Every Friday, K-8 Learning Specialist Cendahl Cornellio-Alter hosts Friday Friends' Sessions for the three and four-year-old children at Gill St. Bernard's. She begins each session by asking the children what they are going to talk about, and the reply is always an enthusiastic "Friends!" These young learners have come to expect fun and lively lessons about friendship and cooperation, lessons that are reinforced not just in picture books and snappy songs but in the day-to-day life of the school as the children learn, play and work together. "In those lessons, we talk about how to be responsible and kind with words, thoughts, and actions, as well as how to be a friend," says Cornellio-Alter. "We present concepts such as integrity, respect, kindness, and gratitude for our youngest learners, so they can understand what it means to be part of a bigger community."
Each of the three academic divisions at Gill - Lower, Middle and Upper School - emphasizes age-appropriate programs such as these, ones that focus on character awareness, character development and social emotional learning. A growing body of research suggests that children who struggle with social skills – making friends, resolving disputes, working with others – are far less likely to reach their full potential in school or after college. According to "Teaching Peace in Elementary School," a November 2015 article in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, "Studies have found that promoting emotional and social skills correlates with improved outcomes in students' lives." The article cites Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, as saying "The neural pathways in the brain that deal with stress and the same ones that are used for learning." The result is that, rather than taking away from time spent on traditional academic subjects, social and emotional learning gives students the tools necessary to thrive in school and in their careers and lives. A similar conclusion came out of a twenty-year study from Penn State University, in which researchers followed the lives of more than 700 children from kindergarten through age 25. The results indicated that college and employment success could be predicted with surprising accuracy based on a student’s emotional skills in kindergarten.
At Gill, the idea of teaching character and social and emotional skills is not new. Asserting that balance matters, the school has always placed a high priority on the combination of scholarship and character, understanding that each nurtures the other. The shift over the past several months has been in a renewed sense of urgency and an increased focus on research-based character programs.
Lower School teachers draw from and adapt a variety social and emotional learning programs, including the DeBug System, Responsive Classroom and the TOOLBOX. Lower School Director Honor Taft explained, “We give the kids scenarios and have them brainstorm on how to solve problems.” Taft also stressed that young children often need help identifying whether they feel sad, angry or frustrated, as well as how to articulate their emotions. “If something is going on, we help them decide what to do. Can they let it go or do they need to talk to a friend? We help students practice saying, 'When you did this, I felt this.' It’s guided and facilitated, and our hope is that by fourth grade, and especially middle school, they will gain independence through it.”
Inside the classroom and on the playground, Taft has noticed a positive impact: "The kids are nice to each other and that creates a comfort level that allows kids to take risks on a daily basis. School is hard – we're asking kids to work at something they may not be good at, all day long. They need a safe and secure environment, and we're doing that by creating a sense of belonging, a sense of significance, a sense of fun. We’re helping kids be willing to push themselves to take greater risks."
Gill St. Bernard’s School is an independent, nonsectarian, coeducational, college preparatory school for students from preschool through grade 12. Located on 208 beautiful acres in Gladstone, N.J., the school’s dynamic liberal arts curriculum offers families a well-rounded program of academics, award-winning arts and athletics programs.
Upon graduation, Gill students are well spoken, goal-oriented, engaging young people poised for leadership and success in higher education and beyond. The 94 graduates of the Class of 2016 will matriculate at some of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities including Chapel Hill, Cornell, Duke, Haverford, Princeton, Vassar, Wake Forrest and UC Davis.
To learn more about Gill St. Bernard’s School, please visit us at our upcoming open house events on Sunday, October 16, 2016 or Sunday, November 20, 2016. To schedule a tour please call 908-234-1611 x 245.