Bringing Social-Emotional Learning to The Downtown School

By Brian Crawford


At the heart of The Downtown School’s curriculum are five core competencies: Learning How to Learn, Communicating Effectively, Collaborating, Thinking Critically, and Thinking Creatively. When The Downtown School teachers met with Seattle industry leaders last fall as part of their professional development, each professional stressed that these skills are what define professional success. Yes, content mastery and technical skills are important, but one must be able to successfully work with others, communicate, and think creatively to adapt to a quickly evolving business and organizational landscape.

Recently The Downtown School has enhanced this work on the core competencies by introducing a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum into our advisories. On the one hand, our bi-weekly advisories have been a place for SEL activities targeting collaboration, communication, listening, and understanding barriers and portals to social-emotional health and wellbeing. But this past week we took SEL learning a step further, as the ninth grade took part in “open session,” an SEL activity developed by the Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA. During this time, students anonymously wrote social or emotional questions, concerns, issues, or joys on cards, which a teacher then read to the group. Students took turns offering advice, clarifying thoughts, or support; in this way, each anonymous author--and those who might be harboring the same questions--could hear words of encouragement directly from their peers. At no point did the teachers offer their thoughts; they moderated the discussion, thus allowing students to share their wisdom with each other.

At the end of the session, the teachers were moved by the level of wisdom and empathy that the students demonstrated, as well as the powerful sense of community created by the activity. Next year, SEL will take an even more dominant role at The Downtown School. Grade-level and mixed-grade open session will be a regular occurrence, advisories will be mixed-grade, and students will participate in advisory-level SEL activities each week.

But why SEL? As with our core competencies, more and more colleges and business are reporting that they value candidates with strong interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Schools with SEL programs enjoy net community and student engagement benefits; and beyond that, strong emotional intelligence is a good predictor of a person’s ability to weather the ups and downs of social relationships and indeed, life. By supporting our students’ development of core competencies and social-emotional learning--in addition to providing rigorous academics--The Downtown School is doing its part to “to develop in intellectually capable young people the creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits needed to contribute wisdom, compassion, and leadership to a global society.”