better your mental health and your relationships. The conversation turns toward building bridges and relationships, which then translates into how you perceive yourself and others.”
And this is a big deal, said Mindy, because by taking action to fight the stressors that affect their well-being—like a divisive election within a global pandemic—students feel a sense of purpose amid chaos.
“We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID,” said Mindy. “If you can take a difficult or tragic event, take action, and decide to make change, it is so good for not only your mental health, but other people's mental health.”
Mena agreed. “You see students confront problems in such an elevated manner—they’re incorporating all these skills we’ve taught them, and they’re able to relieve themselves of so much stress,” she said. “It makes you feel a sense of joy and pride, not only in yourself, but in your community and in those students.”
Banner photo: Junior Remy Mickelson presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills during an advisory class.
On a Thursday in November, Susanna Mellor’s first-grade class was seated in a circle, ready to begin their morning meeting. That day, they started with a pinky greeting: everyone hooked fingers, forming a chain, and then Susanna turned to one of the students next to her. “Good morning, Thomas,” she began. The salutation passed around the circle, ending with a hearty, full-group welcome: “Good morning!”
Morning meeting is one of several practices recommended by Responsive Classroom, a student-centered approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) and effective classroom management. Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus explained that the division started utilizing Responsive Classroom in 2016 as a way to support Rowland Hall’s long-standing commitment to SEL, which is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher-quality instruction.
Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms. More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning.—Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus
“Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms that help our students thrive,” he said. “More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning with their classmates.”
Morning meeting achieves this by engaging young learners in a welcoming atmosphere at the start of each school day. In addition to an inclusive greeting, the meeting includes a moment of sharing, a group activity, and a daily message. Whatever the day’s focus, teachers use the meeting to make sure each child is recognized and participating in the class.
“Responsive Classroom practices help build confidence and ease anxiety by fostering a sense of belonging and significance,” Susanna said. And, she added, as the school year progresses, its rewards multiply. “When they listen to each other, students feel that they matter. I see new friendships begin to bud, classmates work comfortably and easily together, and students take risks as they share ideas in class discussions.”
The Responsive Classroom Approach
Responsive Classroom, first developed by the Center for Responsive Schools in 1981, creates safe, nurturing learning environments through four key domains: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmentally responsive teaching. Because Rowland Hall is focused on integrating SEL into our academic and co-curricular programs (we formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018), incorporating Responsive Classroom into the Lower School curriculum was a logical choice. And it has made a difference.
“It's given our teachers more clarity and alignment when they consider how best to support students, structure learning activities, and promote positive behavior expectations,” Jij said. “Students, in turn, experience more consistency and are clear on why their actions matter for their own learning and for the learning of others.”
Rowland Hall is focused on integrating social and emotional learning into our academic and co-curricular programs; we even formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018.
To drive student success, Responsive Classroom also emphasizes interactive modeling to teach the skills, strategies, and procedures that help kids thrive at school.
“Interactive modeling has made my classroom a more calm, efficient, and productive learning environment,” Susanna said. “When students watch and comment on what I do as I role-play a procedure, they actively deduce the steps by verbalizing them and listening to peers do the same. As a result, they have a firm and clear understanding when it comes time for them to begin the task at hand.”
Integrating Responsive Classroom into Established Practices
Responsive Classroom has helped Rowland Hall refocus many classroom practices toward the school’s overarching SEL goals. One example occurs at the beginning of each school year: developing classroom agreements. Unlike traditional lists of rules, classroom agreements are created in partnership, giving teachers and students buy-in on how their classrooms will run. While the agreements have been a part of the Lower School for many years, Responsive Classroom added another layer to the process.
“Using the Responsive Classroom approach has allowed my students to delve deeper into the process of exploring their own hopes and dreams, and how we can work as a group to help each other achieve our goals,” Susanna said. She explained that students become engaged, thoughtful, and passionate as they determine what will help them do things like learn how to read, try harder math problems, or even score soccer goals. “I notice students putting much more thought and reflection into this process, making it more meaningful and effective,” she said.
