Celebrating good behavior

Social emotional learning a core ingredient to the overall experience at Park Side

Photos by Jenny Kirk Park Side Elementary Principal Darci Love talks about some tough issues recently and how the school district is responding to the ongoing challenges.

MARSHALL — There are several signs that displaying good character and positive behavior are not only encouraged and expected, but that are also celebrated at Park Side Elementary School. That effort is part of a deliberate plan in response to the increased and ongoing needs of young students today.

One sign suggested students do the right thing even when no one is looking, while another poster board highlighted respectful, responsible and safe behaviors. A Tiger tower filled with tickets dropped in by students who were rewarded for displaying good behavior can also be seen outside the office.

But perhaps the biggest sign was a random one that came from a first-grade girl walking down the hallway.

“You look beautiful today, Mrs. Love,” the girl said as Park Side Principal Darci Love passed by her with a smile on her face.

A lot has changed over the years when it comes to children’s mental health and behavior issues, and it’s the reason why schools like Park Side are now teaching the students more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Marshall Public School Board members recently learned from Love how alarming the nationwide statistics really are — 18-20 percent of students have mental health issues significant enough to cause impairment to major life function — and sadly, only 5 percent reportedly receive the necessary services.

“Society has just changed,” Love said. “Our world has changed and it’s our obligation to be responsive to that. We talk about things that are within our control and (the increase in children’s mental health needs) is not one of them. What we do have control over is how we intervene and help those kids.”

This year marks the third that social emotional learning has been a core ingredient to the overall experience at Park Side.

“It’s about being responsive to what the student needs are, but also thinking differently about behavior, too,” Love said.

“It used to be that a consequence would teach some of those things — society had built in some of those ways of learning self-regulation skills — but not it’s just different. Our kids are growing up in a society where everything is immediate. There’s no delayed gratification and so those self-regulation skills aren’t automatically embedded anymore.”

Love said people used to have more down time and typically had to wait between episodes of a soap opera or favorite cartoon for example, but that nowadays, a person could watch an entire season within a few days.

“When you think back to our childhood and school experiences, it was a lot different than it is today,” she said. “It wasn’t instantaneously for us and there wasn’t that immediate gratification. You had to plan ahead. You had to wait until it came on. Even though you wanted to know what happened in the next episode, you didn’t get to know until the next week. And we no longer have to do that.”

As a result of children requiring a lot of stimulation nowadays, Love said educators are seeing a huge gap with those self-regulating skills — like reading a book or sitting quietly while riding in a vehicle for example — that society previously had built in.

“Now we’re quick to give kids an iPad or a video, so they’re constantly being entertained,” Love said.

Love said there are also a lot more kids who are coming to school with childhood traumas, nutritional issues and a variety of other needs. The social emotional learning attempts to meet those challenges head on.

“Before, we would wait until we see a student struggling and then we’d provide that intervention with a school counselor or Greater Minnesota services and so now what we’re trying to do is provide some of those foundational social emotional skills up front,” Love said.

Love acknowledged that academics are very important, but said that social emotional learning is equally valuable.

“We do a very good job of preparing our students academically, but really, a successful learning environment is teachers knowing their curriculum and content, but also knowing about classroom management and how to help our students be successful socially and emotionally is just as important,” Love said. “If you don’t have that, it’s really hard to ever get any good results academically.”

Gayle Chandler currently serves as Park Side’s social emotional teacher for the K-2 students.

“It’s just more than what a classroom teacher can do individually,” Love said. “We really want there to be continuity and consistency at the K-2 level and we’re working to get that K-4 and beyond. We’re giving them a solid foundation of those expectations, so there’s consistency from one classroom to another, one grade to another, so it’s the same wherever you go in the building.”

Chandler sees each class twice a month for approximately 30 minutes. She spends a good portion of time on Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS), Whole Body Listening and the Zones of Regulation.

“We just know more about how kids learn and how they develop,” Love said. “there is a need to help kids learn how to self-regulate and teach them how to identify their feelings and to talk about their feelings.

“One of the things I often ask our kiddos is if it’s OK to be mad. Oftentimes, they say, ‘No.’ I tell them ‘It’s OK to be mad and it’s OK to be sad, but you still need to be in control of your body.'”

Love said PBIS gives some very clear expectations for behavior throughout the whole building at Park Side.

“It’s the same expectations in the hallways, the playground, on the bus, in the lunchroom and in the classroom,” she said. “Once we provide that, then we start working on what Whole Body Listening looks like. So when I’m in the classroom, what does Whole Body Listening look like? We spend time giving them those skills and tools.”

Love said the Zones of Regulation basically helps students identify what zone they are in, with red, yellow, green and blue representing the four different zones.

“We talk about what tools they need when they’re in the red zone,” Love said. “What are the tools you need to feel better? What are the tools you need when you are sad, to help yourself feel better? Do you need to tell an adult? Do you need to take a break? Do you need to take some deep breaths?

“It’s really just trying to help them understand their own bodies and their own feelings and how they can be successful and make their day here better.”

Chandler also spends time working on more specific issues with students, in either whole-classroom or small-group settings.

“If a classroom is struggling with some friendships, then she would go in and talk to the class about being a good friend and what that looks like,” Love said. “If a number of kiddos have been identified, they might also benefit from small group things. We may have one who is struggling, but two or three who have good skills, so we partner them in that way.”

Love is quick to acknowledge that better results are obtained from positive reinforcement. PBIS — including the ticket tower and reward system — has repeatedly shown that.

“I can give a consequence, but I can’t consequence students into better behavior,” Love said. “Consequences don’t teach skills. Consequences are appropriate at times and necessary at times, however, what is really important is that we identify what is the skills and then how are we going to teach that skill?”

Love noted that kids oftentimes get de-sensitized to negative responses to behavior.

“If you’re yelling or saying, ‘Shh,’ a lot, pretty soon the kids will tune that out. But what they do respond to is, ‘Oh, my gosh. Look how nicely you’re sitting. You’re so quiet. Here’s a Tiger ticket for you.’ So now, four of them just heard that and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘I want a Tiger ticket.’ That’s going to correct their behavior much quicker than if I said to be quiet.”

Part of the positive role modeling effort includes letting the young students know that it’s important to be accountable for their actions, but that it’s also understandable that they’ll make mistakes sometimes.

“It’s always important, even as a parent, to encourage positive behavior and try to decide how to respond to the other kind,” Love said. “We have to keep in mind, too, that these are 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children. They’re still learning, so we can’t expect them to be perfect or to never make a mistake. And we talk about that — that you can make a mistake. We also talk about what ‘I’m sorry’ means. ‘I’m sorry’ means that you feel bad and you’re going to try really hard to never do that again.”

Compassion and empathy are among the life skills taught, though the lesson might look differently from classroom to classroom. Long-term sub Kathy Orthaus, who retired after teaching for 38 years in the MPS District and more than 45 years overall, sparked the concept by reading a book to kindergarten students shortly before Christmas break. She then asked them to make a wish for something in the world.

“They wished for peace, shoes or a house — things for the world — because we read a story about a little girl who was really poor and didn’t have a Christmas,” Orthaus said. “Then they all wrote what they wished for. It was really neat.”

The responses were colorfully displayed on the wall. While one student wished that all people would have beds, another wished that everyone would have friends. Others wished everyone would have shelter, food or jackets. One girl wished for all people to be happy. A young boy wished for his sister to get better.

“This is the opportunity to be most influential, to have the biggest impact,” Love said.

With research backing that up, Love said it makes sense to think of spending money on young students as a good investment.

“We are investing in their future and our future, whereas once some get older and start in the legal system and things like that, now it’s an expense,” she said.

“That’s when you’re never going to get any return on the money there. (By helping them become productive members of society), we’re investing in not having to spend that money when they’re older.”

When the social emotional learning concept first began to take hold during the 2016-17 school year, Counselor Deann Reese helped develop and select the curriculum as well as work on scheduling. The next year, Brittany Majusiak refined the schedules and incorporated Zone of Regulation and Whole Body Listening into the effort. This year, Stimulating Maturity through Advanced Readiness Training (SMART) was added to the curriculum Chandler teaches.

“I did write a grant through the state that provides some matching funds for all of this,” Love said. “The social emotional teacher is really at the core of all of this. Then we have interventions like the school counselor or Greater Minnesota that might step in when there are issues beyond what we’re able to handle with small-group or with that whole-group instruction. I know parents always want what’s best for their children, so we just want to encourage — there’s never any judgment — everyone to partner together to do what’s best for the kiddos.”