One of the nation’s most influential leaders in the growing field of “social and emotional learning” also happens to be a Wilmette dad, which is how Dr. Roger P. Weissberg found himself volunteering in his children’s classrooms at Harper Elementary and Highcrest Middle School. His experiences have proven invaluable in helping parents play a greater role in their children’s education.
He was, undoubtedly, overqualified for the job. One look at Dr. Roger P. Weissberg’s resume — former Yale psych professor, one-time research director of the Primary Mental Health Project, current NoVo Foundation Endowed Chair in Social and Emotional Learning and LAS Distinguished Professor of psychology and education at UIC — and you’d laugh at the very idea of it. What’s this? One of the nation’s most influential educational leaders, a renowned pioneer in the area of social and emotional learning, wants to become a grade-school teacher’s assistant?
Impossible, you’d say.
Doesn’t work that way, you’d say.
And that’s precisely the problem, he’d say.
Officially, Dr. Roger P. Weissberg is the president and CEO of an organization called CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Launched in 1994 by a group of prestigious, like-minded educators, including Weissberg, CASEL is not only responsible for coining the term “social and emotional learning” (SEL) but has become a national advocate for SEL across the nation, recently embarking on a three-year Collaborative Districts Initiative with the NoVo Foundation that will aid eight large school districts, from Anchorage to Chicago, in promoting SEL from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
Should you ask Dr. Weissberg for a precise definition of social and emotional learning, he’ll point you toward an article he wrote in January of 2011 for the journal Child Development. But should you want a short answer, he can supply that as well. What he’s advocating for are classes, lectures and school environments that cultivate empathy, kindness, cooperation and the sort of self-awareness that act like a plate of protective armor around your better self.
How well, in other words, do our children not only perceive themselves but others? How well do they communicate? How well do they work together? In essence, how can we help mold our children into solid, value-driven young citizens?
Those are his professional aims, but Dr. Weissberg is a Wilmette-based parent as well, which has allowed him, over the last 25 years, to see the education system from the inside out and the outside in, developing a philosophy that encourages partnerships between families and their school systems.
He likes to say that he used to have two theories of child development and no children; then, suddenly, he had two children and no theories of child development. “I firmly believe,” Weissberg says, “that schools have strengths, and parents have strengths, and if each recognizes the strengths in the other and builds on them, kids benefit. Two-way communication is critical. If parents and teachers agree and give common messages to kids, that can be a very powerful and positive thing.”
So back in the 1990s, when his two children — Elizabeth and Ted — were old enough to go to school, he tested his theories in the most direct way possible: He agreed to volunteer as a teacher’s aid one day a week.
A great portion of that decision was motivated by nothing more than pure unadulterated fatherly love. “I wanted to know more about their experiences,” he says, “what they were doing and how they were doing; I wanted to be a part of that.” But he also wanted to test the central idea of his life’s work, namely that school-family partnerships should be one of the pillars of education in the 21st century.
So he became, in essence, a teacher’s aid, a helping hand with a Ph.D. Sometimes that involved working with clusters of children when they broke into small-group activities. Sometimes it required simply helping a teacher organize some papers. And sometimes, it involved working closely with a teacher to help solve a problem, forging his theoretical partnerships in real life and in real time.
For instance, there was a time during preschool when young Elizabeth loved running down the hallways between classes. Poor dad didn’t think much of it when he saw it. She was a kid having fun, but then Elizabeth’s teachers told him a story about what happened when he wasn’t there: how Elizabeth would sometimes keep running until she ran herself into a different part of the building, prompting frantic searches across the school.
What the problem demanded was a partnership between Elizabeth’s teacher and Weissberg, in essence, a shared plan of action. They chose to sit down and explain to Elizabeth that there were places where it was OK to run (tag at recess, soccer, etc.) and places where it was dangerous (parking lots, school hallways and the like).
Did you ever consider, Weissberg asked his daughter, what would happen if you ran into one of your friends in the hall? Or if you got lost and no one could find you? How would your friend feel if that happened? How would you feel if you were all alone in a strange place?
“I think the word partnership is so important,” says Weissberg. “There can be a distinction between ‘parent involvement’ and ‘school-family partnerships.’ Sometimes, parent involvement involves a school specifying ways parents can be involved, but in school-family partnerships there are conversations about the best ways, from both perspectives, that parents might be involved.”
Weissberg insists that there is no concrete definition for what forms these partnerships should take. For some parents, it’s short stints in the lunchroom or in the library. For others, it’s attending after-school activities, like theater productions and sports. There are thousands of different ways to create those partnership. The key, he says, is that children feel the involvement of their parents in their school lives and, equally important, that adults check in to listen to feedback from their children.
