How Social-Emotional Learning Plays an Important Part in Local Schools

Education in the U.S. historically has focused on teaching core academic skills that prepare students for future jobs. Now, focus is shifting beyond academics to include other life skills. With depression increasing among teens, the value of fostering empathy, compassion, confidence, happiness and relationship skills is more important than ever.
Private School Guide
Students at honolulu waldorf school's elementary campus Learn to care for chickens and sell their eggs to the community.
photo: david croxford

Junior kindergarteners at Hanahau‘oli School gather around a green blanket on the floor of their classroom. There’s a new face in the room today—a chubby, baby boy with eyes full of wonder. Baby Phoenix is only a few months old, but he’s got a big job today: Teach these students about empathy.


Mary Gordon, an educator and author, founded Roots of Empathy in 1996 in Canada. The program made its way to Hawai‘i last year, thanks to a grant from the Hawai‘i Community Foundation’s Pillars of Peace, which, since 2012, has brought in leaders from around the world to promote compassion, mindfulness and justice in our society. “The Omidyar ‘Ohana Fund at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation started Pillars of Peace Hawai‘i initiative to encourage our community to remember the importance of living with peace and aloha, and to help grow ethical and compassionate leaders for Hawai‘i’s future,” says HCF’s Robbie Ann A. Kane. One way is to support social-emotional learning programs in Hawai‘i schools. “In particular, we felt that the Roots of Empathy program, which has been around for over 20 years in multiple countries and engages a baby as the teacher in a classroom, would be a great way to teach our youth compassion and empathy and reduce aggression and bullying to make our schools better places for learning.” Increasing social-emotional learning in Hawai‘i schools has become an integral part of the Pillars of Peace, which partners with the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools. With HCF’s support, HAIS has added social-emotional learning tracks to its Schools of the Future Conference for the past three years, with speakers including Gordon, Marc Brackett from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education.


kindergarteners at honolulu waldorf school star in the holiday play.
photo: deb glazier


Eight schools throughout the Islands, including Hanahau‘oli and Mary, Star of the Sea, brought in Roots of Empathy last year as part of a three-year pilot program, with more schools interested in joining this fall. Here’s how it works: A trained instructor brings an infant (beginning at 2 to 4 months old) into a classroom (grades PK to 8) nine times throughout the school year, each time focusing on a different theme. The students prepare the week before by discussing the theme of the visit with the instructor so they know what to expect or watch for during the next session, when the baby arrives. The following week, when the baby comes in, students learn to observe the baby, ponder what he or she might be feeling, ask questions and track his or her development. “We want things to happen very organically, so that if baby Phoenix, let’s say, starts to cry, it’s the perfect opportunity for us to pause and say, Oh, my goodness, what do you think baby Phoenix is trying to tell us?” says Cynthia Gibbs-Wilborn, head of Hanahau‘oli School, who received Roots training last summer. “How do you tell people when you’re angry? Why isn’t baby Phoenix able to do the same thing yet?” The next session recaps, to discuss what the students noticed relating to the theme. This process continues over 27 weeks, aiming to help children learn to recognize and understand others’ emotions.


“All the research shows that, when you look at what schools need to do or families need to do to foster independent, creative thinkers who feel successful in what they do, it’s not what they learn in math or reading or science or social studies. It’s actually showing that, if you don’t have that social-emotional foundation, if you’re not building and fostering relationships within the classroom … all the rest goes down the drain,” says Gibbs-Wilborn.

“We want things to happen very organically … it’s the perfect opportunity for us to pause and say, Oh, my goodness, what do you think baby Phoenix is trying to tell us?”—Cynthia Gibbs-Wilborn, head of Hanahau‘oli School


Studies show that empathy lowers aggression, bullying, violence and criminal behavior, while raising emotional literacy. In times of turmoil and high stress, relationships are more important than ever, and being able to put ourselves in others’ shoes is a vital skill that fewer people have now.


According to a 2010 study done by researchers at the University of Michigan, college students scored 34 percent lower in perspective taking and 48 percent lower in empathic concern than students did 30 years earlier, and most of the drop occurred after 2000. “Young adults today compose one of the most self-concerned, competitive, confident and individualistic cohorts in recent history,” the report states. Though the researchers aren’t sure why this is happening, they partially attribute high levels of self-involvement to social media, reality TV and other factors.


So how do schools combat this trend, in a society dominated by Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat?


Kids reading
A fifth-grader at carden Academy reads to his first-grade reading buddy.
photo: courtesy of carden academy


Holy Nativity principal and teacher Jyo Bridgewater credits the school’s project-based learning with imparting life skills. From learning how to open a restaurant to fundraising for a girls’ school in Africa, “They’re all authentic projects that are interest-based, affinity-based and the teachers facilitate the process, but the students use real-world contacts to develop their problems and to prototype some solutions,” she says. “It’s life skills, [but] it isn’t necessarily social and emotional learning, except that it makes us feel connected with other people.”


It’s not just people students learn to care for: The Holy Nativity campus is a popular breeding spot for native terns. This past school year, second-graders tracked the terns from when the eggs were laid until the babies flew, and gave them names. The students were even invited to the Manu-o-Kū Festival in May. “You’re actually watching a real baby and going out after a storm or when it’s windy to check and see. I think it’s a really powerful lesson,” Bridgewater says.


Students at Honolulu Waldorf School’s elementary campus also care for animals, including a tortoise, bunnies and chickens, and sell the chicken eggs in the front office. It’s all about real-life connections and applications. The students make their textbooks themselves. In a seventh-grade European geography class, “It’s not about the Alps and the fjords, it’s about what’s happening right now in Europe,” says teacher Lynn Aaberg. Because immigration has been such a hot-button issue, the students followed the blog of a Syrian teenager who fled the country for Switzerland. “For them to hear a story of a girl who was close to their age turned it out of this concept, whatever they might be hearing about refugees, whatever they might hear at home or on the news, it turned it from a concept to a human connection.” Honolulu Waldorf also encourages exchange programs, with about 15 percent of its students coming from other countries.


Bird watching
Second-Grade teacher Cat Peterson points to native terns on Holy Nativity's campus.
Photo: Courtesy of holy nativity


Carden Academy on Maui stands on three pillars: academics, character development and enrichment programs. It’s one of many schools worldwide to adopt the Second Step program, which focuses on social-emotional learning. On top of Second Step, Carden also has a “virtues curriculum,” which, school director Nina Sato says, starts with a weekly virtue the school focuses on to encourage the children to practice virtues such as kindness, joyfulness, honesty, cooperation, unity and tolerance. At the end of the year, a Virtues Assembly honors each student with the virtue he or she exhibits most. “Our alumni come back and really talk about that being such an important component of what they got out of school, and they remember the virtues they got,” she says. This is part of founder Mae Carden’s philosophy, which is all about developing well-adjusted, generous, compassionate children whose happiness comes from doing for others.

“They’re all authentic projects that are interest-based, affinity-based and the teachers facilitate the process, but the students use real-world contacts to develop their problems and to prototype some solutions.”—Jyo Bridgewater, Holy Nativity principal and teacher


Another important part of Carden life is the Reading Buddies program. An older and a younger student pair up to read together each week. “That definitely helps in the feeling of connectedness and security,” Sato says. “It’s all about relationships. I think it’s a really sweet thing when you see classes pass by each other and there are hugs and high-fives, and the younger ones love being able to know the older students.” She laughs as she remembers hearing about Connor Baxter, a champion stand-up paddleboard racer and Carden alum, being passed during competition by a high-school student he recognized as his younger reading buddy from many years before. “It was funny to think about those things that stick in people’s minds.”


Holy Nativity also stresses the importance of feeling connected. “We are a small school by choice, so we have an advantage in that we develop personal relationships with students and families,” says Bridgewater. “Having that close relationship means that students have emotional security, which optimizes them for learning. The neuroscience will tell you that you can’t really get to those cognitive areas of thinking if your emotions do not have you in a space that’s ideal for learning.”


Reading to students


Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child breaks down three types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic. Toxic stress can come from abuse or neglect and, without a protective relationship to offset the effects, it can lead to cognitive impairment. However, loving relationships can actually prevent or reverse the damage. According to the Roots of Empathy website, “As much as half of a student’s academic success can be attributed to social/emotional competence.”


Schools may not be able to control a family’s home life, but they can make a difference in students’ other relationships. Windward Nazarene Academy principal Kay Hishinuma says that building a community around each child is the school’s foundational core. “I don’t care what relationship it is, relationships are messy. Sometimes relationships are painful, and sometimes you are entering into a relationship with a great deal of brokenness. You can’t go in with an attitude of judgment. You have to go in loving a family where they are and who they are, and trying to find a way to speak to brokenness when there is brokenness, and trying to celebrate the strengths, and love them to where they need to be.” For Windward Nazarene, this goes beyond the classroom as well: When Aloha Airlines went out of business in 2008, many of the students’ parents lost their jobs. “Even though the school couldn’t afford to do it, we suspended their tuition payments until they were able to figure out what they were going to do financially,” Hishinuma says. Other families stepped up as well, donating money and watching kids while their parents took classes to help secure new jobs. “It’s not just the school that walks them through; it’s a community that walks them through these rough times.”


Once kids have these relationships and they’re primed for learning, many schools note that other life skills are critical as well, so students can become successful in whatever career they choose. At Windward Nazarene, students learn how to keep their things organized in binders through elementary school. Once they’re in middle school, they switch to an online system. “By the time they leave they’re ready, no matter where they go, to be able to organize themselves online,” says Hishinuma, whose college-age son still uses this system. If you don’t learn scheduling and time management, “The urgent will drive out the important,” which can lead to burnout and feeling unfulfilled, she says. 


Kid fundraiser


At Waldorf, from first through 12th grades, kids participate in a program called handwork, which goes from knitting and crocheting to woodworking and making jewelry. “It develops the child’s ability to manifest and make something happen,” says administrative director Jocelyn Romero Demirbag, even if they’re not planning on becoming artisans. It teaches them that, if it can be imagined, it can be made—something can come from nothing, which is an important life skill. “They actually end up thinking that they can do anything,” which helps them think critically and problem solve in the future. They also learn gardening and farming.


Depression among teens is increasing, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics, and at an all-time high for college students. Life skills ultimately help to promote core values that include happiness, having a sense of identity and belonging, and feeling inspired. At Hanahau‘oli, to foster self-satisfaction and intrinsic motivation, the teachers avoid the reward of pleasing others. There are no “Good job!” or “Congratulations!” Rather, teachers will ask students if their success made them feel good. They learn to feel positive without depending on others’ reinforcement. And the empathy they’re learning has real community impacts: Kare Kids, a community-service club founded in the early 2000s by Colby Sato, a fourth-grader at the time, raises money for causes that are important to the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students who make up the club. Sara Armstrong, a fourth-/fifth-grade teacher and one of the Kare Kids’ leaders, says that students have raised hundreds of dollars at a time to fund cleft-palate surgeries and donate to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and UNICEF. They’ve raised money to buy gear for military dogs to protect them from the weather and sponsored wells in Africa. And it’s not all about money—the kids also visit senior-citizen centers to entertain the residents and get to know them. “That’s good for kids to realize, you know, life does whirl around them, but there are also these people that are at the other end of life and they’re important, too, and we can learn from them,” Armstrong says. “The biggest thing we’re trying to teach the children here is not that you can raise all this money, but you can make a difference. You can do your bit. There’s no better way than just to get out there and do something.”

“It develops the child’s ability to manifest and make something happen … They actually end up thinking that they can do anything.”—Jocelyn Romero Demirbag, Waldorf administrative director


Sato, who works in San Francisco as a designer in tech, says that Hanahau‘oli encouraged him to become a creative thinker and appreciate the process of learning. Some of his favorite Kare Kids projects included clearing weeds from near the school to create a parklike area, and building an Earth-shaped recycling bin out of recycled materials. “A lot of people in design talk about empathy, too—a key characteristic of good designers is that they empathize with people from different backgrounds from theirs and, because of that, you can build a product that meets their needs,” he says. For instance: “I was designing for rural farmers in Massachusetts, and I’m not a rural farmer myself but, by interviewing them and getting to know them by going to farmers markets and visiting them at their farms, I started to learn about the challenges they face. Based on that, you can build a product they need, rather than one you think they need.”


The end goal of teaching life skills, including empathy, is to have students become good people. “You live in the world, how do you deal with the world and not become like the world?” says Windward Nazarene’s Hishinuma. “No matter what [people] think or what their belief system is or what their political agendas are, we might not agree, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot get along and care for each other anyway.”