Oakland schools have launched programs to help students manage their emotions, establish positive relationships and resolve conflicts. One of the programs, Roots of Empathy, brings infants and their mothers into school to help students recognize emotions and experience empathy. We discuss the social and emotional learning movement, which aims to teach fundamental life skills in schools, and how it’s being used in Oakland.

Tony Smith, superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy
Vicki Zakrzewski, education director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of wellbeing
Lynette Richardson, fourth grader at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland; she participated in the Roots of Empathy program in third grade for a year
Maren Jacobsen, teacher for the Roots of Empathy program at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland

  • lombadesign

    It seems Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life could be revisited in a big way. Perhaps his work holds extra validity with all he did for the African nation he so deeply cared about and dedicated so much of his life to.

  • Monica Murphy Alatorre

    Such a critical topic! These “21st Century Skills” are what kids need in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Hawn Foundation, recently endorsed by CASEL, also offers MindUP, a curriculum that increases student focus, encourages optimism, builds emotional resilience, and helps increase academic performance. Happy brains work better!

  • Local parent

    Michelle Garcia Winners of Social Thinking is an outstanding expert on this issue. Through her research and work, she has developed tools that are great for parents and teachers. Check out socialthinking.com.

  • Livegreen

    From a Glenview parent who’s child is going through this program, I must ask, can you introduce this program to Occupy Oakland at Oakland City Council meetings?

    Perhaps they’ll be more willing to listen to others instead of yelling and cussing at those who disagree with them?

  • Kristie

    As a parent of a future Oakland student, I wholeheartedly support this program and am PROUD that Oakland is a national pioneer. Every student nationwide should be taught to develop empathy. Think of all the kids killing themselves or missing school or turning to violence because they are bullied by other kids. I see this program as a way to graduate a generation of Oakland kids who don’t turn to bullying, violence, and gangs on the streets.

    • Betsy

      Kristie, so glad you’ll be part of the OUSD community. Hope your school has the Caring School Community program which is designed to help build school communities in which kids treat one another with respect. How great would it be if we prevented bullying, rather than have to “fix” it later?

  • disqus_JCurhuHzRo

    As an elementary special education teacher working with students struggling to read, what do the longitudinal studies indicate for improving executive functions, which often impedes the ability to read?

    • Betsy

      The research shows that stress disrupts the executive functioning of the brain which effects memory, problem solving, and decision making. I have worked as a coach for several years, assisting teachers implementing the Caring School Community program in OUSD schools as well as in schools across the country. One of our goals is to create a class environment in which students can relax and feel safe so that the brain can do its job.

  • JenK

    When my daughter started kindergarten this year, they spent about the first six weeks of school working on interpersonal interactions, conflict resolution, and other social skills. The thinking behind this is that the classroom needs to be a secure place for everyone; otherwise, academic learning is hampered from the time a students walk in the door if they are worried about bullying or are unsure of how to interact with others. I think this is a fantastic idea–I was extremely shy as a child, and even though I did well academically, I can remember times when I was so nervous about being called on by the teacher that I wasn’t able to focus on the material. I can’t imagine how this is magnified in students who are afraid of being physically bullied, or children who have experienced violence or trauma at home. Giving students the tools to cope with these kinds of immediate roadblocks is a way to enhance their long-term academic success and their long-term contributions to society.

    • I agree! I was the same kind of student. I had a relatively healthy, well adjusted childhood but also suffered debilitating shyness which made it difficult to concentrate in school. Truly, it’s hard to even imagine the effect of the heightened cortisol levels over time when a child has been exposed to constant physical threats and suffered real emotional damage. I’m curious — where does your daughter go to school. That sounds like a great program and a fantastic way to transition in the kinders!

      • JenK

        She is in a school in Santa Clara County (don’t want to be too specific in a public forum). There is a lot of emphasis on parental involvement, and I have been really pleased with the way the school does not view test scores as the ultimate goal. I still find social situations with new people to be incredibly stressful and even spent a few years on anti-anxiety medication. I wonder if this would have been different for me if I had been taught these kinds of basic social skills in school. I definitely want better for my daughters.

        • Cati

          When my kids were in elementary school (they’re in college now), they went to a school in the Moreland district in San Jose that emphasized exactly what this program is talking about. Since my younger daughter has Aspergers, this was a tremendously valuable set of skills for her to learn at such a young age, and it helped her a lot in school and at home.

