Creating a Positive Emotional Climate in Middle School

Fall 2019

By Bernadette Kovaleski

The term “soft skills” is a bit of a misnomer. Developing emotional intelligence—the ability to collaborate and the confidence to communicate with peers, teachers, authority figures, and, ultimately, employers—is, in truth, hard work. Add the challenges of being in middle school, and the pressure increases exponentially. There is more to learn at this age than what is taught within textbooks, and Perkiomen School seized an opportunity to incorporate social and emotional learning into the curriculum to better serve our students and prepare them now for their next conflict at school and, eventually, their next steps in life.

In a January 2017 article in Psychology Today, Carl E. Pickhardt explored why middle school can be psychologically demanding, sharing that “classroom instruction is often not uppermost in a student’s mind. Social survival is.”1

At the start of middle school, most students go through times of feeling socially insecure and emotionally vulnerable, based on three factors, according to Pickhardt:
  1. The onset of early adolescent change when the young person starts detaching and differentiating from childhood and parents
  2. The need to form a second social family outside of home for companionship and understanding
  3. Hormonal shifts in the early middle school years2
With these challenges in mind, in his first year as head of the middle school at Perkiomen School, Krishna R. Davda approached what is often a delicate social climate with a proactive approach as opposed to a reactive response. Inspired by the RULER program, an approach to social and emotional learning created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence,3 Davda began implementing specific anchor tools to prevent negative experiences and equip students to cope if negativity does arise. RULER is an acronym that stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions. The anchor tools of emotional intelligence are evidence-based tools designed to enhance the emotional intelligence of school administrators, faculty, students, and families. RULER includes four primary tools: the Charter, Mood Meter, Meta-Moment, and Blueprint. Each is based on scientific research and helps children and adults develop their emotional intelligence skills.

Since the emotional climate of a school affects well-being and ability to learn, Perkiomen’s middle school began last year with the Charter, a collaborative document that can help a school establish supportive and productive learning environments. Perkiomen’s Charter was created by members of the community, outlining how they aspire to treat each other. Together, the middle school student body and the faculty described how they want to feel at school, the behaviors that foster those feelings, and guidelines for preventing and managing unwanted feelings and conflict. By working together to build the Charter, they established common goals and accountability.

“There is an important level of ownership when you develop the charter together,” says Davda. “There is central buy-in from the group.”

Forming the Charter together allows for open debate on the types of words and number of words used to describe the middle school environment and the actions needed to evoke those feelings. For example, the word “heard” was suggested, leading to a discussion on what being “heard” means. The group agreed that it was not just being listened to but being understood, considered, and responded to accordingly.

With the overall goal of preparing middle school students to transition to upper school and ultimately to adulthood, it was a clear choice for Davda to shift the curriculum beyond simply achieving classroom grades to include learning soft skills that will translate into success in the higher grade levels. As Davda describes it:
The RULER program increases the emotional intelligence quotient. The students meet as an entire division several times during our H-Periods—a scheduled flexible period—to establish the Charter. Once established, when an issue arises, the parties can reflect back on the Charter to inform better decision-making. A printed version hangs prominently in the lobby of the middle school building. As part of the middle school environment, students have to take more responsibility for their interactions. Without strategies for recognizing and dealing with their emotions in place, students can struggle to self-manage in difficult situations.

Davda adds, “For example, if a student can identify a physical response—heart pounding, turning red, or something similar—he/she/they can determine their own typical personal response to a situation and that physical change will send a signal and assist them in making a better informed decision.”

The Blueprint, another of the RULER anchor tools, provides a strategy for dealing with conflict and is implemented when a difficult situation arises. The Blueprint, a worksheet with questions for self-reflection, helps students and educators manage conflict effectively. Using the Blueprint, children and adults consider a disagreement from the other person’s perspective as well as their own. They develop empathy by considering each other’s feelings and working collaboratively to identify healthy solutions to conflicts. The Blueprint helps repair relationships and restore a positive climate, creating a safer and more productive school where students can learn and thrive.

“Because of where middle schoolers are developmentally, they appropriately can often only see their perspective,” says Davda.
 
They think everyone else experiences the situation the same way they have. The Blueprint is a four-step process that makes them stop, evaluate their own perspective, then connect what they observed with how they are feeling and responding. Chaining—linking thoughts and feelings to behaviors—slows down the process and if a student is more in tune to their thoughts and feelings, they are more likely to make appropriate choices.

