Schools in Michigan take hard look at teaching 'soft skills'

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Ferndale — At Ferndale Upper Elementary, Jodi Prince’s third-grade class does not begin with academics: it starts outside the classroom door with a greeting.

Students line up single file to receive an individual “good morning” from a designated classmate and the choice of a high-five, fist bump or hug before entering class.

Once inside, students mark their mood on a color-coded board which measures individual energy levels and how “pleasant” each student is feeling that day.

State Superintendent Michael Rice meets third grader Romane Green, 9, during a visit to Ferndale schools, recognized by the state and national organizations as a pioneer in social emotional learning.

“It’s really important to know our students on a deeper level,” Prince said. ”We know if they come to school hungry, did they sleep last night? These are the ways for students to feel they belong. It’s a strong desire to feel like they are walking into a family here.”

These rituals are part of the district’s social emotional learning curriculum, which teaches children as part of their school day to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy toward others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

Researchers say students who participate in social emotional learning demonstrate gains in academics, improved classroom behavior, better stress management and higher attendance. Teachers report having more time for academic instruction as behavioral problems and interruptions drop off. 

Ferndale Schools is among the first districts in Michigan to have a pre-K-12 curriculum for social emotional learning, and has been recognized by the state and national organizations for being a pioneer in the field.

Social emotional learning is embedded into the district’s daily structure in different ways. At the K-5 level, students participate in a daily “Morning Meeting” where they learn specific skills through teacher read-alouds, videos, music and other sensory-based activities.

For older students in grades 6-12, students participate in a daily class called “Impact Hour,” and have a college prep course at the district’s alternative high school. During the class students talk openly about specific “soft skills” they need in the adult world and can experience mentoring.

Dina Rocheleau, assistant superintendent of Ferndale schools, said the district’s social emotional learning framework focuses on five core areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

Rocheleau said social emotional learning started in the district several years ago with a committee at one school and has since moved into all seven buildings for preschoolers through seniors.

“Sometimes we are so ingrained in what we do every day that we forget that maybe going to a locker is scary for a student,” Rocheleau said. “Asking for help might be scary. So we need to give them the skills to handle that.”

“We know so much about executive functioning right now as adults we have no excuses not to make changes,” she said. “That’s in our curriculum now.”

Ferndale Upper Elementary teacher Jodi Prince discusses the color-coded board that reflects the mood and energy level of her third-graders. “It’s really important to know our students on a deeper level,” she said.

A national trend

According to the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 18 states including Michigan have K-12 social emotional learning standards, 30 states have social emotional learning-related web pages that provide guidance and resources on social emotional learning, and 10 states are supporting pilot programs.

“States have made tremendous progress and growth in creating the conditions for districts and schools to promote systemic social and emotional learning,” said Nick Yoder, the Chicago-based collaborative’s director of policy and practice.

Ron Berger, chief academic officer at EL Education, a New York-based K-12 nonprofit, said the field of social emotional learning is broad and has different names like character education.

“All learning is social and emotional,” Berger said. “If we are not paying attention to social emotional conditions, we cannot optimize learning. The science is pointing out that social emotional learning is something we can’t ignore or say is extra. This is how people learn.”

An an example, Berger explained that if educators are concerned about poor math performance, they may think the answer is to double down on drilling math problems.

Yet when students walk into a math class, it’s the social and emotional factors in their lives that determine whether they can put their heart and mind into their learning and classwork, Berger said.

“They need to feel like they belong in that community, in that math class, due to race or background. Any kid who doesn’t believe it won’t put their heart and mind into it,” Berger said. “It’s not the aptitude but the social emotional condition they are in that frees them up or closes them.”

In 2018, EL Education brought its K-8 language arts curriculum to 30,000 students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The literacy curriculum is not “social emotional curriculum,” yet it integrates social emotional skills and character targets into classwork, Berger said.

“In every lesson, there are goals around being cooperative, compassionate, respectful. There are goals in character habits built into lessons,” Berger said. “Lessons about being respectful and collaborative shouldn’t be done after you are done learning; they should be how you learn.”