Collaborating on classroom agreements also makes it more likely that children will follow, and reference, those agreements during the school year.
“Students refer back to these agreements when obstacles arise and really demonstrate ownership of them,” said Susanna. “For example, when having a class discussion about erasers being damaged intentionally, several children commented, ‘That’s not following our agreement. We said we’d take care of our materials this year so that we could become better writers.’”
Classroom agreements are referenced regularly by instructors too. In Susanna’s morning meeting, for instance, students are asked which agreements they want to focus on and what actions they can take to make sure those agreements are honored. One student reminded classmates that they can meet their goal to keep calm in the classroom by walking; another observed that they can fulfill the agreement to try harder math problems by listening respectfully during instruction.
Using Responsive Classroom in New Ways
Responsive Classroom also inspires new methods to empower students. This fall, the Lower School used the foundation of classroom agreements in a new way: to create school-wide Winged Lion Agreements.
On September 6, 17 student delegates from grades one through five—one from each class—gathered in the McCarthey Campus parlor for the first-ever student constitutional convention. Delegates shared their classes’ newly developed classroom agreements with the group before beginning a discussion on agreements that could be applied to the whole school.
When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone.—Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer
Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer—who has completed all Responsive Classroom courses, including the Responsive Classroom for Leadership conference—led the discussion and was impressed by how the process unfolded. “When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone,” she said. “And because each student was a stakeholder in the convention’s outcome, they were serious about identifying meaningful goals.” She was also thrilled by the inclusion she saw in the room, especially by the way fifth graders mentored the first graders. “They really made connections and made them feel valued,” Linda said.
After thoughtful discussion, the group decided on five agreements for the year:
• Be kind
• Work hard and never give up
• Be safe
• Have fun
Each item was purposefully selected, down to exact words—for instance, the delegates chose the word “respect” because of its ability to encompass a wide range of areas, from personal behavior to how students should treat their surroundings.
Designing Better School Days with Responsive Classroom
Responsive Classroom further helps the Lower School team continuously reevaluate how to best meet students’ needs. One recent change to the school day occurred as a result of a February 2019 meeting with a Responsive Classroom consultant, who was sent to observe a full day at the school after Linda completed her training in the approach.
“One thing the consultant noticed was that our dining hall is very noisy,” Linda remembered. The consultant recommended a proven solution she thought would benefit the division: moving recess before lunch, an idea that the Lower School student support team had been considering for two years prior to the visit.
“The change would have numerous benefits,” said Linda. “Children could focus on eating, noise would go down, and no one would be racing to get outside.” After presenting the idea to an enthusiastic Lower School faculty in the spring, Jij and Linda began working on making the change for the fall. When it was time to introduce the schedule adjustment to students during the second chapel of the year, Jij, Linda, and Chuck White, the McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor, were thoughtful in their approach, using a similar style students had already experienced in the classroom.
“We asked, ‘What should lunch feel and sound like?’” Linda said. The team also emphasized the why behind the discussion so students would understand both the reason for change and its related benefits. “We talked about how we can all follow agreements to make school more enjoyable for everyone,” Linda said.
Using a dining table that had been brought into the chapel, Jij, Linda, and Chuck then modeled for students proper lunch behavior: entering the dining hall respectfully, staying seated facing the table, and talking at an appropriate volume. Each child was also given the chance to practice at the table.
Children have adjusted well to the change, Linda said. It was, she explained, an extension of the discussions students have become accustomed to—and, importantly, it reminded them that they each play a part in creating a respectful, safe, and joyful school for all.
“I’m really proud of them,” she said.
Responsive Classroom Resources for Parents and Caregivers
Responsive Classroom has been an influential tool in helping Rowland Hall meet SEL goals in the Lower School. Because we are committed to partnering with parents and caregivers in their children’s education, we have made many Responsive Classroom materials available in the parent section of the McCarthey Campus’ Steiner Library for those who are interested in more information about the approach.