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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Minding Manners, Having Heart

Two challenged schools find ways to teach both responsibility and kindness.

An unusual sight greets visitors to Russian Jack Elementary, a Title I school in a diverse neighborhood in Anchorage, Alaska. Just outside the cafeteria is a round table, bedecked with a cheerful tablecloth, floral centerpiece, and colorful napkins. A sign proclaims that this is the Manners Café, and in contrast to the controlled chaos next door, this lunchtime setting is reminiscent of an upscale bistro. Each day, a different group of students shares polite conversation and brushes up on table manners here with the school's full-time social skills tutor.
Focusing on respectful conversation and social niceties may seem to go against the grain in an era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and accountability. But some would argue that addressing social and economic differences among students is at the heart of NCLB. And a growing body of evidence supports the idea that social-emotional learning (or helping children develop self-management, social awareness, and relationship skills) positively affects academic performance. Zins, Weissberg, Wang, and Walberg (2004) found that social-emotional learning improved academic motivation and commitment, school attendance, study habits, and achievement, and Durlak and colleagues' meta-analysis found that it improved students' attitudes toward school and decreased negative behaviors (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). Wang, Haertel, and Walberg (1997) reviewed evidence from more than 300 sources and concluded that social and emotional factors were among the most influential factors in student learning.
We describe here two schools that focus on students' social-emotional learning and meet their social needs in creative ways, from offering a fun setting for conversation skills to providing a hot shower and clean clothes. These snapshots of respectful, caring environments are drawn from our visits to schools throughout the northwestern United States to document best practices for Education Northwest, a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance, research, and development to schools.

Russian Jack Elementary: Supplying Hope

It's lunch hour at Russian Jack, and the Manners Café is in full swing. Each day, five or six students carry their trays to this cozy spot and join social skills tutor Susan Conlin for a sociable lunch. Conlin makes sure each child has at least one opportunity to visit the café during the school year. Although she works her way through the class rosters, she tries to remain flexible to accommodate any student who's referred to Manners Café (by a teacher, lunchtime staff, or even another student) or who needs immediate attention. "As children file into the cafeteria, it's easy for me to notice tears, conflict, a grumpy face, or an exuberant moment worth celebrating," Conlin says. The school, which has a 28 percent mobility rate, puts priority on welcoming new students. Conlin and her fellow teachers encourage new students to invite a few of their classmates to the café to get to know them.
Conlin passes out napkins, reminding her 6-year-old companions that they can drape them over their shirts or lay them on their laps. She asks, "Can I have some manners words here?" Alexa pipes up with "thank you." Jarel says the folded napkin reminds him of a boat, which prompts Conlin to ask if anyone at the table has been in a boat. Jarel recounts a boat ride in his native Laos, and Alexa offers that she's traveled in an airplane.
While the children tuck into chicken nuggets and rice, Conlin poses an intriguing question: "If you could catch a falling star, what would you do with it?" Xavier replies that he'd "stick it on the wall." The others suggest placing it on top of the television, adding it to a star collection, or keeping it safe in a special case. That leads Conlin to ask, "If the star were an award, what would you get it for?" Each child thoughtfully considers the question before answering. Jarel thinks he might deserve a star for playing nicely in the park, whereas Alexa proudly states that she runs fast. When Xavier has trouble thinking of something that's star-worthy, the others point out that he's good at helping his friends.
Manners Café offers students an opportunity to experience the natural give-and-take of conversation without having to raise their hands. It's also a time, Conlin says, when children see others valuing their opinions and a time that helps them think about what makes them and their peers special. On those rare occasions when problems arise during the meeting, Conlin models how to resolve differences through civil discourse. She explains,It's hard to stay mad and sad when you break bread together, share stories, laugh, and really listen to one another. I can use [Manners Café] as a teachable moment. In the scope of a day that's packed with mandatory things, the humanity of this experience is so pure and spontaneous. That gives me hope.
Hope may be in short supply among some families connected to Russian Jack, which serves 400 children from prekindergarten to 5th grade. Approximately 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; and 88 percent are minority students, with the percentage of students from Alaska Native or American Indian; Latino; African American; and Asian backgrounds almost evenly divided. Some students are recent arrivals from Alaska Native villages; others have recently resettled from other countries. Many are rooted in the community but struggle with generational poverty.
Principal Sharon Story invests Title I money in Conlin's social skills position and those of a family/school coordinator and literacy and math specialists. "Working together with parents, many of whom struggle to survive from day to day," she says, "we make it a priority to give each child a safe and caring environment."
That priority is carried out not only through traditions like Manners Café, but also by providing students with emergency groceries, stocking a supply of new or used clothes for students in need, and inviting students to use a shower and washing machine at the school. Teachers display caring and respect through small gestures that teachers in any setting might replicate.
The school's motto—"Let's all remember to be respectful, responsible, safe, and kind"—is posted everywhere. Schoolwide displays, classroom routines, and teachers' language reinforce it. In Sara Cross's classroom, 2nd graders practice giving compliments in a free-association exercise during the morning circle time, an activity that's part of the Connected and Respected Curriculum in which the school trains each teacher. Meanwhile, kindergarten teacher Monica Plantikow Dudley keeps a red bucket handy. "If a student sees someone doing an act of kindness, they take a glass heart from this pile and put it in the bucket. When the bucket is full, we have a celebration," she explains.

