By Sam Uzwack, Associate Head of School for Middle School and Student Support Services
One of our core educational beliefs at Eastside Prep is that in order for students to achieve maximum academic success, they must understand themselves as people and feel a strong sense of belonging to our community. This is why our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program, under the direction of our Student Well-Being Team, is such a critical component of the overall EPS education. Given that this is such a broad array of skills and topical areas, EPS has worked for years with the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL) to develop a program that both reflects our school’s values and works within our structures. As with all things EPS, this is not an off-the-shelf curriculum; it is a constantly evolving series of lessons and experiences that mirror our students’ developmental milestones.
The Middle School years have the developmental distinction of being the most rapid period of growth (emotionally, physically, cognitively) than any other time period besides birth to toddlerhood. As such, our program needs to be laser-focused on each grade level and must build coherently year after year.
But before we dive into the specifics of the program details, let’s establish some shared vocabulary. From the IFSEL website:
- Social Emotional Learning is “the process through which people learn to recognize and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships, and avoid negative behaviors.”
- It can be divided into two broad categories: intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.
- Intrapersonal skills include self-awareness and self-management
- Interpersonal skills include social-awareness and relationship-management
- Overlapping both domains is personal decision-making
For instance: you are working on a team project and you are frustrated by the fact that your teammates don’t like your (obviously) incredible idea. Recognizing the emotion you are feeling and managing it are intrapersonal skills. Communicating constructively with your team and working out a resolution so the project can move forward—those are interpersonal skills. Whether it involves a theatre ensemble, volleyball team, First Lego League team, or group research project, these skills are necessary in every domain of school life and beyond. Hence our focus on them. We can all think back to moments in our school, work, and personal lives in which the above example did not go as smoothly as we perhaps wanted.
It is also important to note the importance of understanding one’s own identity in all its complexity, as well as understanding the wide array of identities represented within our school and broader society. This is why our SEL program, coupled with our Equity and Inclusion programming, has a heavy emphasis on identity as students work on both self and social awareness.
Now that we have established an overall framework, let’s look at how this is lived at each grade level in the Middle School. While the majority of SEL instruction takes place during Advisory and class meetings, we continue to work to integrate SEL skills into the classroom. (Special thanks to faculty members Mike Anderson, Anthony Colello, Allison Luhrs, and Karen Mills for their work on these summaries.)
Fifth grade is a transformational year for students and parents/guardians as they enter the EPS community. Students arrive at EPS having experienced many different learning environments and must adjust to the expectations of a Middle School program. The goal of our fifth-grade Advisory and SEL programs is to foster a strong sense of belonging that simultaneously celebrates those diverse experiences, while also defining what it means to be part of the
In the first trimester, we focus on onboarding both our students and parents to the EPS experience. Every aspect of school is new for our students at this point, so our Advisory program is designed to provide guidance on our school’s norms and systems. In order for students to fully understand how they fit into our community, they must first understand themselves; therefore, our SEL program centers on developing self-awareness. In addition, we host a three-night New Parent Series during the fall that is designed to both distribute information and build relationships within our parent community.
In the second trimester, the students have developed a strong sense of how school works on a daily basis, so our attention shifts to community building. We ask the students to think deeply about the type of community that they wish to be a part of and stress the importance of treating each other every day with respect and kindness. As our students become more comfortable with each other, it is natural for conflicts to arise. Given this reality, our SEL program focuses on self-regulation skills and conflict resolution. We work hard to equip our students with the skills they need to manage their own relationships.
In the last trimester, we place added emphasis on one’s role within the broader community. We ask our fifth graders to think about the culture that they have helped to create to that point in the year, and to ponder how they might integrate their new sixth-grade classmates into it in the fall. The SEL and Advisory programming seeks to empower the students to become stewards of the community that they have helped
Sixth grade is a special year because we welcome eighteen new students into the class. The goal of the sixth-grade Advisory program is integration. We break down this concept into three phases—self, class, and community—that we explore throughout the year. We also invite adults from various offices/disciplines to introduce themselves at our class meetings to promote a sense of community and safety at EPS.
In the first trimester, we focus on self. This includes self-management and self-awareness. We use activities that help students get to know themselves. How well are they able to talk about their emotions? How do they typically lead or follow? How do they cope with silence and relaxation? For example, we use silent drawing activities, gratitude journaling, and check-ins with the students to have them reflect on their unique character traits. The counselors work with the class on recognizing strengths in oneself and in others.
In the second trimester, we focus on friendships and being a part of the class as a whole. We talk about boundaries and how to communicate those preferences to others. We help create shared language around boundaries.
In the third trimester, we focus on the entire EPS community, where we look at the sixth grade as part of the whole school. How do sixth graders fit in? How can they contribute to making our community better?
The focus of the seventh-grade Advisory program is the concept of community. In the creation of a healthy community, one must first recognize and inhabit their own identities and explore what their place is within a larger group. From there, students examine the inherent power dynamics within a large group and how those dynamics impact the membership and safety of community. Ultimately, the goal is to arrive at belonging and how we can create a community at EPS in which everyone belongs and can be their best, authentic selves.
Aspects of community examined include honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage.
From a developmental perspective, the theme of community is important in that seventh grade is a year in which social divides can be at their peak, as students begin to explore their identity in their quest for independence. In an effort to recognize these divides, the Advisory program works toward a common understanding and respect for all within the seventh grade, Middle School, and the whole of EPS.
In eighth grade, the Advisory program focuses on three main concepts: leadership, positive management of stress and anxiety, and the transition to Upper School. As the oldest members of the Middle School, eighth graders are seen as the natural leaders and they are ready to both study leadership and enact it in small and big ways. They examine their individual strengths as leaders and choose ways to embrace and enhance their leadership skills within the EPS community. They learn strategies for handling increased workloads and extracurricular demands with stress and anxiety reduction techniques that help prepare them for their move to the Upper School.
Leadership: Toward the beginning of the year, advisees look at leadership as products of enthusiasm and hard work; they are asked to reflect on where their enthusiasm lies, for that is where they will be the most productive in creating positive change. They bring their studies of compassionate leadership from Literary Thinking and Historical Thinking into the Advisory program and cap off their year by planning a two-day retreat where they are able to celebrate their successes as a grade full of diverse leaders.
Positive Management of Stress and Anxiety: Students practice guided meditation and breathing techniques; they learn about the importance of various kinds of rest and exercise; they hear from the school counselors about ways to deal productively with anxiety; and they focus on time management, self-advocacy, and personal goal-setting as ways to avoid or reduce stress.
Transition to Upper School: As the year progresses, students gain exposure to the Upper School and process what it means to move up in our school. They visit Upper School classes, hear from a panel of older students, and receive guidance on registering for their first year of Upper School classes.
As you read through these brief summaries, hopefully a few things emerge. SEL is as much a process of learning as it is a tangible learning target. It is incredibly personal work and requires a great deal of trust. And in order to create that trust, the relationships between our students and faculty must be strong, vital, and absolutely based on reciprocal respect.
Once again, as with everything at EPS, it is all about the relationship.
Postscript: in order to continue to develop our SEL program, nine faculty members from our Upper and Middle School attended an IFSEL workshop last summer to deepen their skills and to bring content back to the rest of the faculty