Berger recalled a recent visit to Burns Elementary, a Detroit school where the literacy curriculum is in place.

“I see kids are trying to be nicer and better people. Kids collaborate well in classes,” Berger said. “They compliment each other. They critique each other. They celebrate each other’s work. The present their work to each other.”

Berger said after just one year on the curriculum, students in Detroit posted their highest-ever scores on the state assessment for English language arts.

Social emotional learning can be done in K-12 schools in dozens of ways, and that’s a problem, some observers say.

Amber Northern, senior vice president of research at the Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit education policy think tank, said her organization, like many others, is still trying to determine what social emotional learning is and what it is not.

“You ask three different people and you can get three different answers,” Northern said. “They say it’s regulating your emotions and building relationships. None of that sounds divisive until you get into the details such as how it’s done in schools and how you define it.”

The institute is preparing to survey parents across the U.S. to ask them what social emotional learning work should focus on and how schools should teach it.

“It clearly can go any direction depending on how you are thinking about it,” Northern said. “I’m not in favor of social emotional learning. It’s so broad, it’s meaningless ... We don’t know how to measure social emotional learning because we haven’t adequately focused it.”

l-r, 4th graders, Ra' Niyah White, 9, and Diara Toure, 11, works on their writers workshop assignment during class at Ferndale Upper Elementary School.

State school chief checks in

State Superintendent Michael Rice visited Ferndale last month to see the district’s social emotional learning program, and asked educators about the idea of competition between core K-12 subjects and social emotional learning.

Shaun Butler, assistant principal and athletic director at Ferndale High School, said initially there was resistance by some teachers to teach the social emotional learning curriculum.

“But more and more as they are getting into it, they are starting to understand that the more I know my kid, the more my kid knows me, the more that kid knows I care about their future and not their test scores,” Butler said. “We are starting to see the positive effects of what we are doing.”

Rice said employers tell him they want smart workers with “soft skills”: personality traits, inherent social cues and communication abilities needed for success on the job.

“Young people need to learn how to work with one another,” Rice said. “They don’t spring from the womb understanding algebra. They also don’t spring from the womb knowing how to understand themselves, how to understand other people, how to work with other people.” 

Educators say the benefits of social emotional learning include giving teachers more time to teach.

At Eaton Rapids Public Schools south of Lansing, superintendent Bill DeFrance said the district has put its focus on social emotional learning at the kindergarten level after determining that 40% of its students had never left home before coming to school and were struggling with their new environment.

DeFrance said last school year every teacher at the elementary level was trained on a curriculum called Second Steps, which focuses on relationship-building with young children.

“Most of the time, it’s us who don’t understand the students,” he said.

DeFrance said before the program, students were running from classrooms and experiencing extreme anxiety. Teachers were unable to focus on instruction when dealing with such chaos, he said.

Now students who are experiencing stress have special areas to calm down, and in classes students choose a color-coded rubber ball based on how they feel.

“The teachers asked for the training themselves. They felt they were ill-equipped for some of the kids we were getting,” DeFrance said. “After the training, from one year to the next, it was like night to day. They have better ways of handling the kids in the room and kids have the skills where they can tell how they feel.”

An Impact Hour

Experts in social emotional learning say at middle and high schools levels, socialization and relationship-building continue to be key areas where tweens and teens need support.

In the Ferndale district, Impact Hour is a daily class where high school students learn “soft skills” that apply across a variety of jobs and life situations and involve traits such as integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, professionalism, flexibility and teamwork.

Ferndale High School student Kaiya Scott said she recalls social emotional learning experiences in her elementary and middle school classes where they talked about “growing up.”

When she moved over to the high school, she took part in the impact class, where she met upper and lower classmen and learned how to help others with problems.

But it was this year, her senior year, where the social emotional learning approach really made a difference in her life, Scott said.

“This year, I found that Impact was just amazing. We are all graduating. We are all stressed out about college applications. All those tears and the stress — it was shared,” said Scott, 18. “We went through units of coping with stress, what to expect when you go off to college. It’s been great.”