Emotional curriculum part of lesson plan at Whitefish Schools

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Students enter the Muldown Elementary School gym in this Pilot file photo. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

While teachers at Muldown Elementary School still focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, another big topic is working its way into the lesson plan — feelings.

This school year Muldown implemented its social and emotional learning curriculum, which aims to teach students how to handle their emotions, as well as the emotions of others, and how to work together in a more productive manner.

The program used by the school is called “Getting Along Together,” and was developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, Principal Linda Whitright says.

“What these kids are learning are just empathy skills and skills to ‘get along together,’” Whitright said, “and also to look within themselves, how they feel when they’re angry. What does that feel like within themselves, and how do they know they’re getting to that point and how can they regulate themselves instead of blowing up and hitting their neighbor?”

The program is implemented in every grade at the school, kindergarten through fourth, in ways that are appropriate for the students’ ages.

Teachers and counselors Camille Deitz and Kelly Talsma lead the students through a variety of topics, like recognizing emotions, addressing conflicts and finding “win-win” solutions.

In kindergarten, Deitz said, the focus is on laying the social and emotional foundation for students. The discussions are done at the team level and the hope is students can learn to recognize their feelings and work well alongside other students.

In grades one and two, the groups get smaller and students learn to work one-on-one. Then in third and fourth grade, students meet in smaller, more focused teams and lead class council meetings to discuss how the class did behavior-wise during the week.

Lessons are generally led by puppets like, Chilly, a penguin that acts as an emotional proxy for the students.

Students are also taught new vocabulary and ways to describe what they’re feeling, Whitright says.

“It relates to your feelings based on color. For instance, if you’re in the red zone, that means you’re hot, you’re very angry. Or if you’re in the yellow zone, then it’s kind of like a stop light, you’re going to slow down. If you’re in the green, of course you’re just mellow,” she says.

“We wanted it more that kids could truly understand it. We don’t want to be throwing something at them that’s above their level,” Whitright added.

The focuses of the program have always existed in schools, Deitz says, but usually it was the counselor offering that information infrequently.

Whitefish Middle School has for years had Second Step, a similar program implemented by then-principal Kim Anderson.

The program worked well at WMS, but didn’t translate to the high school and elementary audiences.

“It didn’t catch on quite as easily at the high school. I think it went back to, ‘I think they’re a little past that, they need something a little more.’ And it didn’t take on quite the same here [at Muldown]. So from that point on we were always looking for a program that would meet the needs,” Whitright said.

Whitright says higher enrollment numbers in recent years were part of the impetus behind finding and implementing the curriculum.

With more students comes many more emotions, she says.

So far, the school is seeing some results out of the program early on.

“I meet with parents once a month ... and one of the things they’re sharing with me too is they’re hearing it at home. The terminology is coming back home. One person told us the other day one of their little ones said to the other little one, ‘It feels like you’re in the red zone right now, you’re getting angry. Dad, what should we do to make him not be so angry?’” she said.

The program is still in its first few months at Muldown, but Whitright says she and her teachers are optimistic about the effects emotional learning can have on the students.

The skills are necessary for everyone, and taking time to learn how to deal with oneself as well as others is important.

“It’s just that whole idea of being able to get along with the people around you, it’s huge in this social world that we’re in. That’s what we would hope, that we have them be successful in that realm as well as be able to do their math and their reading,” she said.

“It really hits back to education’s primary role and function in society, to create good citizens,” Deitz added. “So we really believe that by practicing these skills of friendship and empathy and problem solving that we’re creating good citizens, hopefully.”

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