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Manchester Schools Implement Social Emotional Learning Programs

Social Emotional Learning/Mindfulness Initiatives Presented at BOE Meeting

As both students and teachers experience ever-increasing stress in our fast-paced world, schools are turning to a new focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness. These programs help students focus on learning, manage their emotions, and become responsible citizens. Manchester Township Public Schools are implementing a number of SEL initiatives at all levels, as explained by members of the district’s curriculum department at the September 18, 2019 Board of Education meeting. 

Curriculum department members present to BOE

Director of Curriculum, Diane Pedroza, told the board that a district needs assessment and other feedback from staff indicated a need for additional resources in the areas of social emotional learning and mindfulness. Expanding social emotional learning opportunities is a district and superintendent goal for this year. Pedroza said her team worked with principals to come up with ways to connect what they are currently doing with SEL and to increase it to a higher level. 

Linda Saraceno, HS/MS Supervisor of English and Social Studies, explained the NJ Department of Education definition of social and emotional learning, which states that SEL helps students understand and manage emotions; set and achieve positive goals; feel and show empathy for others, and make responsible decisions.  Students in SEL programs are more likely to attend school and receive better grades and are less likely to have conduct problems.  

Benefits of SEL

Saraceno said that the NJDOE has set the following competencies for SEL: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Responsible Decision-Making, and Relationship Skills. These competencies, she said, closely align with the existing NJDOE Career Ready practices, including acting as a responsible citizen and employee, using critical thinking, modeling integrity, and ethical leadership, and working productively in teams.

Social-emotional learning programs also support the use of federal Title IV program, said Maureen Moore, HS/MS Supervisor of Math and Science. Title IV provides funding for the purpose of offering a well-rounded education and fostering safe, healthy, supportive, and drug-free environments; implementing mental health awareness training programs; and expanding access to or coordinating resources for school-based counseling and mental health programs. 
Pedroza said the district receives over $36,000 in funding from Title IV and they must align the programs they implement with the requirements of the grant, the needs assessment, and the needs of students.

Michelle Nichol, Elementary Supervisor, said that all of the schools have incorporated mindfulness activities over the past year or so. “The teachers have really bought into this concept of becoming mindful for both themselves and for teaching their students to be mindful as they increasingly come across more challenging academic standards. We’re also seeing different kinds of behaviors in our classrooms and teachers are always looking for these kinds of tools.”

The Mindful Classroom title with photo of students doing relaxation exercise

Nichol said that they researched several providers and collaboratively decided on Sarah Stevenson’s Mindful Educational Service, which came highly recommended by Point Pleasant schools. Stevenson is a Certified Teacher with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Her program brings mindful tools through breath, movement and mindful awareness techniques to staff, students and administration. She will provide professional development trainings and student assemblies at the elementary and middle school level.

At the elementary schools, staff will get a 2-hour mindfulness presentation on the October 14 in-service day, there will be grade-level assemblies to teach mindfulness techniques, and a parent night is scheduled in February for both the elementary and middle school parents. Students will learn breath, movement and mindful awareness practices appropriate to their age groups.


The Affirmative Classroom Training title slide

At the middle school, the Stevenson program is called The Affirmative Classroom. Saraceno said that the Middle school staff had an introductory training on September 4 and will get a two-hour training on October 14, then a 90-minute staff check-in in February to provide additional followup support. Saraceno said that the feedback from teachers was exceedingly positive with comments including ‘very helpful for the classroom,’ ‘easy to implement at all levels,’ and ‘very necessary considering the need to combat increased anxiety in schools both with students and teachers.’

For middle school students, Wellness Wednesdays are scheduled six times throughout the school year for Affirmative Classroom lessons, followed up by a 5-8 minute mini-lesson each Monday. These lessons will be taught in physical education classes. The first Wellness Wednesday was held on September 18 and Saraceno said the students responded very well and were very engaged in the activities.

The high school already has a building goal ‘to continue to increase staff awareness of social and economic factors that affect student achievement such as social/emotional learning and mindfulness, trauma, substance abuse, and mental health.’ Among the components of their plan are programs in guidance, peer leadership, multicultural committee, and other clubs, presenters for staff and students, yoga and physical fitness, and the substance abuse curriculum and counselor.

Board of Education President, Jackie Bermudez, remarked that the NJ School Boards Association has been promoting the implementation of social-emotional learning. “To see Manchester actually doing it is wonderful because there are a lot of school districts within the state of New Jersey that have nothing...we should be very proud of what the district is doing.” said Bermudez. “Social-emotional learning is not a program, it’s a process, and we’re doing it as a process, which is wonderful.”