Singing to the tune of the well-known French children’s rhyme Frere Jacques, the sound of more than a dozen little voices filled the classroom at Bethel Head Start in Buffalo, singing “Eyes are watching, ears are listening, voices quiet, bodies calm. This is how we listen, this is how we listen, at group time, at group time.”
This “Listening Rules” song is just one of the many tools teachers in early childhood programs throughout Erie and Niagara counties are using to help build kids’ social and emotional skills as part of the Positive Emotional Development and Learning Skills (PEDALS) program.
PEDALS, the product of a unique partnership between the Health Foundation and The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, is designed to provide early childhood educators with training on how to effectively use evidence-based social and emotional curricula and assessments in their classrooms.
Why are social and emotional skills important for young children?
Children need to be not just academically ready, but socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten. In fact, kindergarten teachers say that social and emotional skills are the most important tools kids need to succeed in kindergarten. This means that in addition to knowing their ABCs and 123s, children must be able to recognize and manage their emotions, show empathy for others, maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.
Social emotional development and academic success are actually correlated, Foundation Trustee Joseph J. Cozzo, president and CEO of Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center, said.
Working with children on managing their emotions and behavior at a young age is setting the stage for them to be more successful academically as they get older.
“They can take these skills all the way into adulthood,” Cozzo said.
In fact, data has shown that children with better social and emotional skills do go on to have better grades, better jobs and better lives.
However, too many children, especially children living in poverty, do not have the opportunity to develop these skills.
But there is good news – when adults model and incorporate these skills in the classroom, they can be taught.
Through PEDALS, early childhood educators learn how to use a curriculum like Second Step to teach children how to manage strong emotions, communicate effectively and make friends.
Teachers use music, activities, and stories to build their students’ understanding. Five minute lessons are reinforced daily and are also incorporated into other parts of the curriculum.
The lessons cover a range of topics such as identifying and naming feelings, asking for what you need, caring and helping, fair ways to play, and how to make friends in kindergarten, just to name a few.
Fastonia (Lisa) Snell, a teacher at Bethel Head Start, shared an example of how kids managed their emotions. Standing together in a group, the put their hands on their tummies and said “stop.” They then named what they were feeling and took deep belly breaths to calm down.
Bethel Head Start is one of eight early childhood programs that participated in the launch of PEDALS in 2012. Now in its third year, 82 classrooms have implemented the curriculum in western New York and the program has expanded to 27 classrooms in seven organizations in the Syracuse area in central New York.
Early childhood programs can tailor the program to fit their specific needs to make it successful, and sustainable, within their organizations. Coaches are there to provide guidance and support, help teachers fit activities into their classes and deal with challenging behaviors, Jaimee Ferraro, a PEDALS coach, said.
Snell admitted she was a little skeptical of the PEDALS program at first because it took some time to see results.
When students came into Snell’s classroom, she said, a few had already experienced some significant trauma in their lives. Others had never played with other kids before, so they didn’t know how to share, or how to trade toys.
“They had to learn these things,” Snell said. “It was a slow start, but over time, I began to see it was really working and I began to believe.”
Now, Snell said, you can truly see a difference in the classroom and how the kids are behaving.
For example, at the beginning of the year, Snell said that teachers would have to intervene in squabbles between kids at playtime. Now, the kids solve problems on their own.
“I’m a believer,” Snell said.
And it’s not just in Snell’s classroom that teachers are noticing a difference. Overall, teachers tell us that their classrooms run better when kids have social and emotional skills. Teachers can focus on teaching and children can focus on learning.
After one just year there was a remarkable 57 percent decrease in the number of children in the PEDALS program who had social-emotional needs, and a 31 percent drop in the number of children with self-control problems.
After two years, data showed that the curricula continued to improve and reinforce positive behaviors in the classroom.
Now into its fourth year, the program has now reached more than 3,500 children in more than 114 classrooms and daycare settings in diverse communities.
“School is not just about academics – you need social and emotional skills in order to be able to learn, especially in kindergarten,” Ferraro said. “These are skills that they can take with them.”
Overwhelmingly, participating teachers agree – the PEDALS project helps their students be emotionally developed and ready to learn in kindergarten.