  • Brandon Williamscraig

    I use aikido and theater techniques to teach what I call Martial Nonviolence to children and adults. This speaks directly to creating a learning community based in empathy where peace is practiced explicitly using both the body and language. I call my curriculum Peace Practices and offer it in a Montessori context at The Renaissance School in Oakland. Our websites are MartialNonviolence.com and PeacePractices.com

  • Ryan McCarthy

    I work with the California Teacher Pathway which trains future teachers and we use mindfulness techniques heavily in our curriculum, I wonder how mindfulness of emotions and self ties in with your work?

    • Hi Ryan, I saw your comment and was inclined to post. I work for a Social Emotional Learning non-profit in the bay area, and we are currently developing exercises to introduce mindfulness techniques into the kids daily lives as part of a self-control and self regulation workshop. Any recommendations of techniques or exercises you love that would be appropriate for kids?

      • Ryan McCarthy

        Hey Julie – lots! The main resource I draw from is mindfulschools.org, they have a ton of great stuff available. As far as practices and exercises that I’ve found particularly useful the “body scan” is a great way to get kids started in self awareness, and you can find scripts by searching YouTube, or feel free to email me ryan (at) growthsector.org for more ideas. I do a lot of trainings around the bay area and am always happy to talk shop!

  • disqus_1dOHEUplBy

    I don’t understand how anyone can be opposed to this. as a parent I appreciate the school reinforcing this principal. as an educator I am obligated to do more than teach the “three R’s “, I am entrusted to prepare these children for the future. And as a member of the school Site Advisory Council I can see how teaching empathy will lead to a safer and healthier school environment.

  • Ken

    never mind…

  • Nicole Forsyth

    Thank you for covering this topic. The importance of teaching SEL in our schools can’t be overstated. RedRover offers workshops for teachers on how to easily implement a SEL program in elementary school classrooms: http://www.redrover.org/node/1343

  • tenderloin

    I work from the non-profit educational publisher, Developmental Studies Center and we have worked closely with Oakland Unified on social-emotional learning programs. If anyone is curious about what an SEL program actually looks like in the classoom, there are some videos about Caring School Community here – http://www.devstu.org/caring-school-community and also on Youtube – http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEzqrn3Nm5X4FB31scZmeKnfyO8TTvwNE

  • Susan Stillman

    First of all, as someone who’s been involved with the SEL movement since its inception, I am so excited and optimistic when I read about the proliferation of research-based programs, the enthusiasm and commitment that people make to work with these, and the variety of options options available to choose from, or to combine at different levels. Second, I’d like to share with you our Six Seconds model of SEL, and invite you to our free webinars on SEL topics for educators, parents, and people interested in EQ and SEL in schools. http://www.6seconds.org/events/ We have one coming up this week on social problem solving/conflict resolution for kids and one in February on research with our Six Seconds EQ assessment tools for youth (and adults). Join us also for our EQ Educator training in Phoenix in April, Boston in June, or Menlo Park in August!

  • Nancy L. Markowitz

    As Director of San Jose State University’s Collaborative for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child (CRTWC), I applaud Oakland Unified School District for taking leadership in bringing SEL into their district. CRTWC is focused on redesigning educator preparation to embed the social-emotional dimension of teaching and learning (SEDTL) in the preservice curriculum and field experience. We are also creating a professional development program for teachers currently in the field. We have been engaged in this work for the past three years, thanks to funding from the Morgan Family Foundation and the Connie L. Lurie Endowment to the SJSU College of Education. We are currently working in elementary education but hope, with the acquisition of additional funding, to begin work in the SJSU Department of Secondary Education next year. We plan to scale this work to other teacher education institutions in California and the rest of the country. Please see our website at reachandteachthewholechild.org

  • Nancy L. Markowitz

    I would like to add that the SJSU Collaborative for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child is in a unique partnership with the Cleo Eulau Center, a non-profit focused on teacher and student resiliency. The importance of addressing the social-emotional dimension of teaching and learning in our schools must be undertaken using more than one unit of change. In addition to the changes being made at the district and school site levels, we must be attending to the professional development of teachers, principals, and counselors in the pipeline.

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