From theory to practice: Teaching social and emotional skills

Second Step is a social and emotional learning programme created by the Committee for Children in the United States. Second Step has been written for preschool children through to Year 5 students. Second Step provides the opportunity for students to reflect on issues that affect them and generate their own solutions in a group environment. The programme provides a framework for thinking about issues that affect children such as making friends, honesty, difference, peer pressure, respect, social skills, etc.

The programme has been written for the developmental stage of students in each grade. Each lesson takes thirty to forty minutes to present to each class, once per week throughout the entire school year. The students are shown an A3 sized photo lesson card which relates to a scenario that the children will deconstruct. The lesson is scripted on the reverse of the card. There are three units in the programme: empathy, impulse control & problem solving; and anger management. The Committee for Children has also produced programmes for teaching children protective behaviours, the prevention of bullying, and interactive text reading.

Last year, I presented the Second Step programme to six classes (preschool, kindergarten, year 3/4 composite, year 3/4/5 composite, year 5/6 composite, IM class) every Thursday in the school I work in. This school is located in a disadvantaged area noted for its unemployment, crime, illiteracy, family violence, family dysfunction, social isolation, community violence, and juvenile delinquency. The Year 1 and 2 teachers elected to run the programme themselves. Some classes received lessons which were lower than their grade level because the teacher advised that the students’ have a younger emotional age than their chronological age.

So, how does a community worker get involved in presenting Second Step in the classroom? That’s a long story…

In 2008 I was doing a literature search on the prevention of domestic violence for an essay I was writing at the end of my Masters degree. I came across a document called “101 Ways Great and Small to Prevent Family Violence” [pdf]. In that document a programme called Solving The Jigsaw was listed. I was impressed by this programme which involved working with children in primary school talking about the issues that affect them, providing support, and generating solutions.

At the same time, my colleague, Amie Carrington-Cunneen told me about a State Government funding opportunity of up to $300,000 for domestic violence prevention initiatives. I contacted the coordinator of the Solving The Jigsaw programme in Victoria and asked her if she was interested in bringing the programme to New South Wales. She advised that they had just completed a documentary titled Kid’s Business and was interested in expanding the programme. Amie and I worked on the funding submission for several months. Amie worked on getting partnerships with police and community organisations, and I liaised with Solving The Jigsaw regarding establishment requirements of the programme and costs.

The submission involved working many hours, most of them unpaid. The exciting part of the submission was that we were planning to employ an Aboriginal worker to tailor the programme for Aboriginal children, which had not been done previously. We planned to have approximately sixty people trained in Solving The Jigsaw by the end of the three year programme, and forty of those would have been able to deliver Train the Trainer.

There were, however, difficulties with the translation of the programme from Victoria to New South Wales. Community partnerships in schools is a high priority in Victoria and teachers are supported to be trained in Solving The Jigsaw. In our funding submission, we had to factor in the cost of replacing teachers to do the training as the New South Wales Department of Education would not cover it. The costs of training and assessing the first intake of participants in the programme was going to cost $100,000. The training  of Solving The Jigsaw practitioners is rigorous, and takes two years to complete.

One week before the closing date of the funding submission in April 2009, our management withdrew support for the programme. In hindsight, Amie and I could have submitted the proposal as private practitioners. There were indications from government officials that the proposal would have been funded.

Undaunted, I looked at off-the-shelf programmes that I could purchase. After much research, it came down to four programmes. These programmes were The Incredible Years, Promoting Alternate Thinking Strategies (PATHS), Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme, and Second Step. The Incredible Years programme has a strong evidence base with components for working with parents and children, however it was too expensive and required intensive work with families and children. The Olweus programme had the best evidence base for the prevention of school bullying, but needed to be administered by the school. PATHS also had a strong evidence base, but at the time had the same written programme for Kindergarten through to Year 6. Second Step appeared to be better suited to a community organisation. Second Step also had a parent workshop component, and parents are constantly updated via letter with what their children are learning in their Second Step lessons.

The Second Step programme was going to cost approximately $2,000 after currency conversion and postage. This amount  is more than half of my annual budget to run all of my programmes in the community. My manager approved the purchase of Second Step with surplus funds from another programme.

I discussed the Second Step programme with the Principal of the school and offered to share the resources with the school. The Principal of the school is very community minded, and open to partnerships with community organisations. My idea was to resource the teachers so they could present the programme in their classrooms. They were unsure about presenting the programme themselves and I offered to present the lessons until they had the confidence to continue with it themselves. The programme started in February 2010.