The next anchor tool to be incorporated will be the Mood Meter, a square divided into four quadrants—red (emotions are unpleasant and high in energy, like anger, frustration and anxiety), blue (emotions are unpleasant and low in energy, like boredom, sadness and despair), green (emotions are pleasant and low in energy, like tranquility, serenity and satisfaction), and yellow (emotions are pleasant and high in energy, like excitement, joy and elation)—each representing a different set of feelings. Different feelings are grouped together on the Mood Meter on the basis of their pleasantness and energy level. There is an app to track feelings, but a printed PDF will also work. Students will be encouraged to plot their feelings several times throughout the day or week. As the practice continues, the students will be able to better articulate how they are feeling. “At first it is all mad/sad/glad,” says Davda. “But as the students get used to identifying the feeling, more specific emotions are made clear—loneliness, disappointment, or joy. Depending on the student and the situation, we will pick and choose which times to use each tool.”

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, was one of the first people to raise awareness of the topic. Since the book’s release in 1995, study after study has proven the importance of emotional intelligence—it predicts future success in relationships, health, and quality of life.4

Michael Romasco, in his 14th year of teaching in Perkiomen’s middle school, believes that because of the continually changing student body, the bricks of the building itself can contribute to the strength of the community and provide the foundation for working together. “Being in a building together builds camaraderie in a middle school,” says Romasco.
 
The faculty share these kids. We are role models. As students struggle with relationships, we can set the tone of positivity just by what we do, say, and act. It is an extension of their home. They are comfortable here. Then, when a situation gets tough, and it is time for some correction, the relationship has already been built. It is easier to have that tough conversation.

“It is always more comfortable for a child to come into an atmosphere that feels like home,” says Dana Heimbach, administrative assistant in the middle school.
 
Whether you are a student or a teacher, it doesn’t matter. You feel safe, respected, inspired—because it is like being with your family. We asked the students what kind of school they wanted—the Charter is an expression of their answers.

As Perkiomen’s middle school implements this social and emotional learning program within the school day and—for boarding students—within the 360 degree on-campus experience, it is important to note that modeling this behavior begins at home. “We are here to be a partner in parenting,” says Davda.
 
The school, the student, and the parents create a triangle of support. When parents actively work with the school, our two sides of the triangle are strongest and the student can find balance on each side. We want to encourage open lines of communication, normalize adolescent developmental behaviors, establish expectations for parents, students, and faculty, and discuss how we can use situations as educational opportunities, if we have knowledge of them.

Perkiomen has worked to connect to families. For example, the school hosted a viewing and discussion of the documentary Bully. Middle school families were invited to campus with the goal of prioritizing social and emotional learning and reinforcing the idea that adults at school and home need to work together to model self-awareness, empathy, the ability to manage conflicts, and the skills to stand up for themselves and others effectively. The first step was for the group to define what “bullying” is in the state of Pennsylvania. Bullying is a word that is commonly used, but not always accurately, by both students and parents. Then the group discussed language, timing, and emotions that require attention.

Following the initial discussion, parents and faculty watched the movie together, and then reconnected to discuss how the movie scenarios compare with what typically occurs in students’ lives. “Typically negative social interactions are termed ‘bullying’ as a byproduct of not having a foundation of social and emotional awareness,” says Davda. “We want to have strategies in place to help students understand perspectives and control emotions.”

The team that created Bully developed an educator’s toolkit after examining the most effective prevention strategies.5 The outcome of that work was for faculty and families to make a commitment to building trusted relationships within a school, teaching empathy and ensuring that all students, even in a large school, have one adult they are connected to and can trust when they have a problem. Exploring social and emotional learning builds student leadership, embraces new types of discipline, and creates public accountability around these issues.

With proper behavioral definitions, language, and timing, faculty and families can intervene when attention is needed. As seen recently in the local media, too often school administration does not hear about incidents or interactions until they have reached a tipping point and students make poor decisions.

“My educational philosophy is rooted in dynamically adjusting to context and research,” says Davda.
 
Perkiomen is proactive, stepping forward as an evolving leader in the education sector. It’s this ethos that brought me here. I see it as our professional responsibility to integrate known research throughout the middle school curriculum. Therefore, when studies show that this type of systematic process is the common element leading to an increase in academic success, improved quality of relationships between teachers and students, and a decrease in problematic behaviors, it becomes our expectation to provide our students with those skills that facilitate risking becoming their best.

Davda intends to continue and grow the program, adding in an additional anchor tool each school year and revisiting the Charter exercise as a new group enters the middle school each September. 

Notes

  1. Carl E. Pickhardt, “Social Challenges of Middle School: Why Middle School Can Be So Psychologically Demanding,” Psychology Today (January 2017); online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201701/social-challenges-middle-school.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; online at http://ei.yale.edu/.
  4. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam, 1995).
  5. For more information about the Bully DVD and Educator Toolkit, visit https://www.niot.org/nios/contest/bully.
Bernadette Kovaleski

Bernadette Kovaleski (bkovaleski@perkiomen.org) is the director of marketing and communications at Perkiomen School, Pennsburg, Pennsylvania.