Holly Glen Middle School SECD coordinatorsHolly Glen Elementary School is a K-4 school in Monroe Township, Gloucester County. In 2004, the school adopted the Community of Caring model of character education as a whole-school approach, and the staff has never looked back. The five core values of the school--caring, respect, responsibility, trust and family--are woven into every aspect of school life and are standards of behavior for everyone in the school—students, staff, parents, and volunteers.

This makes sense in a school whose major goal, according to Social-Emotional and Character Development (SECD) Coordinators Pam Capasso (a library-media specialist) and Janine Norris (a first-grade teacher), is to provide all children with a safe, positive, challenging and creative learning experience, empowering them to become responsible and productive citizens. “Working together, the staff, students, parents and the community commit themselves to the development of the whole child through our shared values,” notes Capasso.

Six years ago, Holly Glen was approached by Rutgers to form a partnership and build SECD strategies into their already existing character education philosophy. An SECD Team was created. The staff welcomed the idea because it fit the Holly Glen philosophy of “If you have a solid foundation, the educational part falls into place.”

Because everyone at Holly Glen is held accountable for upholding school values, all stakeholders (administrators, staff, parents, community members, etc.) were brought on board. “Before you can expect a change in the students and building environment, everyone has to walk the walk,” said Norris. “Therefore, we truly believe Holly Glen is a family learning community by embracing social and emotional learning.”

From a place of shared values and deep understanding, each teacher has creative flexibility to incorporate his or her own unique ideas to strengthen SECD. Some examples follow.

The greeting sets the tone

Many students come to school with some emotional “baggage.” Therefore, how they are greeted upon arrival in school sets a tone that lasts for the entire school day.

“By simply greeting them at the door each morning with a high five, handshake or hug, it will create a feeling of belonging,” Capasso believes. “Allowing the students to make the choice of how they wish to be greeted helps foster security.”

To help them build proper social etiquette, students are taught how to appropriately meet and greet by using a firm grip and looking the person in the eyes. They regularly get a chance to practice with classmates. Another excellent technique includes using a daily journal. Students writing about a topic, then are given five minutes to walk around the room, use the proper “meet and greet” technique, and share their ideas on the topic. The staff has found that this activity, done at least weekly, helps to eliminate stereotypes and encourages students to learn about others they normally might not have approached.

Building SECD skills

“Family meetings” are an SECD strategy that allows students and staff to brainstorm positive solutions to problems that happen daily in their lives. There are many different ways to conduct a family meeting, including through teachable moments, using literature as a base, and starting or ending the day. When a problem is encountered by at least two or more students, the teacher (or the students) can call for a family meeting. Everyone gathers in a circle, those involved present the problem, their feelings about the problem, and what they would like to have happen. The rest of the students ask questions to clarify the feelings, problem statement, and goals, and then brainstorm solutions. Typically, those involved simply take these suggestions; other times a vote is needed. You can be creative on how you conduct a family meeting, as long as the students feel safe.

SECD skills are also incorporated into the curriculum. For example, the children’s book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes is an important tool. The book is about a young girl who loves her name until she gets to school and is teased about it. Language arts lessons in Holly Glen focus on anti-bullying messages by creating a chart allowing students to express how they feel when they hear bullying or mean teasing and when they are not spoken to that way. Students also write persuasive essays on why their name is special. Adjectives are taught by having students walk around the room and say a positive comment about each student using an adjective, which are placed on a poster of each person’s name. For the younger grades, consonants and vowels are be introduced by having students use words that start with one or the other. In social studies students research the origin of their names and then map the countries involved.

Special area teachers can easily integrate SECD into their classes. In physical education, teachers discuss the school’s core values as part of teaching students about sportsmanship. Teamwork is taught through the Knot Challenge. Each person in a group of five holds the end of a four-foot rope. They must reach across and grab someone else’s end but not the person next to them. After doing this, they will end up in a tangled knot and through communication they have to work together to get untangled.

One of the most important parts of SECD is that students have a voice. Holly Glen has a character education club where students are responsible for fundraisers, philanthropic work, service-learning projects and upholding the values of their school. “Students are part of service activities, and student forums as well, where they are given a voice and opportunity to learn to make responsible decisions,” adds Principal Thomas Myers. In 2011, Holly Glen’s Character Education Club won the Promising Practice Award from the Character Education Partnership.

Holly Glen has received its share of recognition, receiving a prestigious N.J. Governor’s School of Excellence Award in 2005-06, a N.J. School of Character Finalist Award in 2006-07 and 2007-08, and in 2009-10, a Star School Award from the Developing Safe and Civil Schools project for exemplary sustained SECD schoolwide programming.

For more information, contact Capasso at PCapasso@monroetwp.k12.nj.us or

Norris at JNorris@monroetwp.k12.nj.us.

This column is edited by Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., who directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development (SECD) Lab at Rutgers. Contact Elias at RutgersMJE@aol.com.