A new way of learning
Durangoan pioneers Social Emotional Learning method

Students at Miller Middle School congregate during physical education class on the school field. Miller, along with severla other 9-R schools is paritcpating in the Social Emotional Learning program, or SEL.  A paradigm change for public education, SEL endeavors to shape young people into problem-solvers who impact their communities for the better. /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Shawna Bethell

When I ask a group of teachers, ‘What makes a person successful?’ they get beyond the superficial pretty quickly,” says Mark Fallon-Cyr, a local child psychologist who has been working with kids and families for 20 years. “They usually always come up with the same list: A successful person is someone who is confident, a communicator, a problem solver, someone who is creative in their thoughts, someone with integrity who respects others.”

Fallon-Cyr’s next question gets a bit more complicated: What is a good education? And even more pointedly, can public education evolve into something that focuses on creating these types of successful people?

While in the trenches, teachers may become exasperated just thinking about adding one more thing to their list of responsibilities, Fallon-Cyr’s vision – known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL) – may actually make their lives easier. A paradigm change for public education, SEL endeavors to shape young people into problem-solvers who ultimately impact their communities for the better.

“Just think, we can teach Johnny how to problem solve with integrity in the first grade,” says Fallon-Cyr. “By the time he and his classmates get to high school and they are thinking creatively along these lines, they will be more able to look at bigger issues like ending poverty.”

The concept of Social Emotional Learning, which has been on the threshold of educational practice for several years, is centered around five basic concepts.

The first is to help young people reach their full potential by becoming aware of themselves and others. Second is through this awareness, to transcend many of the problems seen in schools today, such as violence, high dropout rates and unhealthy decision making. Third, it meets the practical needs of educators by giving them the skills they need to help the students. Fourth, as a result of contented students and teachers, schools become vibrant, safe communities. And lastly, students become more capable of meeting their academic achievements as these “norms” are incorporated into the learning environment.

“People can be brilliant, but without the social component, they are not successful individuals,” says Fallon-Cyr. “Look at Madoff. Look at Hitler. Most successful people have both. It is that component of giving back that is lacking, the part of leadership and ethics.”

Mark Fallon-Cyr, local child psychologist and creator of SEL, catches up on some morning news at the Steaming Bean./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Fallon-Cyr has been collaborating with longtime friend and colleague Eric Larsen, who is based at an alternative school in Fort Collins. The two share the dream of putting together a nonprofit that develops a comprehensive program for K-12 schools. Fallon-Cyr says there are many programs out there that support components of Social Emotional Learning, and the state of Illinois has mandated that SEL be a part of its education system. However, he adds that there is no comprehensive program that can be adopted. This is what he and Larsen hope to achieve in time.

For now though, there are parts of SEL that are valuable as they stand, and those are the components Fallon-Cyr is helping to promote in the local school systems. “SEL is a paradigm shift, and that type of change in mindset could take 50 years to come around, but we have to think about what we can do right now to make a fundamental change. Then what will we do five years from now.”

Five years ago, Fallon-Cyr began meeting with counselors and principals with the fantasy of launching a program in the Durango schools, and though there was a great deal of interest, the program did not get the requisite funding. But individual schools have embraced the concepts of SEL and several have begun initial training for their faculty and staff.

“Park and Florida Mesa have had initial trainings, and Miller and Escalante coordinated efforts toward training faculty and staff in both schools,” says Fallon-Cyr. “The objective is to process these ideas for the rest of the year and see how it could be phased in.”

Durango High School has also shown interest and formed a steering committee. Fallon-Cyr is heartened by the commitment and hopes to have all DHS staff trained by the summer of 2010.

“My biggest concern is that there be an infrastructure in place,” he says. “For a program like this to work, we need to see comprehensive leadership.”

So what types of things do these trainings incorporate? For one, schools often define what type of learning environment they want. To determine this, Fallon-Cyr begins asking teachers those same questions about success and education. He also asks, “What are the things that get in the way of teaching young people the components that make them successful?”

Their answers often include drawbacks like absenteeism, behavior, aggression and unhealthy choices. With this in mind, Fallon-Cyr, and the educators who are on board with SEL, believe that respect and self-awareness can become the rule and not the exception. And when this happens, students and faculty alike can then focus on creating successful schools, and ultimately successful human beings. •



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