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A Surprise Starfish: Relationships Built on Social and Emotional Learning

It’s measured by un-hunching shoulders and teeth coming unclenched. It’s seen as fists coming to rest, open palmed, by the pockets of Cheeto dust- stained khaki pants. It’s the feeling of calm that washes over student and City Year Member alike when both take a time out to talk or just breathe. These student to City Year member relationships mark the development of students’ Social and Emotional Learning skills. Guiding students through the process of regaining emotional control during moments of stress, panic, anger, or confusion in the ever-changing social environment of the classroom is an important step in not only building our relationships with our students, but in also helping students to develop the skills for interpersonal and academic resilience. Recognizing the emotional journeys that our students navigate from day to day is also how many CYM’s (City Year Members) come to meet their “Starfish”- the students with whom they feel their service is making an exceptional impact.

I didn’t recognize one of my starfish students until late November, and my ability to finally connect with him came as a complete surprise because I had tried and failed throughout the school year to feel as though I was making his classroom experience less of a struggle.  Like most fourth-graders, this particular starfish isn’t perfect when it comes to social awareness and self control. He gets excited about figuring out how to dissect word problems in math class, and he likes to make sure that he’s doing the right thing. As a result, he is very quick to shout his answers to the rest of the class in search of feedback, and he often walks the room, rather than raising his hand, so that he can speak directly to the teacher whenever he gets confused. His frequent outbursts, and room-wandering always led to him being yelled at, sent to the corner, and then ignored as punishment. He is usually by himself before class is half over.

Once he’s sent to sit alone, he quickly becomes angry; his entire body clenches, he balls his fists, and he scribbles across his work and through sheets and sheets of paper. Because he grew so visibly angry and hard to redirect, I used to side with this disciplinary measure without intervening. I believed him to be an uncooperative disruption who needed to be sent to work on his own in order to keep the rest of the room on task.

While sitting in his usual corner one day, my Starfish finished the challenge problem before the rest of the class. He held his board up high, and hollered, “IS THIS RIGHT? IS THIS RIGHT? IS THIS RIGHT?” In response, the teacher scolded him for what seemed to be an “outburst”. He lowered his board. On this particular day, I had been working along with the students, so that I could understand how to help them get through the trickier parts of their problems. Right before my Starfish crossed out everything on his board and began scribbling, I had the opportunity to see that his answers were correct.

I felt myself concaving when I watched him lower his answers and wipe them away. I felt my heart break because I watched his faith in his math abilities dissipating; he didn’t understand that the teacher was responding to the way that he was sharing his answers, and not the way that he had done his math. I felt so much hurt for him because he was yelled at, rather than acknowledged and redirected.

I walked across the room to his corner and knelt by his desk, where he’d already erased his work and begun to angrily scribble as he hunched over his board. I spoke in a soft voice and asked if he was confused about how he did the math, but stopped. I asked him instead if he was confused about why the teacher yelled at him for doing his math work. He nodded.

“Don’t be upset. Your answers are correct, and you did a good job. Look at me. Take a deep breath. You did a good job.” He was slow to speak at first, but the scribbling slowed down while he thought over what I said. He nodded in acknowledgement, and I asked if he’d like to talk about his answers with me while the teacher went over the problems with the class. I made sure to give him praise and feedback each time he verbalized his thinking. It was in that moment that I finally realized that his behavior the way that he was trying to express his curiosity about math! I think he really enjoyed knowing when he was doing the right thing and having the ability to talk to me and have his confusions reassured.

Before getting my creaky 20-year old knees off the floor, I gave him a fist bump, and I made sure he knew that he did the math correctly. I asked him if he liked talking through his answers, and he nodded again. The two of us decided that he’s going to try to remember to raise his hand and stay quiet so he can share his answers loud and proud for the classroom; but if it’s a Math-mergency and he needs to ask a question right away, he can make eye contact with me during class so that he can always have a classroom-appropriate way to be a social learner and share his thinking.

During our trainings, City Year taught us that we would be “filling the gaps” that our students have, meaning that our primary role in the classroom is to help students catch up and keep up with the curriculum. I assumed that meant that I’d be buzzing around the room, correcting answers, and occasionally drilling students with color-coded flashcards of their dreaded multiplication facts. I thought that being a City Year Member would be easy! “All I have to do is be my cheerful self, get the kids engaged, and they’ll breeze through the fourth grade!”

Having that breakthrough moment with my Starfish led me to understand that teaching the skills to understand Math and English are only part of the equation. The often-missed step between students and classroom success is the need for kids to receive repeated social and emotional mediation as they learn to respond to the environment that the curriculum provides. One of the best parts of being a City Year Member is having those “Aha!” moments with my students not just when they understand a piece of knowledge, but when ​I ​ finally understand what they need their environment of success to look like. I now know that my Starfish behaves the way he does not because he’s disruptive, but because he responds to his math environment by seeking feedback and open communication! He thrives when he receives emotional validation and affirmation, and his environment for success will ultimately be one in which he has the ability to share his ideas with peers while he learns how to manage his need to share with the classroom expectations.

Now that I know this, I no longer see him as a disruption. Now that I’ve made this connection with him, he looks out for me in math because the two of us get to talk about math together! Each student is a different puzzle to solve, but once their shoulders finally relax, I know I’m getting them to a place from which I can help them to build the best possible environment for success.

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