Weissberg certainly did when his children were younger. His first volunteering stint in Wilmette came with his son, Ted, during kindergarten at Harper Elementary. He worked once a week in Ted’s kindergarten classroom, working in small groups on reading and math and even art, all while discussing the situation with his son, ensuring that he wasn’t encroaching on his sense of freedom. Eventually Weissberg ended his visits during the 5th grade, when Ted said it was time for him to have his own space.
Communication, not just between parent and child but parents and the school system, is critical. “In my research during the 1980’s and 1990’s, my colleagues and I did research on parents and their involvement in their children’s education,” says Weissberg. “We were looking for what variables predict whether or not someone is involved in school. We looked at socioeconomic status, single parents, whether the kids had behavior problems. And can you guess what the major predictor was? It was the perception of parents as to whether the school wanted them involved or not. It showed that if parents feel they are welcome, a lot of them will show up.”
Which is why a great portion of CASEL’s efforts extend beyond teachers, beyond just SEL in the classroom, and into the macro of school administrations and educational environments. Imagine, Weissberg says, a school where administrators greet students with a smile in the morning. Imagine a school where children (and parents) feel comfortable talking to their principal. Imagine a school where the administration lives up to the SEL paradigms it doles out to its students.
Imagination is the key. Try to imagine all the potential roadblocks — all of them — that could divert children from learning in a classroom setting. Maybe it’s a painful experience at home that weighs on their mind. Or an encounter with a bully on the playground. Or a snide remark from a teacher. Or a general feeling of unease with going to school itself.
For 36 years now, Weissberg’s chief aim has been to remove as many of those roadblocks as possible.
“Our ultimate goal,” says Weissberg, “is to have evidence-based social and emotional learning in every preschool through high school in the United States.”
CASEL’s various workshops are playing a vital role in reaching that goal. In 2009, for instance, educators from District 35 in Glencoe attended a CASEL-lead skill-development workshop and discovered a multitude of ways they could improve their own SEL initiative, dubbed the We Care Program.
In some ways, the district was ahead of the curve, as it had already devoted classroom time to addressing a series of monthly SEL themes (from “healthy choices” to “cultural awareness”), but the workshops paved the way for a deeper commitment, especially in the school’s interaction with parents.
In addition to implementing SEL strategies across the entire curriculum and creating time where students could practice SEL techniques like mediation and discussion, the district began communicating more with its parents as well, sending home reports that outlined exactly what SEL initiatives the students were working on, thus creating a shared vocabulary and interconnected expectations.
“It was one of the most useful development workshops we ever attended,” says District 35 Director of Curriculum & Instruction Catherine Wang. “It allowed us to look back at what we were doing and make an in-depth assessment of where we could improve.”
In terms of classroom instruction, SEL can be incorporated in a multitude of ways depending on a school district’s preference, including into existing disciplines, like literature and social studies. Read a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or discuss a topic like World War II and all sorts of discussions can be had about virtues and prejudices, from courage to racism, each of which can be tied back to the students’ own lives and experiences.
“We’ve found that when you connect these values to children’s own experiences, they respond,” says Weissberg. “You really are accomplishing two things: One is you can use the lesson to have kids learn things that are relevant for them, and in the other direction, if things appear more relevant, then they become more interested in studying whatever happened in a deep, thoughtful way."
Individual SEL classes can be created as well, which can be dedicated to creating hypothetical situations that children face every day. Take a picture, for example, of a playground where kids are playing and one girl is alone, looking sad. Perhaps you ask the students what they think she might be feeling and why she might be feeling it? Maybe she’s new to the school. Maybe she’s shy. What could she do to join the group? What could the group do to help her join them?
If you’d like Dr. Weissberg could go on, offering a hundred more — nay a thousand more — of these visual prompts. Their emotional pull should be instinctual, but what’s often overlooked are the repercussions of not addressing those problems. How it’s difficult to focus on learning — on comprehending whatever is being written on the chalkboard — when you’ve got loss, sadness or worry clouding the core of your concentration.
Imagine, he says, a young boy slouching at a desk, his shoulders slumped over, his head burrowed deep into the crux of his arms. Imagine, he says, the difference between an environment that nurtures a dialogue with that child — a dialogue that reveals his uncle was shot and killed last night — versus one that assumes he’s being lazy, uninterested by nature instead of circumstance.
“Currently with high-stakes testing, a lot of the focus has been on academic test scores,” says Weissberg. “And we think there’s a lot more than just test scores. It’s out of balance. SEL helps correct that imbalance.”
But being a relatively new discipline, the complexities and ramifications of integrating SEL into modern classrooms have yielded some thought-provoking surprises. Initially, when Weissberg and many of his psychology colleagues met at the Fetzer Institute in 1994, the focus was in creating a discipline dedicated to combating behavioral issues, everything from drug use and bullying to violence and high-risk sexual activity. Inoculate students with SEL life skills, the theory went, and we might see lower incidences of negative behavior.
“We were a bunch of people in our own little silos who all came together and said, ‘How do we make things more coordinated?’” says Weissberg. “We realized that if kids have good social and emotional skills (plus a school that is supportive, caring and participatory) it takes care of a lot of those issues. So we came up with the term “social and emotional learning.” We wanted to emphasize that these skills could be learned.”
Nine of those educators wrote a book called Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, which outlined concrete ways teachers could integrate these skills into their classrooms, the foundation for CASEL’s nationwide initiatives.
But there’s an added bonus. Recent studies co-authored by Weissberg and others have shown that SEL not only acts as a rampart against negative behavior but can also bolster academic performance, with children showing an 11 percentile point increase in academic test performance when SEL is used correctly.
These findings are backed by recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience that reveal the interconnection between the emotional and cognitive centers of our brains. Place a stress in front of a young child — whether it be a bully or a sad experience at home — and the brain becomes so preoccupied that it’s ability to accept new information becomes hampered. Focus decreases, memory stagnates, engagement wanes, thus creating roadblocks for the information to reach our brains.
The field has come a long way since Weissberg’s early days, when the Jersey native was a psychology grad student at University of Rochester. It was during Weissberg’s student days that visited a lecture by Emory Cowen, which outlined key ideas he’s kept close to his heart (and his research) ever since.
The main thread of that speech was simple but enlightening: If kids develop problems and they’re left to fester for a long time, it becomes harder and harder to help them. The reason? Because it’s not just that they have a problem but that they’ve lived with that problem for so long that it mutates into more problems. It multiplies and multiplies, sometimes spinning out of control. The only recourse, Emory Cowen said, was to promote strength and positive behavior from the start, to work with schools and families to promote the best development in kids early as a kind of preventative medicine.
That central thesis — a good offense is a good defense — remains central to his work at CASEL, but his experience with his own children has reinforced the importance of connecting schools with parents, individual SEL lessons with broad theories as well as school district goals with larger public policy advocacy. But as much as the macro is important, so is the micro, each parent finding a way to partner with his or her own child and school.
“The thing I found most rewarding overall about my volunteer work was being in touch with my children’s experiences and knowing who their friends were,” says Weissberg, who volunteered at both Harper and Highcrest here in Wilmette. “So when my daughter was in 5th grade and she had her birthday and invited 14 girls over to her party, I knew them all. But what was most unique was that when I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten class there weren’t many dads. There were other mothers and me. I think kids love it when a father is around.”
But time and again, Weissberg will return, almost subconsciously, to the idea of imagination, of asking an adult to regress back into their past and remember what it was like to be a child. Do you remember, he’ll say, when you were younger, how important it was for a teacher to be kind and caring? For a teacher to believe in you, to believe you could do well? A teacher who was excited about the subject matter? Someone who challenged you? Someone who approached the subjects in an interesting way?
“I remember,” Weissberg says, “that I had this biology teacher in 10th grade. And I think I ended up liking biology less by the way he approached me. I might have gone a different way. I think teachers and the shaping influence they can have can be very powerful. Some of it has to do with inspiring academically but some has to do with inspiring socially and emotionally too. You have to hit all elements: some combination of knowledge and how they treat you; how excited they got and how excited you got because they were excited; there is and was an emotional aspect to it.”
He stops and looks around his office for a moment. “I believe in the mind set that says, ‘If I work hard, I can get better,’ as opposed to the one that says, ‘If I didn’t get it, I’m stupid.’ That’s something that is very profoundly important in children’s lives. In my life as well. If you work hard, you can learn things. If you don’t’ get it right the first time, you can learn from those mistakes; you can find resources that can help you improve your performance.”
He pauses and then concludes, as if ending a lecture. “I believe every kid can learn, can be a leader, that how they feel about things is important. That they can be successful. That they all matter.”
On Feb. 8, 2012, the Family Awareness Network (FAN) will offer a unique opportunity to delve into the work of Dr. Roger P. Weissberg by sponsoring a special colloquium entitled “Educating the Whole Student: Integrating Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.” The program will begin with a lecture by Dr. Weissberg on his work and philosophy, including his own past experiences as a Wilmette father with children in the public schools. The lecture will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Catherine Wang, Glencoe District 35 director of curriculum; Ryan Mollet, Central School (Glencoe) principal; and Tim Hayes, assistant superintendent for student services at NTHS. The free event will take place at 7:00 p.m. at New Trier High School, Winnetka Campus, Gaffney Auditorium, 385 Winnetka Ave., Winnetka. For more information, visit www.fan-ntts.org.