There were some challenges with this model of delivering Second Step:

  • Teachers were reluctant to take ownership of the programme, so there was no transference of Second Step into other parts of the curriculum. I taught the programme throughout the whole year. Second Step was outside the scope of my job specifications at the time. Some teachers used the time I spent with the class as relief, and thus they were not engaged in the lesson.
  • The two teachers who said they would run the programme themselves, stopped presenting Second Step lessons. I offered to present the lessons for them but they declined as I only had time available in the morning and they prefer to do literacy in the mornings as it is a peak learning time for the students. One of these teachers said she did not like the programme because it was too American and the children did not engage with it, especially the DVD’s. I didn’t find this was the case. There are only a few DVD lessons in the programme, but the students I taught asked for a DVD every week.
  • The teacher of the IM class was concerned about the programme triggering the children’s behaviours. Talking about emotions can be very difficult for children who are living in extremely dysfunctional families because there is no emotional safety for them. There was also a lot of conflict between individuals in the class, a lot of bullying, and it was too risky for some individuals to expose themselves. I offered to take the children who were coping with the programme, and the teacher agreed. Another week went by. The teacher changed his mind and said he would do the lessons with the whole group, so I gave him all of the resources. After one week using this system, the teacher came back with new enthusiasm and asked me to come back. This class was frequently difficult to do Second Step lessons with. I also did the DrumBeat programme with this class.
  • Second Step had some administrative tasks associated with it, in the form of letters to parents letting them know about what their children were learning in the Second Step lessons. I prepared the letters for the whole school (approximately 200 students) which was difficult for me as I have very little administration time and other programmes to facilitate. I had to change the content of some of the letters to reflect the Australian context.
  • Second Step has its own evaluation but it is heavily reliant upon literacy skills and these were beyond many of the children in the school. My manager and I created a one page survey to evaluate the children’s, teacher’s, and parent’s responses to the programme, and also to evaluate the children’s social and emotional behaviours before and after each unit. I physically didn’t have time to collate the results of all the surveys returned to me.

Addendum (February 2013): Second Step has been updated and the form letters are easily downloaded from the online support forum provided by the Committee for Children. The evaluation has also been changed, is easier to work with, and is also easily downloaded.

  • Communication between myself and teachers was difficult. I work part-time (18 hours per week), and my programmes are located at the back of the school. There were times when I walked into a classroom at the allotted time, and the class was not there, or was being run by a casual teacher who had no idea I was scheduled to do Second Step with the class.
  • Sometimes it took a while to settle the class, and I only had fifteen minutes to present a thirty minute lesson. There was little scope to continue the lesson the following week, as some grades had a full year-long programme to get through. I became adept at pruning the lessons to convey the most important aspects to students.
  • Creating a circle was difficult in some rooms because the classrooms were so small and filled with desks and chairs.
  • I thought the programme lacked something tangible for the students. I wanted something that demonstrated all of their learning for the year, which parents could also access. I created booklets for each grade summarising each of the lessons. I asked the Committee for Children for permission to distribute the booklets to each student, and they wholeheartedly agreed with the exception of using the photographs. So, I found photos from the internet which could represent each of the lessons. Creating the booklets took a lot of unpaid time. A workbook would be an interesting variation.

In the two classrooms where the teachers were actively involved in presenting the Second Step lessons, incorporating the information learnt that week in their curriculum, supporting children to practice the techniques, and displaying the posters, Second Step was extremely effective, and enjoyable to present as the students were engaged in the lessons. One of these teachers had a reflective learning pedagogy and these students were a joy to work with. Both of these teachers were warm and supportive to me. One of them admitted to me that he initially found it difficult to have another adult in the classroom with him and teaching his class, but he remained supportive and positive, and said that he learnt a lot from the Second Step lessons.

The programme required very little preparation. As I was only teaching the lessons and not preparing extension activities, it only took minutes to become familiar with the content of each lesson. At times I changed the names of the characters in the scenarios to reflect names familiar to the area, names that the children could relate to.

I received great feedback from the students. The boys especially appreciated the opportunity to talk about feelings and social situations they have difficulties with. The disengaged students enjoyed the role plays. Many shy and invisible students started to speak up. I feel I gained a greater understanding of the children’s and families social and emotional needs as a result of Second Step which enabled me to fine tune my community work. The students in grade 3 and under were easier to work with and more flexible in their thinking. The older students in grades 5 and 6 tended to have already formed opinions and ways of doing things that are not always socially responsible or acceptable, and were reasonably inflexible to change.

I was constantly amazed by how the preschoolers and kindergartners thought things through, and they amazed their teachers and parents too. The children called me the “feelings teacher”. They enjoyed tuning into their feelings and learning about how to respond to others. Parents told me that their children started coaching them to calm down when they got cranky. Towards the end of the year the Kindergarten students were using emotional words such as disturbed, frustrated, and distracted in the appropriate context, whereas at the start of the year they only used happy, sad, angry, and depressed . They were able to list the problem solving steps and apply them to scenarios and to discussion of real-life situations.

