St. Columbkille prioritizes social and emotional learning for all students following pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges, including the development of social and emotional skills in our children. While academic achievement is typically considered the main indicator of success at schools, cultivating social and emotional skills, such as emotion management, decision-making, interpersonal skills and conflict resolution, are critical in today's world. Improving these skills at a young age positively impacts academic success, self-esteem, relationships, and community engagement.
To ensure that all students at St. Columbkille Partnership School (STCPS) have support for their social and emotional needs, the administration has created and expanded various programs and partnerships. STCPS Student Support Coordinator Megan McShane, who has worked for 10 years as a licensed school counselor, aims to improve the social, emotional, behavioral, and academic well-being of all students. While the role itself is not new to the school, a much larger emphasis is being placed on her position and the importance of every student having access to mental health services.
"Social and emotional learning (SEL) helps students thrive in school and in life," says Head of School Ms. Jennifer Kowieski. "We teach these skills in every classroom -- from preschool through eighth grade. The Jesuit value and our school theme of cura personalis means 'Care for the whole person.' We understand that the intellectual growth of our students is an important facet of education, but it is not the only one. We continue to focus on the emotional, social, spiritual, and physical development of our students -- and our community."
To further the education of the whole student, Ms. McShane provides both responsive and preventative services. She reaches students through classroom lessons, lunchtime check-in groups, as well as an open-door policy for students, teachers, and parents.
"I really try to make my office a safe place for students to come and talk," says Ms. McShane. "You're never in trouble when you're in my office."
Her calming voice and easy-going demeanor make her an excellent listener, and students are able to open up to her about anxiety, social concerns, and more.
"Ms. McShane is easy to talk to, so I feel like I can tell her anything," says a grade four student. "[After I speak with her], I feel ready to come back to [the classroom] and be my best self and be ready to learn again."
Ms. McShane oversees multiple partnerships that add to the services available for students at St. Cols. A relationship with Franciscan Children's, a children's hospital in Brighton, allows for a clinician to be on-site at STCPS every day for evaluations, referrals, observations, as well as meetings with parents. Bypassing long post-COVID mental health professional wait lists has been a relief for many parents seeking additional services.
"The SEL curriculum has given my children more tools and resources to use," says a STCPS parent of two. "The fact that everyone is learning the same language to talk about emotions helps to normalize it across the school. My son needs some out-of-classroom emotional support, and the school loves him for who he is, meets him where he is and helps him along the way. The student body at St. Cols is very empathetic already and the SEL lessons make them even more so. We're so appreciative that this SEL support has been woven into his whole student growth."
Further, the long-standing partnership with Boston College offers guidance from the Roche Center for Catholic Education, including work with Dr. Molly McMahon, who led an SEL Academy to help coach the staff on positive behavior interventions and supports and helped finalize school-wide expectations for students. This year's four key behavioral areas are safety, ownership, attitude, and respect (SOAR). Ms. McShane shares that providing clear expectations for students helps them with behavioral consistency without ambiguity.
"The goal of my work [at St. Cols] is to support the staff to help students further develop their social and emotional learning competencies," says Dr. Molly McMahon, director of Leadership Programs at Boston College's Roche Center for Catholic Education. "The preventative and prosocial expectations of SOAR are being embraced by faculty, staff, and caregivers and will help create the type of community where students feel safe to learn, grow, and develop."
This fall, Ms. McShane and teachers are piloting three social and emotional learning curricula for grades K2-5. Her goal, in January 2023, is to put into practice an innovative and high-quality curriculum that is technology-based and fully engages students.
"I'm looking forward to piloting one of the SEL curricula," says K2 teacher Ms. Kathleen Murphy-Cashman. "In kindergarten, you're building a foundation for a love of learning, and it's important for students to feel comfortable being themselves. The transition from home to school is easier with social and emotional support in the classroom. I believe that students can fully realize their academic potential when they feel comfortable, confident, and safe to express their emotions."
Additionally, the City Connects program at Boston College creates systemic support for students, while tracking and accounting for the social and emotional development of every student at the school. Each year, Ms. McShane performs a whole class review with each teacher to ensure no student is falling through the cracks from an SEL perspective, and the data collected allows Ms. McShane to analyze progress.
Ms. McShane is also a member of the Massachusetts School Counselor Association (MASCA). Earlier this year, she was one of five people to be accepted into an emerging leader program. As part of the selective training group, Ms. McShane is part of the MASCA board and participates in the professional development committee. She hopes to create a special interest group for school counselors working in Catholic schools, where she aims to respect Catholic values while also supporting students.
"As we continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic, many students are missing or delayed in some of these social and emotional areas, and it is more important than ever that we create environments in schools where students feel they belong and all aspects of their development are valued," says Dr. McMahon. "St. Cols is deeply committed to supporting students in this way."
Ms. McShane and the teachers and staff at STCPS are working harder than ever before to ensure their students receive the best opportunities when it comes to overcoming social and emotional challenges and supporting their social and emotional development.
CHRISTINE MCCARTHY IS A COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST AT ST. COLUMBKILLE PARTNERSHIP SCHOOL (STCPS), A PRE-K THROUGH GRADE EIGHT CATHOLIC SCHOOL LOCATED IN BRIGHTON THAT PREPARES STUDENTS TO LEAD LIVES OF FAITH, SERVICE, AND LEADERSHIP. STCPS IS THE ONLY DESIGNATED LAB SCHOOL OF BOSTON COLLEGE'S LYNCH SCHOOL OF EDUCATION AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT AND PROVIDES A SUPERIOR EDUCATION SUPPORTING CUTTING-EDGE APPROACHES TO TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE HUMANITIES, THE ARTS, AND THE SCIENCES AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF THE CATHOLIC INTELLECTUAL TRADITION.