An emphasis on respect and positive relationships is at the heart of a PMFS education, as we appreciate that social-emotional learning is as important as the academic curriculum to student development. We believe it is particularly relevant in these divisive times to recognize and foster the skills and experience that are needed to contribute to peace, respect, and care in the world. Concepts of “grit”, “resilience”, and “emotional intelligence” are buzzwords in academia today, but at PMFS, social-emotional learning has been the cornerstone of our program for well over a century. Today, our social-emotional program is intentionally crafted with active, creative learning experiences, far-reaching study and life skills, and a rigorous curriculum in which kids can take risks and grow within a nurturing and emotionally safe environment.
A vast body of research* supports the benefits of social and emotional learning, for practical academic success and for lifelong achievements and happiness. Students who learn to be self-aware, recognize and manage their feelings and needs, make responsible decisions, and connect effectively with others, have positive attitudes and self-confidence and become contributors to their school and communities. Through every grade at PMFS, students gain a solid foundation of critical life skills through designed and varied practice with:
- Problem-solving skills: combining analytical and creative thinking with perseverance
- Authentic communication: clearly speaking and openly listening, even (especially) about hard things
- Experiencing diverse perspectives: learning that difference is a critical part of having a greater view of the whole
- Working independently and as part of a group: and the different responsibilities that come with both scenarios
- Co-creating community: including with first-time members of a group and in mixed age groupings
- Sequenced, active, focused learning strategies: improving cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control
Quaker testimonies—peace, integrity, equality, stewardship—are interwoven into the educational process. All adults in the community—from classroom teachers and specials teachers, to administrators and the school social worker—have an important role in helping PMFS students develop a strong sense of self, a strong sense of the world, and an awareness of their ability to have an impact in helping the world to be a better place.
Students develop self-awareness, self-regulation, self-direction, and relationships in the context of routine, practice, and play in Kindergarten. Through associative and group play, in the classroom and on the playground, students learn about themselves and others. Teachers lovingly support Kindergartners in identifying their feelings, thoughts, and needs, then in expressing them appropriately to adults and peers. During circle time with the school social worker, the class explicitly develops communications skills such as identifying a “feelings vocabulary”, which students use to become effective interpersonal problem solvers. Students of all temperaments feel part of a classroom family, which helps them develop healthy relationships, respect others, feel valuable and nurtured, and approach challenges securely. The class makes frequent reference to the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship (S.P.I.C.E.S.) as a model for behavior, both personal and interpersonal, and teachers guide students through the Quaker practice of conflict resolution to facilitate communication. Students learn and use “I-messages,” a strategy that encourage them to state their individual needs clearly and while respecting the needs of others in our community.
In the First Grade classroom, students continue to develop self-expression and self-control while developing a sense of the impact of words and actions on others. First Graders learn that understanding themselves and their ability to regulate their behaviors and emotions are inevitably linked to learning– that their actions can positively or negatively affect how they learn and how they get along with peers and adults. Mindful practices, such as yoga training during morning meeting, help students develop this self-awareness. Teachers facilitate First Graders’ understanding of the importance of consideration for others– by modeling empathy, by recognizing students’ talent and creativity, and through offers of direct assistance. Students practice this consideration throughout their day together, from creating and responding to different greetings at circle time to helping a friend on the swings at recess. First Graders are encouraged to think flexibly and with an open-mind, as the notion that mistakes are normal and a part of learning is emphasized and modeled. Students strive to accept responsibility for and learn from their mistakes and accept classmates in this process, too.
In educating the whole child, the development of self-confidence and social skills are as important a focus as academics in Second Grade. Goals for children in the class include understanding and feeling good about oneself, respecting others, functioning comfortably in the classroom and with peers, and being able to meet challenges with an open mind. To this end, one of the class maxims is: Mistakes are welcome here. Teachers emphasize that not only is it okay to make mistakes, but that some of our best learning comes when we make mistakes. Second Graders strive to support each other as they accept responsibility for and learn from mistakes, and then keep trying. In conjunction, Second graders build on the notions of forgiveness, as peers make mistakes in their work, choices, and actions.