During Education Week, the school had a day where the parents were invited to come to school and have their own class where they had the opportunity to be taught by the teachers at the school. They participated in lessons in maths, English, computers, and dance. I was invited to present a Second Step lesson. There were seventeen parents which included three fathers. This was a great opportunity to show the parents what Second Step was all about, and the parents enjoyed it.

In October last year, the Principal advised that he wanted to continue with Second Step, saying that he only had positive feedback about the programme. In December, I attended a meeting with teachers to discuss the future of Second Step. There was discussion about how school-wide programmes support student development and learning. Whilst there was concern from teachers that they would not have time to present the programme, they agreed that they should be delivering the programme in the classroom because they can integrate it into the curriculum and the benefits to the programme include establishing a relationship with the students. They all agreed that  there are benefits to everyone speaking the same language in a school-wide programme and that the students need to be explicitly taught social and emotional skills.

The most important role for the teacher is to provide emotional safety. I have observed some teachers admonish students for not giving the prescribed answer. When teachers do that the students close down and stop participating. I was able to provide that emotional safety for the students. If a student said something outrageous, I responded with “that’s one way of looking at it” and usually his peers took up the argument. The Year 5/6 class was an interesting challenge. It may have been the first time someone had challenged their homophobic and racist views, and it made for interesting discussion. I don’t think it changed their views but at least they were challenged.

The experience of delivering Second Step has been challenging and rewarding, and has provided me with the opportunity to ‘walk my talk’. I know that delivering Second Step to the students last year has not made any sustainable change in the way they interact with others. Almost all of them are able to engage in the discussions and generate great solutions, but they are at what I call the ‘head’ level. When faced with a difficult social situation, they will not stop and think, and they will repeat old and ineffective patterns. It takes a long while for change to occur at the ‘heart’ level. The students need to receive the same messages from all of their spheres of influence (teachers and parents) in a consistent way. One of my colleagues reminded me that Tony Vinson says for generational change to occur, community workers have to be on the ground for ten years, and then ten years more. All of the community development literature talks about the need for a community worker to be in a community for eight years before sustainable change starts to occur.

I  enjoyed the experience of presenting the sessions and facilitating the students to think about the social situations they find themselves in. I miss being so involved in the programme, but having the teachers take over will ensure that they take ownership of it and integrate Second Step skills and knowledge into the curriculum. It has been a lot of work but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I’m feeling a mixture of grief and relief, but also a tinge of pride that I initiated and delivered the programme.

Addendum (June 2011): Only the preschool teacher continued to teach Second Step after I handed it over. There was a loss of momentum with a change of teaching staff and management, and also much pressure on the school to improve on the low literacy and numeracy levels of the students. 

I agree, that it is a parent’s job to teach children social and emotional skills, but for lots of reasons some parents don’t have the capacity. Many parents and children are in survival mode. I always work with hope in my heart. It’s not a hope that I impose on others, it’s a hope that others will find their own truth which will lead them to a more productive or harmonious life whatever that means for them. So many children’s potential is limited by their family and community’s circumstances. One of the ways to initiate change in communities is to teach the children the skills they will need to be more aware of their mental health, to negotiate relationships, and solve problems. There are many benefits to teaching social and emotional skills in the classroom.


Narelle Smith


About Narelle Smith

Child & Family Worker

7 Responses to “From theory to practice: Teaching social and emotional skills”

  1. Interesting programme, and insights. Emotional intelligence does need to be taught in schools, I completely agree. Do you know if there are any studies which look at the attachment style of the teacher and the impact that has on the class? I’ve seen dramatic changes in children depending on who their teacher was, and just wondered if there was any research to confirm or deny…

  2. Also see Dr Dolby’s powerpoint presentation on the Circle of Security,15,Slide 15

  3. Thanks for all of that, I wasn’t expecting that much information.
    No, I hadn’t heard of attachment theory when I was teaching, (15 years) it was/is all behaviourism. I didn’t come across it until about six years ago when I was digging around trying to work out why the parenting books were wrong, when we were looking for answers to the Hare’s anger/sadness. It would be lovely if people came to the realisation that avoidant parenting/teaching strategies don’t work.

    • Whew! This was hard to find…

      It used to be on a government website but has been removed, and is now part of a book…

      Attachment: children’s emotional development and the link with care and protection issues – the continuing debate : a report on the seminar presented by the New South Wales Child Protection Council, Sydney, 24 October 1996 / [edited by Eithne O’Donovan].

      Dr Dolby talks about insecure ambivalent children being on a short rope, and insecure avoidant children being on a long rope. The rope for the ambivalent children needs to be loosened very slowly and carefully. The rope for the avoidant children needs to reeled in very slowly and carefully.

  4. That’s a great analogy. Thanks for taking the time to find this too. 🙂

  5. From the journal Counselling Children and Young People…

    Attachment: The school counsellor’s role (March 2008).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: