School teaching social skills that pay off in other areas

Saturday, January 5, 2008
Fourth-graders Lauren Kimberly and Megan Saylor cut one-foot lengths of string that will be used to assemble "peace balls" Friday at Alma Schrader Elementary School. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Any teacher can walk into a classroom at Alma Schrader Elementary and say they need to see the class in Pay Attention Pedro. Heads will snap up, eyes will fixate on the speaker and mouths will close.

Likewise, students know how to demonstrate the Listening Lucinda position, and they can emulate Completing Work Wyatt.

Three years ago, teachers sat down and spent three full in-service days to envision the future of the school. Teachers agreed they needed common expectations and that they valued respect, good citizenship and responsibility.

A bigger focus was placed on character education, or social skills programs.

Students are now inundated with messages about positive behavior, starting from the moment they step in the door, where an oversized poster greats them with: "Character takes courage. It requires doing what's right, not what's easy or popular."

Two fourth-graders cut lengths of yarn that will be used to make "peace balls" Friday at Alma Schrader Elementary. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Throughout the halls, signs remind students to use self-control, to do what you say you will do and to accept the consequences of choices.

Expectations of how to act were unified throughout the school and have been ingrained in the students to the extent they now use the language, as in "I was not using an appropriate voice tone" or "I was not showing trustworthiness," according to principal Ruth Ann Orr.

While some parents may balk at the idea of a school stressing social skills, new research indicates a positive relationship between teaching character education and academic performance, something counselors said they already knew: It pays academically to take time to teach social and emotional skills.

The study, expected to be released early this year, was sponsored by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which analyzed 207 studies and presented its findings at a Dec. 10 meeting in New York, Education Week reported.

Orr said Alma Schrader has reaped the benefits from its multifaceted counseling curriculum: Office referrals are down, students know exactly what is expected of them and, ultimately, the school's test scores are some of the highest in the district.

"Hopefully these lessons will travel with them as they grow to be independent citizens that are respectful, responsible, and really contribute to the community," said counselor Julia Unnerstall.

While Alma Schrader is hardly alone in stressing social skills, it is the only school in Cape Girardeau or Jackson to have all its teachers trained by CHARACTERplus, a project started in 1988 in St. Louis that helps schools develop a character education curriculum and program. Training at Alma Schrader began last fall and will be completed this month.

In most area schools, the guidance curriculum is taught entirely by the school counselor.

Missouri is ahead of most states, Unnerstall said, in setting state standards for guidance and counseling curriculum. Jackson schools closely align their curriculum, which is approved by the board, to the state grade-level expectations so as to not infringe on a parent's responsibilities, said Marcia Clark, a counselor at Orchard Elementary in Jackson.

"There is a fine line there, so that is why we go with the [state[']s] comprehensive guidance," she said.

Some parents objected in Cape Girardeau when the school board approved a plan to implement Preparing for Academic Success classes at the high school starting next school year.

In addition to career or college mentoring and tutoring, the PAS classes, to be required of all freshman, will include presentations about bullying, sexual harassment, dating relationships, manners, etiquette and social skills.

"I have a fourth-grader who is already a dedicated student taught to value his education. We, his parents, are the ones responsible for his character training and ensuring he is prepared to succeed in high school. This responsibility is not, and should not be, yours," parent Teri Goodman said at a school board meeting Nov. 19.

Central High principal Mike Cowan defends the program by saying employers think students are ready academically for the work force but lack "soft skills." Cowan hopes the program will not only increase the retention rate of freshman but will also better prepare students for life after high school.

Throughout the district, schools have the option of implementing or stressing different character education programs. Some focus more on the Six Pillars of Character, where a new moral value, such as fairness, is introduced each month, while others focus on the Boys Town Social Skills, which outline appropriate behavior.

Unnerstall uses a combination of programs, bringing puppets to present lessons on how to treat others, organizing peer mediators and conducting Good Citizens assemblies, where students are recognized for making good choices and community members discuss character qualities.

Because of the peer mediators, Orr said, "we don't have boys whose first reaction is to turn and punch someone" when an altercation arises on the playground.

Bullying is a significant issue Cape Girardeau schools are trying to address earlier, so when students from five elementary schools combine at the middle school, problems don't arise.

Unnerstall has a slew of activities planned for Bully Buster Week, starting Jan. 14.

Students deserve a safe school, said Robin Huffman, a counselor at Central Middle School.

"Better behaved or more responsible students are going to be more academically successful," she said.

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