Manitou Park Elementary: Becoming a Safe Haven

At Manitou Park Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, participation in the Compassionate Schools program helped turn a violent, hostile school climate into a safe haven. The program focuses on creating caring classrooms for students exposed to stress and trauma and encouraging compassionate attitudes among their teachers.
Manitou Park Elementary serves a racially and ethnically diverse group of 600 students, preK through 5th grade. The neighborhood has a crime rate more than double the state average. In the past, gang activity and fighting, both in school and on the bus, frequently carried over to this school from the nearby middle and high school. When Principal Mary Wilson took the helm in fall 2006, police were a common sight at Manitou Park. "I had gangs out on the playground after hours [and] the fights between our own students were not just pushing and punching—they were full-on assaults," she recalls. Wilson found a body on the playground when she arrived for work one day.
Many students weren't ready to learn when they showed up at school because of physical factors—hunger, inadequate clothing, or lack of health care—or mental and emotional traumas more difficult to detect. The children's home situations involved grim realities; some were homeless, some were victims of abuse, some had parents active in gangs or struggling with addiction. Teachers often spent more time managing classrooms than teaching lessons.
The situation began to turn around in 2008 when Manitou Park was invited by the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to take part in a pilot project implementing the Compassionate Schools framework for instruction. Staff members received professional development in understanding the day-to-day realities and emotional lives of their students. Although the training included specific techniques, the main focus was informing staff members about the kind of lives Manitou Park students and families experience and about issues associated with children who've known trauma, to help change teachers' attitudes. As Wilson puts it,<BQ>These kids are dealing with things that were not how I, or most of my staff, grew up. Unless you've lived it, you can't use your own experience as a model for how to deal with, interact with, or understand a child [who's] been abused or is living in deep poverty, or has dealt with a truly traumatic experience. But you can…learn how to be aware of and attentive to that child's needs.</BQ>
Of course, empathy alone is not enough. The school also adopted a behavior modification strategy called Calming Curriculum and a building and classroom management model called CHAMPS (Conversation, Help, Activity, Movement, and Participation). The Calming Curriculum addresses how staff and students treat one another.
CHAMPS is similar to Positive Behavioral Supports and incorporates student/adult agreements about how behavior should look throughout the school—in the hallways, cafeteria, and playground and during assemblies. Students help develop questions—such as, What will the classroom environment look like when [the teacher] is instructing? When we're taking a test?—and come to an agreement on the answers. All students in the building sign an agreement to follow the behaviors implied by these set answers. Consequently, they become clear about the resulting school and classroom guidelines. Wilson believes that many of the previous discipline problems emerged because students had no experience with correct behavior in a school setting—even things as basic as not talking when the teacher or a peer is talking—and simply didn't know what was expected.
We have witnessed CHAMPS in action. For example, during one school visit we saw a line of students walking down the hall; two boys kept jumping out of line to weave through the bars on a stairwell. The teacher stopped the line and calmly asked the boys, "How do we walk in the hallways?" They answered in unison and got back in line without any trouble.
Walking the hallways and visiting classrooms at Manitou Park now, visitors would hardly recognize the chaotic, frequently hostile place it was a few years ago. Some changes are easy to measure, such as drastically reduced suspensions and disciplinary actions. Others are more subtle.
"The biggest change…is how the staff speaks to children now," claims Principal Wilson. "They have always cared deeply for these kids, but you can see a difference in the way they interact with them now. They're less reactive, more proactive, and preventative."

Broadening the Reach

Practices like those described here may become commonplace as the push for social-emotional learning gains traction. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, every state in the United States has at least one standard on the books for "personal" development and one for "social" development. Although Illinois currently is the only state with comprehensive, freestanding social-emotional learning goals and benchmarks, at least four other states—Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, and Kansas—are moving in that direction. Down the road, the Manners Café may not be an anomaly.

Durlak, J. A. , Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., &amp; Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Wang, M. C., Haertel, G. D., &amp; Walberg, H. J. (1997). Learning influences. In H. J. Walberg &amp; G. D. Haertel (Eds.), Psychology and educational practice (pp. 199–211). Berkeley, CA: McCatchan.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., &amp; Walberg, H. J. (Eds). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

End Notes

1 A free, 246-page handbook that introduces educators to Compassionate Schools and provides guidance on how to support students facing chronic stress and trauma is available from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State.

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