Student support program takes shape at HES

Adults stand near the edge of a room with a rainbow carpet

If a student’s behavior in the classroom gets to be out of control, he or she might need to leave. But at Herkimer Elementary, those students might not be going to the principal’s office — they may be headed to the SEL room just down the hall.

What is SEL?

SEL, or social and emotional learning, is a growing part of the school curriculum for all students at HES. The state Education Department describes SEL as “the process through which children, youth, and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

  • Read more: “What is SEL?,” Collaborative for Academic, Social,
    and Emotional Learning

But School Counselor (Intern) Sara Lamanna describes it in simpler terms.

“Our school recognizes that we all come in with some baggage,” Mrs. Lamanna said. “So we’re making sure we have the right tools to help everyone succeed.”

The core idea of introducing students to social and emotional learning, Mrs. Lamanna explained, is to give students the ability to recognize and understand their own feelings so that they can respond appropriately. The goal is for students to learn how to recognize and understand their reactions before a meltdown begins.

“All youngsters and adolescents can benefit from foundational, age appropriate social-emotional development that prevents problem escalation and equips them with life and workforce skills.”  — New York State Education Department

‘It’s so nice in here’

The SEL room at Herkimer Elementary is a calm and quiet space that includes soft seats, gentle lighting and a sensory path where children can guide themselves through focused physical activities with adult supervision.

Everything in the room is aimed at de-escalating — helping students bring themselves back to a place of calm so that they can return to learning. What might look like toys — small objects that students can pick up and hold — are actually tools; sensory objects and “fidgets” specifically chosen to help students become calmer and more focused.

fidget objects in a wooden box

“I had a little guy come in the other day and say, ‘It’s just so nice in here,’” explained social worker Kathy Orts.

And while the SEL room is open to all students at all times during the school day, it’s only one of the tools that teachers are using to help students manage their emotions appropriately.

“Every single classroom has a designated ‘calm-down corner,’” Mrs. Lamanna explains, describing how teachers were enthusiastic about naming, decorating and equipping these parts of their classrooms at the start of the school year.

Ready to learn

Mrs. Lamanna is developing a comprehensive counseling program for all students that includes spending time with students in kindergarten through third grade on social and emotional learning, and working with fourth- and fifth-graders on career counseling and goal-setting.

Together with the calm-down corners and the SEL room, these strategies aim to not only ensure that classroom instruction can proceed smoothly and children can spend more time learning, but also to set HES students up for continuing success.

And the impact can be powerful, Mrs. Lamanna said.

“Instead of being sent to the office or being disciplined, we’re giving these students tools so they can help themselves.”

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