OPINION: Meriden educators embrace “whole child”

Through its innovative and collaborative programming, the Meriden Public Schools models a whole-child approach to education. We understand that to reach children’s minds, we must address their holistic needs as human beings, attending to social and emotional development as well as academic learning. This whole-child approach, which Meriden’s teachers have demonstrated as key to student success, has now been endorsed by a compelling body of evidence, synthesized in a major report released yesterday.

Issued by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD Commission), the report –  “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope” – compiles decades of interdisciplinary research from the fields of psychology, education, and brain science. To complement its review of the literature, the SEAD Commission also spent two years traveling across the country to engage in conversations with students, parents, educators, community leaders, and other experts.

We both prioritize spending time with teachers to listen and learn from their frontline experience and to collaborate on how we can further strengthen public education. We know that the greatest insights come from teachers and that policies, programs, and ideas developed through a process that is not collaborative are likely to fail. We respect and applaud that on-the-ground learning and collaboration, which is the driving force behind everything we do in Meriden, was such a core component of the SEAD Commission’s undertaking.

The SEAD Commission’s work revealed strong consensus that a whole-child approach to learning, one that encompasses its social, emotional, and academic dimensions, is fundamental to student success in the classroom as well as beyond. The report contains a series of recommendations that truly lift up the great work happening in the Meriden Public Schools. The report emphasizes that social, emotional, and cognitive skills should be explicitly taught as well as embedded in schoolwide practices, and that safe and supportive school environments, as well as strong bonds among children and adults, are crucial for making learning possible—all of which has been long recognized in Meriden, reflected through our programming.

For example, Meriden has implemented advisory groups in its middle schools and high schools. Every staff member, including administrators, has a small group of about a dozen students that they meet with once a week for 25 minutes. The groups stay together as the students are promoted from one grade to the next until they graduate from middle school or high school. Because of these advisory groups, every student is known well by at least one adult, with access to a consistent, authentic relationship. During advisory group meetings, students learn and practice a wide range of social and emotional skills, such as what it means to be kind and respectful, and have the opportunity for in-depth conversations about any issues affecting them.

In addition, educators at both of Meriden’s high schools, Orville H. Platt High School and Francis T. Maloney High School, are part of the Connecticut RISE Network, an initiative that empowers teachers to innovate in their classrooms and schools so that they can help all students achieve their full potential. On-Track Coordinators build positive relationships with 9th grade students and ensure they have the essentials needed to thrive. Quarterly one-to-one conferences are one RISE initiative where each 9th grade student meets individually with an educator to discuss their academic progress as well as anything else on their mind. The high schools have acted to expand one-to-one conferences to 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students, as well. The RISE Educator Innovation Fund make resources available to teachers so they can design and pilot their ideas for engaging students, many of which take a holistic approach.

Also, when Meriden educators began working to improve school climate in recent years, they realized that despite having abundant academic data, they didn’t have enough non-academic information about students’ desires and challenges. So they created a new “Getting to Know You” student survey that allowed them to better understand students’ needs and launched an online portal, MPS Cares, for students to request assistance and support. Meriden educators are also implementing a restorative practices program, with a focus on elevating student voices. This approach creates a nonpunitive way to handle a wide range of conflicts, but it has evolved to be used in a variety of other ways, as well. At Meriden’s elementary schools, classrooms start the day using Morning Circles, in which teachers and students check in with each other and talk about their goals as a class, or discuss any issues from the preceding day that they need to address together. At Meriden’s high schools, Student Voice Ambassadors host events and meetings to bring their community together and take on issues they want to address, such as having students sitting alone in the cafeteria. Restorative practices further enhance school culture while cultivating students’ understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a community.

Meriden Public Schools is home to incredibly creative, resourceful, and dedicated teachers. For example, a 9th-grade transition counselor recently created a series of projects on DonorsChoose.org to request supplies and materials that would help encourage the social and emotional growth of her students. Other educators have created a variety of projects designed to help support students with social and emotional distress. Two teachers traveled to South Africa last summer on a Fund for Teachers fellowship so that they could volunteer with local educational initiatives, learning how to do more to enrich students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being through mindfulness and creativity. Meriden teachers have an enormous amount of knowledge, and the district designs in-school professional development to draw on that, with teacher-led workshops on topics such as restorative practices and mindfulness.

Just as a student is so much more than a test score, education is about so much more than academic learning. Meriden is leading the way with an educational approach that reflects this reality. Social and emotional learning is as essential as cognitive development for success in school and life, and this report offers a motivational call to action around the promise that a whole-child approach holds for delivering the educational outcomes we all seek together.

Barbara Dalio is Co-Founder and Director of the Dalio Foundation, and Erin Benham is the President of the Meriden Federation of Teachers. The Dalio Foundation has funded Meriden Public Schools since 2015 and the SEAD Commission since 2016.


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