Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Elementary School: Anxiety, Homework, Testing, Social Emotional Learning, and Play

Following my visit to the Early Childhood Center, I wanted to explore some of the same themes at the elementary level and had the privilege of visiting the Horace Mann School and talking with the principal, Dr. Mary Ellen Cobbs.

I asked Dr. Cobbs whether she’s seeing more anxiety in students than in the past and she said yes, explaining that when students struggle in this way, it’s often because of difficulty negotiating their environment (including challenges around social cueing). For Kindergartners, anxiety can be caused by not knowing the norms involved in a day’s schedule (particularly for children who have experienced a more flexible pre-K environment compared with children who experienced more structured early childhood routines). Some K-1 students are still trying to sort out the physical and psychological issues of a typical school day and can exhibit behaviors of tiredness or stimulation, although these behaviors tend to fade.  In that small population of older elementary students displaying anxiety, it’s often caused by outside stressors.

After discussions with parents at a PTO meeting last fall, Dr. Cobbs is establishing two new systems to help mitigate potential anxiety of incoming Kindergarten students and their families. First, she is instituting Kindergarten liaisons; a way for a more experienced parent to help acclimate a new parent and hopefully reduce some of the anxiety parents feel as they send their children to Kindergarten while helping children get to know some of the school norms.  Second, Dr. Cobbs worked with a team of kindergarten parents to design a “Frequently Asked Questions for Horace Mann Kindergarten.”  This collaborative document will be shared with incoming families and addresses everything from school routines/rituals to managerial issues such as adding money to a child’s lunch card. 

For students already in school, if parents are seeing anxiety at home around homework, she indicated that they should not insist on homework completion, but should contact the teacher and explain that the child struggled with the task.  “A general rule of thumb is to ‘call it’ after 20 minutes and contact the teacher so he/she can assist the child.  It is not the desire of our teachers to add additional stress or burden to the family, rather homework should be seen as a reinforcement and practice.” 

In the context of the anxiety discussion we talked about what kinds of testing elementary students currently experience. K-Gr. 5 teachers employ DIBELS (more here: https://dibels.org/dibels.html) to measure literacy skills three times per year, unless a student is struggling in which case they might be done more often. This testing takes approximately five minutes per student. K-Gr. 5 students also participate in a three times yearly common math assessment (i.e. the same math assessment across all grades in all schools). In the younger grades, the teacher reads questions to students to ensure understanding. In Gr. 1-5, students might have chapter tests in content areas; potentially a weekly spelling test etc. but Dr. Cobbs was clear that this is not like a high school test. The main purpose of these assessments is “progress monitoring,” which is used to check performance, measure improvement, and determine the effectiveness of instruction. The state-mandated PARCC testing occurs in ELA and math in Gr. 3-5 and science in Gr. 5 on a yearly basis.  While there is occasional anxiety noted around testing, the majority of students see these assessments as "just another test" and while encouraged to do their very best, are constantly reminded that success is not measured by one assessment.

Students receive instruction in social emotional learning (anxiety being one element) as part of the Incredible Flexible You curriculum, and students are supported by psychology and speech professionals as needed. As a district, a book study this summer will provide an opportunity for Melrose educators to learn more about anxiety in elementary aged students, and collectively discuss strategies around the issue in order to better support students in the future. 

Social emotional learning is also embedded in the school’s Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), which is rooted in three core values: respect, responsibility, and safety.  (Student academic achievement as well as a celebration of these values occurs monthly in the whole school "What’s Up Wednesday Meeting.”) During the regular school day, if unacceptable behaviors are observed by staff members they may use teaching techniques to address them; for example employing a “recess round-up” to talk about a playground incident and help develop coping mechanisms. Educators may also combine elements of the Incredible Flexible You curriculum, the PBIS, and directed activities to address a situation, like reading a text that would invite the question “what could you do to avoid a conflict?” Teachers have learned these types of strategies in different ways including training by the school psychologist, having K- Gr. 2 teachers present PBIS lessons to Gr. 3-5 teachers, and peer coaching.

In the area of play, Dr. Cobbs noted that social skills are demonstrated and their development supported during various free play moments. Teachers can observe students and note how they are working together, etc.  For example, in the 10-15 minute “brain break” incorporated in a Kindergarten and Grade 1 day, children are coached in problem solving and turn taking, and provided examples of ways to deal with emotions, such as those around feeling left out. Coined “stealth learning,” students are constantly developing their skills and receiving ongoing constructive feedback as they play. The first few months of Kindergarten incorporate the shifting of students’ understanding between what might be acceptable in an individual setting vs. what might be necessary for a group in a school setting. (For example, a child with a parent might be alone on a playground and have unlimited access to a slide, engaging with it in any way the child chooses; while in a school setting with many children on the playground, the child must take a turn, move from the bottom so as not to block another child’s descent, etc.) In subsequent grades, morning “brain breaks” incorporate elements of structured play while unstructured play happens at lunch. Dr. Cobbs expressed much appreciation to the PTO, which has been very generous in their support of resources for play, including purchasing “recess bags,” some for indoors and others for outdoors. Another example of structured play, this time for K- 2nd graders, is the employment of singing and dancing to “amazing words”; typically three new words each day. Students learn the words to the tune of a familiar song, moving and processing at the same time allowing for a cross-curricular approach that supports content learning and recall. In addition, while not technically play, outdoor learning activities allowing more movement are incorporated into the school day when possible, for example, teaching young students how to make science observations through a neighborhood nature walk. Science instruction might also include an examination of tree bark or leaf structure, spending time in the Community Garden, or lying in the field sketching the sun’s position and shadows.

Dr. Cobbs and her peers are sensitive to the concerns of parents around anxiety, homework, testing, social emotional learning, and play/movement. Within the confines of covering necessary content within the context of an ever-changing landscape of state mandates, needs for teacher training in areas of social emotional learning, societal shifts, and other impacts on daily teaching and learning, administrators remain open to hearing the concerns of parents and welcome dialogue around children’s needs in order to successfully send them to their next learning adventure: Middle School.