Education Nation: What Does It Take to Make Schools Safe for Learning?

A panel of experts convened in New York to address the question, focusing on innovative approaches to social and emotional learning techniques

How can schools focus on new ways to teach social and emotional skills, given that bullying and a perceived lack of safety in schools are known to hinder students’ chances of success? That's the topic that Today's Hoda Kotb and a panel of thought leaders addressed today as part of the fourth annual Education Nation Summit, taking place this week at the New York Public Library.

At the most fundamental level, the panelists agreed that kids require a safe environment in order to learn -- and that that environment can be hard to come by in America these days. “Kids growing up in poverty internalize the adversity in their lives. They come into school [already] under high levels of stress, and if they walk into a school that doesn’t feel safe, that stress goes through the roof,” said Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder, president and C.E.O. of Turnaround for Children Inc. “If we don’t do something to shift the culture of these schools so they’re safe and supportive, then kids aren’t going to make the kind of progress we want them to make.”

Of course, the pervasiveness of bullying -- which is very often a symptom of kids’ difficult environment -- is among the major challenges to kids in America’s schools. And some new and innovative approaches to learning can help kids deal. “One of the things we do in our program are three ‘brain breaks’ a day," said Goldie Hawn, the actress and founder of The Hawn Foundation, which teaches kids social and emotional literacy skills to improve academic performance. "Calming children down, knowing the stress that they live in, gives them a tool for the rest of their lives.” She added that her group conducted studies that revealed that such breaks resulted in a 25 percent reduction in aggression. “It’s all about the environment.”

Expressing doubt over the concept that standardized tests are the answer to schools’ current troubles -- and emphasizing the importance of emotional and social learning techniques -- Cantor said, “We all know kids, especially who have grown up in poverty, are not ready to reach those [testing] standards. What it takes to create a safe and calm school is what it takes to create a high-performing school. All of this we’re talking about is essential for giving kids a way to tackle the things that frustrate them.”

She continued, “First, you have to get real help to the 15 percent of kids that are running the building, [ringleaders who are] negatively charismatic. And then you have to get training to all of the adults -- it’s gotta be everybody -- with the tools to diffuse disruption.”

The group looked at the concepts of punishment for misbehaving kids by way of suspension, removal from the classroom or otherwise isolating them from the rest of the student body, and agreed that these measures often only serve to further impede kids’ chances of relating healthily in their social spheres. “If you’ve got kids that are [already] not doing well socially, why would you move them away?” asked Dr. Peter DeWitt, the principal of Poestenkill Elementary School in New York.

Dr. Meria Joel Carstarphen, superintendent of the Austin Independent School District in Texas, acknowledged that you cannot teach a kid if he’s not in class, and the more kids are removed from class, “the more they’ll become disenfranchised, they won’t learn. When we teach students to be more self aware, work better with others and make better decisions, then our students are able to self-regulate in the classroom.”

So what's the take away from all this? A need for a national movement that focuses on the whole child, not just academics, apparently.

“I want to say to our country that we can’t do this alone. In order for us to do this, we need a national movement,” Carstarphen said. “Right now Congress can make a difference. We’re better off investing in things like this [emotional and social learning techniques] than more tests that aren’t getting us to where we want to be as a country.”

Hawn said, “We have to look at our whole child, not just the school itself. We need programs that deal with well-being and mental health.” DeWitt echoed, “We need to stop focusing just on the academic piece, because we do have to worry about the social and emotional piece.” 

Alesandra Dubin is a Los Angeles-based writer and the founder of home and travel blog Homebody in Motion. Follow her on FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter.

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