6 minute read

Guiding Hearts and Minds

HB Students Gain Support through Social-Emotional Learning

By Middle School Director Sharon Baker and Learning Services Department Chair Alexandra Franceschini

TikTok, Reels, Snap Streaks, likes, shares, trends, and ratios. The vocabulary of a girl’s social life might seem very different now than in a pre-pandemic society. The last three years have underlined and emphasized many essential questions on the minds of Hathaway Brown faculty and staff, but one stands above the rest: how does our work with social-emotional learning (SEL) guide the hearts and minds of students as we navigate a postpandemic educational landscape?

The excitement of returning for the perceived new normalcy of the 2022-2023 school year was palpable as we had been missing the sense of community in the halls of Hathaway Brown. On the first day of school, there were sounds of squeaking sneakers and squeals of delight ringing through the marble and glass atrium as students embraced each other for the first time in a long time, bringing broad smiles to the faces of everyone within earshot. While much has shifted, some standards have remained the same. Social-emotional connection begins each day and is the foundation on which we build everything else.

Measuring SEL in Gen Z

Recognizing the generational shift among us is critical to our success. Born between 1996 and 2015, Gen Z is more equipped than any previous generation to have hard conversations about SEL. Integrated into all aspects of their daily life, messages about identity, self-worth, beauty, and popularity are abundant on social media. The data is rich around how likes and shares on posts (or lack thereof) connect directly to a girl’s self-worth. Often, girls will take a post down within an hour if it does not generate the positive attention they hope to see, or, more significantly, if it does not generate as much attention as a peer’s post. Now, though, after courses in media literacy, workshops on body image, and advisory programming on identity and belonging, we see students taking a more proactive role in identifying their needs, seeking support, and trying to find solutions.

Adolescents love little more than giving their opinion on the world around them. Through self-surveys with Educational Records Bureau (ERB) and The Social Institute, HB captures how these adolescents identify their strengths, challenges, stress, joy, and resiliency — all characteristics of emotional intelligence — at several intervals during the school year. We have learned that our students are highly critical and aware of the stakes. The data shows high compassion and understanding for others while giving less credit to their own work internally. We also notice a strong correlation between a student’s SEL and academic performance, and while this is not new, now we can measure it and pinpoint places to start conversations, and identify ways to target instruction to harness students’ strengths and mitigate their challenges.

There’s a long history between supporting learning and managing social-emotional wellbeing, yet only recently have the tools existed to quantify specifically where students are on the spectrum of emotional needs as a whole when compared against their peers. Hathaway Brown’s Middle School, in partnership with ERB, relies on RethinkEd’s SEL Toolkit to assess students twice a year on their individual social-emotional wellness. Using a five-point scale, students are asked to rate themselves, given questions like, “I know what to do when I feel stressed or nervous at school” and, “I am confident I can deal with problems in my life.” These responses are then compared to a norm-referenced group and scored, providing HB’s faculty with individual SEL competencies for students as well as the grade level group as a whole.

Putting the Data to Work

To design instruction around specific skills that allow students to observe, practice, and reflect, the faculty use SEL data based on areas in need of significant support. Social awareness, relationship skills, and self-awareness tend to be the areas in which HB students more proficiently problem solve. Conversely, our middle schoolers rate themselves less favorably than their peers nationwide in the areas of self-management and responsible decision-making. This tracks with what we are used to seeing from early adolescent girls: a tendency to have lots to say about others but difficulty finding the words to speak directly about themselves. Interestingly, the higher the emotional intelligence scores, the harsher they are on themselves. Part of the work with SEL involves helping students recognize all the things they do in a day that are emotionally competent as well as using mindfulness strategies to manage negative self-talk and temper unreasonable expectations.

Presented with the challenge of students reporting they need support with responsible decision making, HB, with generous philanthropic support from the DePetro family — parents of current Middle and Primary School girls — recently began using The Social Institute’s #WinAtSocial program to provide highly engaging, researchbased lessons that give students the framework to make healthy, positive choices around social media and technology. An adolescent’s daily life, often consisting of TikTok challenges and group text threads, requires them to navigate complex social hierarchies online and without the human interaction necessary to understand the nuances of conversations.

Studies on the implications of social media on adolescent brain development will take decades to yield statistically significant results, but to those in education it is clear that something has shifted in the way these young people react to each other and the world around them. Historically, students pushed back against being labeled; today, they want nothing more than to label themselves. The Social Institute lessons begin with a check-in—a simple question–“how are youfeeling right now?” That check-in yields answers in the form of a range of grinning to sobbing emojis and provides us with a snapshot of who we have in the room that day. Individual data blends with school and national results to give a picture over time of how our students are feeling. The lessons focus on current issues in the social lives of students: how to balance technology and schoolwork, how to respond when faced with online bullying, how to hold your own values in the face of peer pressure.

While our students and faculty learn and lead together on all that is new and daunting in the world around us, we know, too, that the essential question is the right one: how are we doing today? Listening to the answer to that question will help our students confidently engage the world for the better.