Hundreds of tiny lungs slowly expand and contract in unison as students at Highland Park Elementary start their school day in West Seattle.
It’s a daily deep breathing exercise, part of a new focus on social-emotional lessons that advocates say are as essential to learning as academic subjects are.
That effort begins in the school gymnasium with the students in single-file rows.
After they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Principal Chris Cronas recognizes students’ accomplishments, large and small.
One student gets props in front of the entire school for listening to his teacher and following directions. Another gets credit for showing grit when the going gets tough.
"Do you know what grit is?" Cronas asks the students. "It's when you work really, really hard on something and you never give up on it."
Next, the deep breathing. Cronas squeezes a rainbow-colored ball as he speaks quietly.
“Let’s all practice our breathing with the ball and my voice. Ready? Go. In. Hold … one, two, three, four, five, six.”
Many teachers and parents say social-emotional skills have gone out the window in an era of school accountability for test scores and academic rigor, including the Common Core State Standards.
Now Highland Park and other schools are bringing them back.
Cronas said that before, students at his school were getting in trouble often.
"We serve an amazing community. Amazing kids, incredible families. People trying to make it work,” he said. “But it’s a difficult life a lot of our students come from."
Last year, the school had at least 80 percent low-income students. The stresses of poverty take a psychological toll on kids that often affects their behavior and their schoolwork.
'It's Not OK To Bug Me'
So Highland Park is working to help kids identify and deal with the stress in their lives, and they focus on rewarding kids for good behavior more than punishing them for messing up. That’s known as “positive discipline.”
In teacher Rebekah Binns' kindergarten class, one student is pretending to bother another by tapping her on the shoulder repeatedly.
"What could Brisa do?" Binns asks the class. "What could be her strategy to solve this problem?"
Hands shoot up.
"She could say, ‘It’s not OK to bug me during a lesson. I don’t like that. So could you please stop?'" one student suggested.
The kindergarteners come up with two more constructive strategies: ignoring the tapping and asking the teacher for help.
In another room, fifth-graders brainstorm ways to regulate their emotions. "Think of a time you’ve been blue. What have you told yourself to get out of there?" a teacher asked a table of kids.
"You can write a picture of something you have learned from someone," offered one student.
"Or you can color!" said another.
"Yeah! You can color flowers," a student chimed in.
Getting Kids To Buy Into The System
Being good problem-solvers is one of the three expectations posted throughout the school – from the hallways to the cafeteria. The other two expectations: being safe and being respectful.
Setting consistent schoolwide expectations is the basis for positive discipline.
Cronas said when staff members see kids working hard to solve problems, be safe or be respectful, they give out “Mustang Money” – tickets that students can cash in for prizes.
"Maintaining the self-discipline to be a student in a school is a really, really difficult thing to do. It takes a tremendous amount of work," Cronas said. "So by giving them structures and supports that provide not only clarity around what the expectation is but rewarding them for meeting those expectations – they’re going to buy into it."
Kindergarten student Jaelynn Wood says now her classmates focus on the positive, too, compared with the start of the school year.
"Last time we had lots of tattling, and there was no people who said, ‘Melia is very kind today.’ There was nobody who said that," Jaelynn said. "It helps other people make friends. So you can have more friends than just one."
Jaelynn says she’s learned new techniques to calm down when she’s upset, like when someone pushes her. "Then I just take a moment to breathe in and breathe out," Jaelynn said.
Training Takes Time And Pays Off, Advocates Say
Highland Park is not alone in this approach to social-emotional learning and discipline. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is encouraging schools across Washington to implement positive discipline strategies.
Consultant Lori Lynass trains Washington schools in the system Highland Park uses: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. She said one-third of the state's schools have now been trained in PBIS, but only some of them are using it.
"It’s hard work. But we know that it works for kids,” she said. “And we have had schools that have had amazing turnaround.”
Lynass said training takes time and money, which schools may not have. She said for PBIS to work, the whole school must be trained and dedicated to the mission.
Cronas said that is true at Highland Park, where a group of staff members comes in early on Thursday mornings to discuss how PBIS and RULER, the school's social/emotional curriculum, are working.
Cronas says that these days his students are much less likely to act out and much more likely to talk about what’s bothering them.
"This is not rocket science. This is Education 101. Kids need to feel safe. They need to feel respected," Cronas said. “They need to know that the people at their school love them and will give them the structure they need to succeed."