Social Emotional Learning Across the District

  • MPCSD works hard to provide a strong foundation in core academic subjects, offer a breadth of specialist instruction in art, music, world language, and library/media skills, and provide a comprehensive array of electives choices for middle school students. Yet we also believe in developing well rounded individuals, so character and social emotional learning (SEL) is a top priority. We use the definition of SEL from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: SEL is the process by which "children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."
    Depending on your school site, you may see different approaches to embedding character development lessons into classroom and playground learning. Here we share a snapshot of some of the ways each campus teaches our students to be compassionate, helpful, independent, resilient, and all the other ways we hope our children grow as thoughtful and kind contributors to the world around them.


    New Games, New Friends at Encinal

    Graphic of children with sports balls Encinal offers a unique program to help students build friendships. Some students have difficulty communicating on the playground with their peers in appropriate ways. They may struggle with social skills, pragmatics, and developing and sustaining friendships. To address this, Encinal’s counselor Karin Bloom, Speech and Language Pathologist Jennifer Spreer, and PE teacher Amy Gee created New Games, an innovative lunchtime program in which selected second and third grade students develop social and positive communication skills through cooperative learning activities and games. Students engage with peers in a support environment as they develop and practice social interaction skills in authentic situations. Fifth grade student leaders facilitate small group instruction by leading stations, modeling appropriate social skills and providing ‘in the moment’ social coaching to participants. The social skills program is intentionally designed to take place in real time with real stressors and situations, with peer coaching rather than manufactured during structured counseling or speech therapy sessions in the classroom. Through New Games, students receive multiple opportunities to build confidence, develop conversational skills, sportsmanship, turn-taking skills, and flexibility. Children are also taught explicitly how to give positive feedback to their peers and practice this by giving ‘put ups’ to one another at the end of each session.


    Although developed as a way to teach younger students better interpersonal skills, a delightful side benefit of New Games has been the leadership opportunities it has given the fifth grade leaders. The 5th grade students provide unique and eclectic elements that could not be traditionally delivered in the general education setting. During weekly training and debriefing sessions to support the effectiveness of the fifth grade leaders, these mentor students have made insightful suggestions regarding groupings, activities, and the best ways to meet the ever-changing needs of our second and third grade students.


    The intention of New Games is improving student relationships and connectedness through improved communication skills, and results are evidenced by students with more friends out at recess, students who are now sitting with others at the lunch tables, and teachers sharing that a number of the students are now more confident and vocal members of their classes. A measured success of the program is when students come forward and say, “I want to play with my friends at recess” and their teachers know they have a group of peers waiting for them to come out and play. New Games has been an innovative way to approach the initial problem of how to help students make friends, and has turned into a model for how to develop compassion, leadership, inclusion, and collaboration among all students.


    New Games is currently being considered for a J. Russell Kent Exemplary Program Award from the San Mateo County Office of Education, which will help bring the successful model to more schools across the county.


    Laurel LifeSavers

    Laurel student shares his Character Trait certificate Throughout the year, Laurel focuses on 10 Life Skills as the foundation for its SEL work: respect, responsibility, friendship, generosity, self discipline, compassion, perseverance, acceptance, cooperation, and honesty. Goals of the Life Skills Program are to provide the foundation for personal and social growth in all students, teach the Life Skills through multicultural literature, and build a common language and camaraderie at Laurel School.  


    Each month, classroom teachers introduce one of the Life Skills for through a book. They discuss what that Life Skill looks like, sounds like, feels like, and how students can use that Life Skill at school and at home. Then students participate in classroom or school activities to help reinforce the Life Skill. Librarian Sheila Warren aligns some of her read alouds to further reinforce the month's Life Skill, too. Some examples of reading for specific traits are: The Sandwich Swap and It's Okay to Be Different for acceptance; The Invisible Boy, All Kinds of Friends, and My Secret Bully for friendship; Those Shoes, Maddi's Fridge, and The Mitten Tree for generosity; Sorry! and It Wasn't My Fault for responsibility.


    In order to strengthen the home-school connection and importance of using the Life Skills in all aspects of life, students also bring home a Life Skills Gram so parents have the opportunity to recognize their child for using the Life Skill of the month. Teachers share these completed Life Skills grams with their classes in a variety of ways, such as reading them aloud or displaying them on bulletin boards. The month concludes with counselor Ashley Guilliot visiting classrooms and awarding wristbands to students whom teachers have chosen as exemplifying the month’s Life Skill. These students are called Laurel LifeSavers! By the end of the year, each student will be recognized as a LifeSaver.


    On a daily basis, students who are observed practicing a Life Skill are given a ticket to enter a weekly drawing for the opportunity to choose rewards like such as lunch with Mrs. Creighton, lunch with a teacher and the class pet, yard duty with Mrs. Hom, a prize from the prize box, and more. With continuous focus on important traits that we hope all children will develop, the Laurel community weaves character education into all aspects of campus life.




    Embracing Our Differences at Oak Knoll

    Oak Knoll counselor and psychologist perform Embracing Our Differences puppet show Oak Knoll’s mission is that every student is an exemplary scholar, a valued friend, and a courageous citizen. One way the mental health support team has developed to foster opportunities for becoming a valued friend is through Embracing Our Differences Month, happening now in March. The idea for Embracing Our Differences was born out of lessons that a former parent shared around helping typical children understand what it is like for children with disabilities. Over the years, the program has been honed through experience, research, and evaluating the outcomes of the lessons. Now, the successful program is written by school counselor Nicole Scott and psychologist Jennifer Ryan, with input from teachers, parents, students, and developed into an entertaining puppet show script by professional writer and school parent Jennifer Ripley. The goal is to normalize something that might seem scary or off putting to children, and help children reach out as friends to all their peers.


    During Embracing Our Differences month, a certain disability is highlighted. The disability is explained through a puppet show performed in every class by Ms. Scott and Ms. Ryan. The skit not only portrays the disability in kid-appropriate language, but shows how other children can understand, befriend, help, and embrace people with the disability. Many times, a student who shares that disability is empowered to give their classmates a presentation on what it’s like. The children, even up through fifth grade, are very engaged with the puppet shows. Frequently, Oak Knoll also invites performing or visual artists who have the disability, speakers, or helpers like guide dogs for the blind, to show that with the right mindset any barriers can be overcome. This has led to more students with disabilities performing in talent shows, to everyone’s delight.


    The mental health support team intentionally chooses to highlight disabilities that current students have, so the awareness can be even more personal. Over the years, the program has highlighted Autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and hearing and vision problems. This month’s focus is Down Syndrome. One of the most insightful things the staff has learned over the years is that while the program was meant to encourage acceptance and inclusion among all students, the typical children have often learned that “we all have differences” and have learned to not only accept and befriend their peers with disabilities, but to accept themselves better, too. A child summed up the lesson one time by saying, “Everyone wants to be noticed, but in a good way.” The Oak Knoll staff has observed more compassionate acts, more kids stepping up to be leaders, and more authentic inclusion of all children on the playground, all of which contributes to the positive climate of the school. Embracing Our Differences may be one month a year, but it has made Oak Knoll a more welcoming place all year long.


    Embracing Our Differences earned a J. Russell Kent Exemplary Program Award from the San Mateo COunty Office of Education. Part of applying for this award is showing how other schools could replicate the program, helping bring successful ideas to more students throughout our county.


    Character Counts at Hillview

    A class of students at Hillview use a community circle to share about character education The Hillview administration believes that if our schools truly care about building relationships and creating a sense of belonging, they must carve out spaces that allow for this kind of interaction. In response to a trend of student survey data pointing to a decreased sense of belonging, the counseling and administration team, led by Assistant Principal Danny Chui, developed a new series of group activities meant to get students talking about important character traits and how to develop them. In addition to addressing students’ needs for belonging, promoting positive student behavior is one of the most important parts of developing a happy and healthy school climate for students, staff, and families. Parents and teachers who create positive learning environments provide space for youth to communicate about academics, personal needs, social pressures, and beyond. As children become aware of their own character strengths, they also identify character strengths in others.  

    Over the years, Hillview has carried out various programs to help develop character in the lives of children. And today, with the reality of social media distractions and ever-increasing mental health concerns amongst adolescents, this is a crucial time for us to engage our students in these discussions more often. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has received a lot of attention in recent years as we are coming to understand just how critical these traits are to a student’s success. SEL, grit, growth mindset, resilience, and personalized competencies – these are just a few of the terms being used to describe factors linked to overall student success.


    Hillview’s new character education series will center around group activities called  “Trust Your Gut” for the trait Honesty; “Know Your Worth” for the trait of Kindness; “Be Compassionate” for the trait of Humility; “Walking the Walk” for the trait of Selflessness; and “Follow Your Passions” to bring everything together as the students look toward their summers. In community circles, students role play, discuss scenarios, and workshop ideas for handling difficult situations. Students are empathetic, kind, and respectful of each other when sharing their ideas.


    Middle school character education has the unique opportunity to help children during a time of rapid change within their own bodies and minds, to develop skills that any well-adjusted teen, maturing into adulthood, will need to succeed in any aspect of their lives:



    Social Awareness

    Relationship Skills

    Goal-Oriented Behavior

    Personal Responsibility

    Decision Making

    Optimistic Thinking


    As the Hillview team looks toward graduating students into the challenging and exciting world of high school and beyond, with students ready and capable of handling the choices and opportunities they will have, a strong foundation in character education will serve them well.