Learning to Play Nice

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In some schools academics aren’t enough of a lesson, and learning to play nice is part of the curriculum.

If public schools were grocery stores, their shelves would be stocked with the three R’s and ABCs. Math? Aisle 3. History? Against the back wall. Science? Hang a left after literature.

In other words, they offer, almost exclusively, an array of academics. But schools in San Francisco, Oakland and a handful of districts across the state are adding to that inventory, and in the process redefining what students need to know and ensuring that schools teach it.

In the simplest terms, the districts say kids need to be able to play nice, and it will be the job of public schools to make sure they know how.

Educators call it social-emotional learning – skills that ensure students are better learners; better neighbors; better citizens, employees or bosses; and better team players.

“These are teachable skills, and everybody can improve upon their skills,” said Paul Goren, senior vice president at the Chicago-based nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. “Almost all the businessmen and women say, ‘We’re looking for high competency on the academic side, but we’re also looking for team players.’ “

Prior knowledge

Learning to Play Nice

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Some students show up to kindergarten knowing how to play nice in the sandbox. They’re the ones who are more likely to share shovels and collaborate on building castles and less likely to throw sand in someone’s face.

Others lack such skills and are unable to navigate the social mores of the playground or classroom as easily as their peers.

To many educators, they either had those skills or didn’t, said Matthew Hartford, principal at San Francisco’s Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School.

“If kids don’t come to school prepared to collaborate, we punish them, blame their family, blame their neighborhood, blame their race, their socio-economic situation, instead of reaching deeply to teach them,” he said. “Some kids need to learn it.”

Lakeshore is among 48 of the district’s 107 elementary and middle schools that are incorporating a program called Second Step, which teaches a range of skills in each grade, kindergarten through eighth, including how to listen, how to manage stress, how to be empathetic and deal with conflict.

Program expanding

Eventually, all K-8 students in the district will participate in Second Step lessons as part of their regular schooling, learning self management, self- and social awareness, and relationship skills.

For back-to-basics or conventional education advocates, those words might sound a little too left-coast liberal. Supporters, however, say kids who don’t have these skills tend to lag in school.

“They’re not really hippie-dippie in my view,” said Thomas Graven, San Francisco Unified executive director of Pupil Services. “Actually, it’s what great teachers already do.”

San Francisco teacher Anastasia Fusscas leaned down and whispered the sentence to one of her fourth-grade students.

“We respect other people.”

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Learning to Play Nice

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