Social-Emotional Learning at PKS

During the 2016-2017 school year, we are presenting a series of posts about the PKS approach to learning. This installment features PKS counselor Carin Chou. Read past installments on progressive educationMandarin immersion, and Habits of Character.

PKS Counselor Carin Chou

PKS Counselor Carin Chou

We all know that “education” is more than the gathering of facts and knowledge (and in the case of PKS, two languages). Social and emotional development are equally fundamental, and multiple studies demonstrate that integration of social and emotional learning (SEL) programs in school pave the way for better academic learning: they teach children skills that are intimately linked with cognitive development, helping them be focused, attentive, motivated, engaged, and confident in their learning. 

What is SEL?

Broadly speaking, SEL is the process through which children 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. (Source: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.)

At PKS, SEL is holistically integrated into the elementary curriculum. Each week, students have a dedicated classroom session to learn, practice, model and explore these concepts, and each week, teachers have a dedicated professional development session to deepen and enhance their approach to whole-student teaching. Perhaps more importantly, we see multiple opportunities built into our day-to-day routines – from playground dynamics to group project work – to practice and apply SEL concepts. Social and emotional skills are just like any other skill; they require practice and practice and more practice, until they become our habits of character.

Building connections: The Three Pillars

Social emotional learning is divided into three equally vital pillars, and we address each one at PKS:

The first is connection to self. We do yoga, practice mindfulness, carry out guided visualizations, and develop our emotional literacy. The more a child can discern the nuances of their emotions and how and where they experience those feelings in their bodies, the better able they are to assess their “emotional weather report” and take appropriate action. 

For example, knowing the difference between furious and frustrated, or  irritated and disappointed, can help a child not feel overwhelmed. Defining an emotion leads to containing it, which leads to coping with it, and that’s ultimately the goal. While we can’t necessarily eliminate every trigger, we can learn to manage our responses.

We do a lot work coaching the kids to “just notice” their thoughts and choose to let certain ones “pass” by. It helps them learn how to observe and make choices, rather than respond reactively.

The second pillar is connection to others. This relates to social thinking, and decoding the unwritten agreements we have as a society. We learn how to engage and be in a group so everyone feels comfortable, how to observe others and think with our eyes (interpreting nonverbal communications), and also about healthy boundary setting to align our insides (thoughts and feelings) and outsides (words and actions).  

It’s wonderful to see kids starting to coach each other on this, to use the vocabulary we practice in class. This year, one of the leadership opportunities for older students is to help the younger kids on the playground navigate their personal space, engage in group activities, and communicate their needs effectively.

The third SEL pillar is connection to the world. This takes the form of our social justice and service learning curriculum, and goes to heart of our mission regarding engaged global citizenship. We undertake this type of learning both in the classroom and within the broader PKS community of families, and it is incredibly rewarding to see the progression from self-knowledge and self-care, to empathy, compassion and action on behalf of others. Our themes for the 2016-2017 school year are food and shelter, environmental stewardship and extended family. 

The connections we build in these three SEL program pillars are clearly intertwined, and we deepen our skills in each as SEL becomes embedded in our students’ academic and home lives.

SEL and Mandarin immersion

We want to ensure that our approach to SEL, and even the vocabulary we use, is authentic and culturally relevant. Issues around diversity and conformity, for example, require that we find a balance that incorporates both our progressive approach and Chinese values, acknowledging the differences between upbringings and approaching them with a sense of humility. Faculty works closely together to develop shared habits and vocabulary that translate seamlessly to Mandarin and English. 

One example of bringing SEL to life at PKS is Jiating (家庭 or family), an elementary-wide buddy program that promotes friendships across grade levels and teaching teams through small “family” groups, giving us the chance to playfully engage with our habits of character and social justice themes. 


A fun way for students to reinforce their school-based SEL activities is to share their new skills and learnings with parents. Following are some videos that will give you a taste of what we’re doing at PKS!

A song about coping with negative thoughts.
A 30-second Michael Jordan clip about failure
A 3-minute explanation of what happens in our brains when we learn something new; this video illustrates some important aspects of growth mindset.
A song about belly breathing
Color Your World With Kindness
Learning to read nonverbal cues about personal space.