Westridge Middle School students are able to learn about social and emotional awareness as part of daily lessons offered at the school.
School counselor Rachel Catlett said that as part of the lessons, which were first implemented 3½ years ago, students engage in daily mindfulness exercises and social and emotional awareness lessons during their Cougar Time (homeroom) class and WIN (What I Need) class, which is a study hall.
The students engage in the mindfulness exercises prior to their lessons.
“We have half an hour in the morning and then we have 20 minutes in the afternoon,” Catlett said. “So the lessons really extend from the morning until the afternoon at 3:20 p.m.
“The mindfulness is a variety of different things. Sometimes they are audio clips and sometimes they are videos. We will show live feeds of the aquarium, so students will watch the fish for three minutes. It is a time to take a breath and get calm before the day.”
Catlett said she and fellow school counselor Nikki Schulte create about 60% of the lessons based on social and emotional learning standards. The remaining lessons come from Second Step, a social and emotional learning curriculum.
“Our biggest focus is academic skills, social skills and social awareness,” Catlett said.
“Each day is different and we have a different theme for each day. On Mondays, they do academic skills. Right now (Thursday), what they are talking about is the importance of being on time. So they learn about Google Calendar, time management and how to stay organized. Then, they (students) always check their grades, organize their email and their to-do list.”
On Thursdays and Fridays, Catlett said, elementary and middle school students across Grand Island Public Schools do Second Step lessons. She said that on Thursdays, students will do a lesson and then do an extension to it on Friday with videos and discussions on the previous day’s lesson.
“Currently, when they are talking about bullying and harassment, we give them scenarios and we work through them as a class,” Catlett said. “How do they deal with this? Do they report it? We build some of those extensions ourselves, but Second Step also has some too.”
Choosing the topics
Catlett and Schulte said the specific lessons change every week based on the feedback they receive from students and teachers, but the overall, broad topic each day remains the same.
“Basically, we take a look at our data first and what kids say they need help with most,” Catlett said. “So we do a survey at the beginning of the year and really focus in on those things. Then, we also pull from different resources.”
Schulte said students and teachers will tell her and Catlett which topics need to be discussed. She said one is study skills, with students telling them they need help with how to take a test, how to reduce test anxiety and how to be organized.
“A lot of the social awareness classes come from what we are hearing kids are saying or doing,” Schulte said. “We just had a lesson on why they should use the ‘R’ word because kids said they were hearing that in the hallways. So we did a lesson on that to make them realize why that is wrong to say.”
Catlett and Schulte said Westridge teachers present the lessons using a shared Google Drive that includes Google Docs and slideshows for teachers to use with their daily lessons.
“We basically type them out like regular lesson plans,” Schulte said. “We give them everything they need, so they just follow along.”
Catlett said the lessons and Cougar Time classes also offer Westridge students the opportunity to build connections with a staff member.
“That is a huge piece because when you have those relationships, if kids are having difficulties, they are more likely to go to that teacher and talk to them,” she said. “If it is something that goes above and beyond the teacher, then they will refer them to us (counselors).”
Educators praise lessons
Jacob Morrow, a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher, said that the lessons are “powerful” and “essential for healthy social and emotional development.” He added they also build relationships among students and teachers.
“Our Cougar Time (class) is an exceptionally tight knit group,” Morrow said. “The result of this, is a safe and welcoming school environment, essential in today’s current climate.”
Ashley Meyer, an eighth-grade math teacher, agreed with Morrow, saying that the Cougar Time class provides students with “a family at school.”
“I believe that all of the students feel like they are able to talk and open up to each other about different social, emotional and academic topics,” she said. “It is cool to see the students build confidence with their peers and build friendships with people that they usually would not talk to outside of this class.
“Students have opened up about very personal things in my Cougar Time and it has allowed us to have those tough, deep conversations that are important to have at the middle school level.”
Students open up
Eighth-grader Alex Weaver said that the most important things about the social and emotional awareness lessons is that they have taught him and his classmates to hear different viewpoints and to understand different ideas.
“We get to talk about inclusivity and kindness, which is important for middle school. It is good that we get to connect with different peers that we might not connect with in our other classes,” he said. “I think inclusivity is really important and that is what we are learning about right now. I just think — especially in middle school — that is super important because you are going to use it in life all the time.”
Seventh-grader Amiliya Flores said the social and emotional awareness lessons have taught her what to do in certain situations.
“It is good to talk about real-life problems and what happens in the real world,” she said. “It has allowed me to be more aware of things. We realize that certain things are the way they are and learn coping strategies to deal with it.”
Sixth-grader Ella Chapman said the daily mindfulness exercises calm her down and put her in a better mindset to have a good school day. She said her biggest takeaway from the daily mindfulness exercises and lessons is how much it can affect her and her classmates’ day “and what can happen if you don’t really do it.”
“One of my friends deals with a lot of stress and anxiety,” Chapman said. “So when we do the mindfulness, I can tell it calms her down.”
Sixth-grader Riley Vieth said the lessons also have helped him to reduce stress.
“When I get stressed out on a test, I will do some of the mindfulness activities that we learned,” he said.
Counselors see positive change
Catlett and Schulte said they have noticed positive changes in the students after doing the social and emotional awareness lessons.
“I think this does make a difference,” Schulte said. “It is nice to go back and talk about the things they learned during Cougar Time. It applies to a lot of the things we teach the students about.
“When we bring their attention to inappropriate language, words you shouldn’t use and how you should treat people, we have noticed that more often, kids will report if things like that are being said, whereas before, they might have thought it was acceptable to say those things.”
Weaver said he has seen less bullying in the hallways at Westridge as a result of the lessons.
“I have seen people helping each other in the hallways and that is just great,” he said.
Vieth said that because of the lessons, if he sees someone being bullied, he is able to stand up to the bully.
Catlett said the lessons are not only helpful to students, but also to teachers.
“The teachers are all on the same page and are learning new social and emotional skills along with the kids so they can address those issues when they come up in core classes,” she said. “It is nice that we have all teachers in the building teaching the same thing.”