Two decades into the 21 C, social-emotional learning (SEL) has a solid presence in our education system. But where did this all begin?
Before we had the SEL Core Competencies Wheel seen in many schools, a seed was planted that would grow into a major portion of today’s social-emotional learning structure. The CASEL endorsed Peace Education Foundation was founded nearly fifty years ago by two Florida teachers – Grace Contrino Abrams and Fran Schmidt. These two women were peace activists who saw the need for teaching conflict resolution in their classrooms.
It was humble beginnings for their SEL program, entitled Peaceworks, which now includes a complete Spanish version and reaches around the world from its base in Barry University Miami, Florida. It stretches across the U.S and Canada, throughout countries in Central and South America and Africa. The spirit and determination of two dedicated teachers grew into what is today a world leader in social-emotional learning.
My personal experience with the Peace Education Foundation began twenty years ago. My sister returned from meetings at the United Nations with a book she thought would be useful in my grade 3 class. It was The Peaceworks Program from The Peace Education Foundation. Just a few years previous, The Foundation had become an NGO (non-governmental organization) in special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
The book was so well laid out that I started using the program straight away in my classroom. I began to see little lightbulbs going on all over the class. The lessons made sense to them. Knowledge is power. We know that academic subjects like science require a framework. Social-emotional learning is the periodic table of pro-social skills. My students now had the language to understand and explain their emotions.
It worked so well, I went to Miami, Florida for their training and during the next decade of my career, I was instrumental in having the program implemented in my school district. I introduced many new teachers to the program through a local faculty of education. Most importantly, I saw how effective this grade-specific program was across my school. Students learned the many features of pro-social skills. These were lessons that I knew would be used every day and last them a lifetime. That is why social-emotional learning matters.
You may be wondering why this program can be so successful. There are many reasons.
The most compelling aspect of Peaceworks is that it is a grade-specific curriculum. There is a book full of weekly lessons for every grade from Pre-K-8. For the already overloaded teacher, every week has a precisely written lesson plan with objectives, a method that includes activities and a conclusion. It is easily integrated into a classroom. With the Peaceworks program, the understanding of social-emotional learning builds throughout the elementary years.
The pre-kindergarten program, Peacemaking Skills for Little Kids, begins their Emotional Intelligence journey. Children learn the basics of friendship, co-operation, respect and responsibility that help form the basis of solid interpersonal relationships. Pre-K sets the stage for the ensuing years in elementary school.
Are you familiar with the components of the SEL Competencies wheel linked above? Every section is covered over the elementary school years. Starting with the pre-kindergarten program, you will find lessons on self-esteem, the bully, the victim and the bystander, co-operation, listening skills, problem-solving skills, conflict resolution, anger management, social responsibility, diversity, and values.
For good reason, the middle school program has a laser focus on pro-social skills. The social issues of middle school have been well documented. The demands of physical and emotional maturity colliding during these years combine to create a perfect storm. Yet, as educators, we know they are all children trying to find their way and find their place in this world. It is during these years that Peaceworks highlights character development, understanding culture, anger management, conflict resolution, and social responsibility.
Peaceworks also offers Peer Mediation training that has many positive benefits for a school setting. It teaches students about conflict resolution including interpreting body language, conflict de-escalation techniques and includes one of my favorite lessons – training peer mediators to understand the three areas of conflict – territory, relationships, and possessions. These conflict categories apply to people, countries and the world. The students dove into making those connections at a personal, community and world level. Understanding why conflict happens is a big step toward resolving conflicts.
The Peer Mediators then went out into the schoolyard and applied their skills in defusing conflict escalation. It was always with the caution of safety first and to call a yard supervisor when needed. They made a difference to our schoolyard.
The hallmark of the Peaceworks conflict resolution strategy is defined by The Rules for Fighting Fair. Attack the problem, not the person. That is such a valuable lesson because it teaches children to separate the action from the person. It all begins with learning about triggers for their anger which connects with taking responsibility for their actions.
Peaceworks has a parenting program, Resolving Family Conflict, which I also used. Those workshops with parents proved to me just how much parents want to do the very best they can. The classes were filled with ideas for effectively resolving conflict in a family. They provided parents with the tools to reduce family tensions and the opportunity to share their hopes and fears in a safe environment.
The complete Peaceworks program forms a solid backbone for any school that wants a cohesive, effective social-emotional learning strategy that connects and builds throughout the elementary years. There are many opportunities in the weekly lessons to expand various social-emotional learning topics. Educators can readily incorporate other programs with this consistently clear and concise master plan.
For many years I was immersed in social-emotional learning education. It ultimately led me to write my book Commonsense Tips for 21 C Parents. It is not just a school-based program. Social-emotional learning is a framework for living.