A sign greets visitors in the main office at David A. Ellis Elementary School in Roxbury: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Outside the cafeteria is a mural students painted last spring, a ring of colorful bubbles around the word “Empathy.” The messages are part of the school’s push to help kids learn to be thoughtful community members.
In our increasingly polarized world, “It takes institutions like schools,” says principal Lemuel Ivy, “to really unify people and advance our understanding of what it means to be caring and considerate.” Ellis and other schools are taking on this work by increasing their focus on social and emotional learning.
Growing awareness of successful academic and life outcomes linked to this approach has blossomed into financial support. In 2016, The Wallace Foundation awarded grants of $1 million to $1.5 million to nine urban school districts teamed with after-school partners looking to develop curriculum and practices focused on social and emotional learning. Boston Public Schools won a grant, and Ellis was among seven local schools selected to participate.
Ivy introduced a school-wide curriculum to support its new core values: Respect yourself. Respect others. Respect the learning. He works tirelessly to ensure that students — who come from a range of backgrounds and English language abilities — feel loved and supported by adults. “When teachers show care for their students, students show care for themselves and others,” he says.
This care shines through in Itonya Dismond’s third-grade classroom, where a stuffed bear sits at each cluster of desks, available for students to hold when they’re feeling emotional. Instructional coach Molly Duffy describes how curriculum builds on this atmosphere: “The teacher might hold up a picture of a girl at a table, sad, with a group of kids playing close by, and ask: Have you ever felt like the girl in the picture? What would you do to make her feel better?”
Improving manners is a natural outcome of students’ heightened awareness of others’ feelings. Kids are communicating more courteously and self-advocating more constructively, says Duffy. They’ll now say things like, “When you do this, it hurts my feelings,” or “I want to be your friend, but not when you act this way.”
Last year, the etiquette club for kindergartners took off. Wearing ties and tiaras, children sat at formal place settings around a cloth-covered table dotted with vases of flowers. They learned how to listen actively, engage in conversation, and make sure everyone was served. “The club was such a hit,” Duffy says, “we had to order more ties and tiaras!”
Underscoring social and civic skills has made a noticeable difference at Newton North High School, too. Staff initiated this school-wide focus, motivated, in part, by a spike in disrespectful language and contentious disagreements following the 2016 presidential election. “We needed to help [students] understand that you can have an opinion and disagree,” says vice principal Amy Winston, “but you can’t be rude or direct your anger at classmates.”
Seeing positive results, administrators decided to join a coalition of over 200 schools working with Harvard’s Making Caring Common initiative. As a partner school, Newton North has access to extensive resources for meeting this year’s social and emotional learning goal: relationship-building. Teachers are emphasizing classroom culture, not just achievement. “We all know about the golden rule,” Winston says. “But we’re focusing our goals around the ‘platinum rule’: Find out how others want to be treated, and treat them that way.”
Nicole Graev Lipson is a writer living in Brookline. Send comments to email@example.com.
This story and headline have been updated to clarify that the etiquette club is for kindergartners.