As schools prepare to reopen in the fall, Yale University is rolling out a new online course for school educators in Connecticut on how to manage stress and emotions in the classroom.
The course, entitled “Social and Emotional Learning in Times of Uncertainty and Stress,” was developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and will be made available to all adults who work with students in Connecticut public schools. It is funded by Dalio Education, a philanthropic organization that has invested over $95 million in public education in Connecticut. According to Mark Brackett, the Center’s director, the 10-hour course will include theory, science and practical strategies that teachers can use to manage their stress and the anxiety of their pupils.
In a press conference on Friday morning, Gov. Ned Lamont, government officials, educators and representatives from the teacher’s unions referenced three main crises that continue to affect teachers, parents and children across the country: the health concerns surrounding the coronavirus, the economic struggles from the shutdown, and the nation-wide protests against racism and police brutality.
Brackett explained the value of the course as a way of addressing the natural emotions generated by the current situations that people are living through.
“If you’re not angry right now, that would be weird. If you’re not anxious right now, that would be weird,” he said. He also pointed out, however, that this stress tends to have a trickle-down effect in a school setting. “A stressed out teacher or educator is a stressed out classroom,” he said.
According to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, most teachers have not had access to this type of training. “Most of us teachers didn’t start as social workers, [we] didn’t start as guidance counselors,” she pointed out.
Brackett said in an interview that the course is tailored specifically to teach instructors how to confront situations of trauma.
The first step, he said, is to present all educators with a basic understanding of how the brain works under conditions of stress. Brackett also talked about the difference between being an “emotional scientist” and an “emotional judge” — being open to learn about people’s feelings rather than criticizing or making assumptions. At the press conference, he mentioned the importance of “checking biases” and not projecting negative emotions onto students.
The course teaches the nuances between different emotions: how anxiety is different from stress, or worry, for instance. He then goes on to suggest strategies: breathing exercises, allowing people space, re-framing a situation rather than having a panicked response.
One tool Brackett introduces is called the mood meter: a four-colored meter that helps teachers to quickly determine whether their students are sad, angry, excited or calm, and to adjust their teaching style accordingly.
Fran Rabinowitz, the Executive Director of Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said that she has witnessed the success of this type of program.
She introduced another social and emotional learning program, also developed through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, called RULER, during her tenure as superintendent in Hamden and Bridgeport.
Rabinowitz said that everyone in her district participated in the program: staff, teachers, administrators and parents. According to Rabinowitz, absenteeism decreased, suspensions decreased and achievement began to improve.
The RULER program teaches educators how to develop a charter: an agreement made between superintendents and administrators, administrators and teachers, or teachers and students, that determines what type of environment they want in school.
Some common refrains, Rabinowitz said, were “I want to be valued. I want to be part of a team. I want to feel that my presence in the classroom means something.”
Rabinowitz said that she hopes that this new course will convince more districts to implement a similar type of program.
Educators at the press conference made one point clear: whether the stressor is coronavirus, tensions surrounding race or economics, it is impossible to teach a child without first addressing their social and emotional development.
Jason Adler, a counselor at Waterford High School and president of the Waterford Federation of Teachers, alluded to a practical challenge to dealing with student’s emotional needs: the fact that the mandatory masks will cover up facial cues that teachers use to recognize how students are feeling at any given moment.
In an interview, Adler also said that his small office made it nearly impossible to maintain a 6-foot distance from students. The school is brainstorming several solutions, including setting aside a room where students can sit, masks off, and talk to him via a live-stream video camera.
Adler said that his preference would be to take walks with students around the track while the weather is warm. But the job, he said, is not going to be the same. “[You] can’t wipe away their tears, no patting on the shoulders.”
Adler talked about the struggles his own students have shared with him: one student had to parent her younger siblings after her mom became ill and was put on a respirator. Other students are concerned about the state of the school’s internship program, which gives students the ability to shadow professionals in certain fields before the students head off to college.
Adler says teachers are worried, too.
Some insist that young people need to be brought back to school in-person. Others, particularly teachers who have chronic medical conditions, are over 65, or live with vulnerable individuals, are afraid to return to the classroom.
“We sort of signed on for what we thought our job was going to look like,” he explained. “This is new. This is scary new.”
He believes the Yale course will help teachers learn to “give themselves a break,” to care for themselves and their families.
Brackett believes that the value of the course is in its potential to create a “common language” around emotional development that would be used in districts across the state. This way, if a child moves from one school district to another, the awareness and understanding of their emotional and social needs will be the same.
At the press conference, Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona suggested embedding the course into professional education days to ensure that as many teachers as possible take it.
According to Brackett, the course is available to all 100,000 individuals who work as educators in Connecticut public schools. Nearly 500 people have enrolled so far. He said that he would like to see the course eventually be adopted nationwide.
The course will be available in September. The opening webinar is scheduled for August 25.
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