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Corps Member Story

Supporting Students Social and Emotional Growth

Every year our second-year corps members in Chicago-Northwest Indiana complete a project in which they reflect on their experiences in the classroom, and develop a theory of change based around how we could better serve our students and communities.

By Alec Josiah

May 6, 2019

I teach in a community-based Head Start Program in the Gage Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. My students range from three to five years of age, and are strong, persistent, creative, inquisitive, and empathetic. They have great hearts and a real thirst for learning. As an early childhood educator, I’ve noticed that there is a movement towards pushing academics without giving young children the time and space to have fun and truly build their social-emotional skills. These skills allow students to manage their emotions, build relationships, feel empowered, and make strong decisions.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have taught many of my students for two years now, and I have seen how these skills have been an essential part of a strong educational foundation. Studies have shown that social-emotional learning provides students with skills that are essential for not just elementary education, but high school and beyond. In my classroom, I have focused on social-emotional learning while still incorporating standards for literacy, math, cognition, and language so that my students are ready for kindergarten.

From the beginning of the year, I’ve introduced many multicultural books depicting kids who look like my students, who are all Black or Latinx, and I have used CSEFEL social-emotional cards to help orient them to social-emotional learning. CSEFFL social-emotional cards were developed by the Center on Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at Vanderbilt University. These cards help educators and caregivers teach social-emotional skills with images of children sharing, asking for help, working together, and more. In addition to the cards, I had my older students work with my younger students to model positive social-emotional skills, and gave them leadership roles so that they felt affirmed. I also introduced our calming kit, which is filled with soft stress toys, play-doh, a notebook and crayons, and more in the library/calming area of our classroom. Students use this kit and area to take a break when they are feeling strong emotions. It is imperative for students to be able to self-regulate in kindergarten, so building these skills is so important.

As a result of these additions, I have seen quite a change in my classroom over the past year. Now, students are working together more, solving conflicts on their own, helping one another and encouraging one another. They are better able to name and talk about their emotions, understand the emotions of others, and express and communicate their emotions in more constructive ways. We have become a beautiful little family in the Yellow Room over the past two years.

When I think about how I want to continue this work, first I want to collaborate with other teachers in CPS, caseworkers, and Head Start professionals to understand how I can be a stronger advocate for the support my students need. I also want to continue to work with other teachers in my center, moving toward a greater focus on social-emotional learning. Finally, I want to continue my model of giving students more leadership and autonomy in my classroom. As they move on to kindergarten, I hope they continue to receive the needed social-emotional learning support kindergarten, because through partnering with students, their families, and other teachers I know we have the built social-emotional and academic tools for their continued success.