Give kids a strong start with social-emotional learning

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Age-appropriate lessons, from pre-K through high school

It’s tougher growing up nowadays. It's not enough for schools to focus solely on academics; we must also give kids the social and emotional skills they need

It’s tougher growing up nowadays. It’s not enough for schools to focus solely on academics; we must also give kids the social and emotional skills they need

You’ve seen firsthand how even the most carefully planned lessons can go awry when your students encounter social situations or experience feelings they don’t have the tools to manage. Suppose there was a way to teach students social-emotional skills such as empathy, anger management, stress reduction, and impulse control without compromising their academic learning or placing undue stress on yourself? As it turns out, there is!

Social-emotional learning programs such as the Strong Kids series provide everything teachers need to deliver evidenced-based, easily implemented, affordable, and age-appropriate SEL instruction with no additional training and very little prep time. There’s a Strong Kids curriculum for every grade level from Pre-K through high school.

Using a variety of engaging, multisensory activities, Strong Kids helps children and young people identify their own feelings and the feelings of others and teaches healthy strategies for managing anger, reducing stress, and solving interpersonal problems. In the series’ second editions, each lesson is explicitly linked to one or more of the five social emotional competencies identified by CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning)—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship development, and responsible decision-making.

Semi-scripted, highly structured lessons

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In an age where everything is digitized, Strong Kids is refreshingly low-tech. To get started, all you need is the Strong Kids manual designed for your students’ grade level. The curricula are semi-scripted and highly structured, making them easy for anyone to implement. What’s more, instructors are welcome to download, print, or photocopy all of the worksheets, supplements, and family bulletins, that can be found in the books.

Each Strong Kids program encompasses 10–12 lessons to be presented once a week. Topics (adjusted for grade level) include:

  • Understanding Your Feelings
  • Understanding Other People’s Feelings
  • When You’re Happy
  • When You’re Worried
  • Dealing with Anger
  • Being a Good Friend
  • Solving People Problems
  • Letting Go of Stress

For children in the younger grades, Henry, a stuffed bear and class mascot, engages the children and reminds them to practice behaviors learned in their Strong Start lessons; each lesson includes a 10-minute story time. For all levels, book suggestions are available, and instructors can choose their own favorite books that relate to the week’s lesson. Booster lesson plans at the back of the manual are recommended to reinforce learning once the curriculum has been completed.

Evidence based and teacher tested

Certified school psychologist Paul Caldarella, Ph.D., and research coordinator Leslie Williams of Brigham Young University’s David O. McKay School of Education worked together on Strong Kids testing. Caldarella says that SEL instruction is necessary for today’s students, even those as young as pre-school age.

“It’s tougher growing up nowadays. We’ve seen a rise in the number of kids being diagnosed with anxiety and depression and there’s more stress on families. It’s not enough for schools to focus solely on academics,” Caldarella says. “If we don’t help kids learn the social-emotional skills they need, they are more likely to have difficulties later in life.”

Caldarella is especially pleased by the improvement he and his colleagues have documented in students with internalizing symptoms associated with anxiety and depression who have participated in Strong Kids.

“It is so important for kids to have the vocabulary to express feelings rather than just reacting to them,” says Williams, whose master’s thesis was titled “Social and Emotional Learning in Preschool: An Evaluation of Strong Start Pre-K.”

Williams finds Strong Start easy to implement and likes the fact that classroom teachers themselves are teaching the curriculum because it enables them to reinforce learning as social emotional issues inevitably arise in class.

For example, says Williams, “Say two kids get into an argument and one kid is starting to get angry. The teacher can bring awareness to the feelings the kid may be having because they’ve just talked about it during the lesson. Maybe the teacher says, ‘I can see you’re starting to get angry. Is your body feeling warm? Are your muscles feeling tense? Let’s practice one of skills we learned today.”

Suzanne Salmo, a social worker who works at United Services for Children, has used Strong Start with her preschool sibling group.

“What we’ve seen over the last few years is that kids have both behavioral issues and social emotional issues,” she says. “They just don’t know how to self-regulate.”

All in One

The curriculum builds from week to week. Unlike other curricula, Strong Kids offers all of the components you need in one program
Salmo is especially pleased that the young children in her group bring home the lessons they learn from Strong Start.  After teaching the lesson When You’re Worried, Salmo had her students make worry dolls.

“There was a little girl in my group who had been worrying a lot. Not only did she use her worry doll at home, she explained its purpose to the whole family!”

Salmo has also seen children make good use of Strong Start strategies such as the Stop, Count, Breathe In, Breathe Out technique when they are worried or angry. She loves the way the curriculum builds from week to week and says that unlike other curricula she has tried, Strong Start offers all of the components she needs in one program.

SEL gains traction

It’s been over 30 years since psychologist Daniel Goleman published his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. The book took the world by storm and changed our understanding of what it takes to succeed in school, at work, and in relationships. The book’s lessons were not lost on psychologists and educators. As research on emotional intelligence continued, organizations like CASEL began performing their own research and working to raise awareness about the need for SEL instruction in schools.

Research documented by CASEL has shown that when SEL programs adhere to best practices, they “promote students’ self-awareness, self- management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making skills” as well as “improv[e] student attitudes and beliefs about self, others, and school.”

In the long term, says CASEL, these skills “provide a foundation for better adjustment and academic performance and are reflected in more positive social behaviors and peer relationships, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved grades and test scores.”

Originally published: May 2016