Teaching Third Graders how to take care of themselves and each other is the heart of what happens every day. Third Grade pulls from The Responsive Classroom approach to its social-emotional curriculum, striving to build a kind and caring community where the students feel safe and known by their classmates and their teachers so that they feel comfortable to take risks with their learning. Third Graders learn how to identify their own feelings, how to communicate them with their peers in a respectful and helpful manner, and how to be active listeners. Classroom discussions include the importance of tone, emphasizing that the way something is said is just as important as the words used. The class also play lots of community building games, which require cooperation, inclusion, communication, and teamwork to be successful. Third Graders learn to distinguish when a problem can be worked out independently and when it is best to involve a teacher for support; “I-messages” play an integral role in this work.
What is an I-message?
Throughout PMFS, students use a specific format to give feedback to their peers:
“I feel____ when ____ because _____. I need ____.” The person receiving the message learns that s/he only responds with “Thank you”. Such a communication tool empowers the speaker, helps the speaker find his/her voice, and develops empathy in the listener.
In Fourth Grade, teachers interact with students individually and in groups to build self-awareness and elasticity relative to one’s environment. From the moment students enter the class and greet their teachers, with a smile, eye contact, and a handshake, to adventurous expeditions such as living together for four days in Washington D.C., students are continually challenged to evaluate their situation and choose appropriate responses. The students support one another in their classroom community when decisions are good and positive for the group, as well as when someone makes inevitable mistakes and needs guidance. Students making respectful and safe decisions is as important to student success as the academics that they are simultaneously learning. Each day has integrated times for reflection and questioning, morning circle and end-of-day review and planning. Fourth Graders also engage in formal “Feedback” sessions two days a week, where the children can communicate to each other about how they are feeling directly and with teacher facilitation. The class works diligently throughout the year toward using appropriate communication: written, verbal and physical. Students stretch themselves physically and emotionally in their preparations for the annual Fourth Grade Circus; the result is a showcase of students’ resilience and self-expression, as well as their trust and support of each other.
“I loved it when the audience was laughing and having a good time… It was scary, but I loved all the happy faces. I found out that if we all worked as a team we could do the circus Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with no difficulty at all, because that’s what we did.” — Duvan
“I enjoyed becoming a family with my classmates and teachers. I found out I can perform in front of a big crowd, and it’s fun.” — Tahir
The rich Fifth Grade curriculum takes place in the context of relationships strengthened over time. Teachers passionate about knowing their students as deeply as the content of the program devote significant time at the start of the school year to setting up an intentional learning community. The class philosophy posits that in order to learn, Fifth Graders need to make mistakes; in order to make mistakes, Fifth Graders need to be willing to take risks; and in order to take risks, Fifth Graders need to feel safe. Students practice emotional safety through games, reflection, and giving and receiving feedback. Students spend time getting to know each other and themselves. One aspect of knowing oneself in Fifth Grade is an exploration of different learning modes, referencing Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, to broaden students’ learning preferences and practices. Understanding oneself, advocating for oneself, and asking for what one needs are important skills, as is caring for the community. Fifth Graders engage in dialogue and practice in finding the balance between these challenging skills. Eye contact, speaking directly, and communicating respectfully are paramount in such practice. Such skills are exercised when Fifth Graders become hosts to exchange students from Mexico for two weeks, as well as when the class travels to Mexico. With such attention to cognitive gains through social interactions, students are equipped to meet class learning goals.
“Over the exchange I learned to be brave. I feel that I can do more since I have been to Mexico. I learned that if I need help, it is ok to ask. The exchange is important because kids need to understand other cultures and learn life skills.” — Graduate, class of 2014
Recognizing these middle school age students need to feel safe, cared for, and empowered in their community, Sixth Grade teachers expertly balance individual needs and awareness with that of the group. Even more, students exercise this balance, practicing caring for oneself while being sensitive to those around them. Sixth Grade learning takes place in the context of respect, responsibility, risk, exploration, and play. Sixth Graders are presented with varied situations to build relationships, take risks safely, and express their leadership within the school community, and then they are given opportunities to reflect on their actions, feelings, and thoughts. A playful attitude, including on campus group-building activities and off-campus adventures, keeps students engaged and interested. All of these component parts are solidified when Sixth Graders are trained to be Peer Mediators. Using a series of didactic and experiential activities, they learn how to guide younger students through the mediation process. Students come to understand that everyone has a unique point of view that needs to be respected and they learn to use their own listening skills to create a safe, orderly environment in which participants can discern their own paths to resolving conflict. Upon completion of the training, students embrace this role as one of the many ways to serve as role models and community leaders before moving on to life beyond PMFS.