There are lots of theories about why Fred McFeely Rogers, aka Mister Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, became everybody’s favorite neighbor during his decades on television. Mine is that it’s because he was light years ahead of his time. Whether we viewed his television show as kids, watched it with our own children, or just enjoyed the parodies that poke fun at his gentle nature, many of us still smile when we the think of Mister Rogers. And his messages resonated with us.
On his show, Fred Rogers talked straightforwardly with children about how to navigate a complicated, and often harsh, world, delving into important themes like diversity and acceptance, violence, and fairness. He helped children to identify and understand their feelings associated with these issues, and to cope with them in a constructive way. Whether the result of extensive study or simply of extraordinarily good instincts, Fred Rogers’ messages were consistent with the results of research being conducted today: helping children to develop their social-emotional skills improves their mental health, relationships, and learning outcomes. In honor of Fred Rogers’ March birthday, I’d like to share with you what we now know about the benefits of developing these “soft skills” in children and how that knowledge informs our curricular and programmatic choices here in the Sunnyvale School District.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula generally aim to help children develop competency in five core areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making. In the simplest terms it’s about understanding and respecting yourself and others; but this simple concept has deep personal and social implications. In fact, it turns out that so-called soft skills are not so soft after all; rather they form a strong foundation for social, academic, and vocational success.
Current research indicates that youth who have the benefit of SEL opportunities develop higher levels of empathy, which generally means less aggression toward others and fewer self-destructive behaviors, plus stronger personal coping skills, more emotional resiliency, and greater overall wellbeing. Given that our families reside in the midst of the high-performing pressure cooker that is Silicon Valley, we believe it is critical to empower our students with the skills that help them stay healthy, positive, and able to face whatever challenges confront them as they navigate their world.
Evidence also shows that when children develop self-awareness and self-regulation skills in childhood they have increased concentration in adolescence leading to higher levels of academic achievement in high school and beyond. So while SEL activities take up only a small fraction of our school day, they form a critical base on which we can build rigorous instruction while allowing us to hold high expectations for student success.
We partner with experts in the delivery of relevant SEL curriculum and services: the YMCA, Acknowledge Alliance, Second Steps, Community Health Awareness Council, Olweus, PBIS Technical Assistance Center, Playworks, Project Cornerstone, and more. We have counseling interns across all ten of our school sites, providing needed one-to- one guidance plus regular group conversations such as Teen Talk, Tween Talk, and Just for Kids.
We also provide instruction for our teachers, helping them to learn how to build SEL throughout the day. In addition, teachers learn about cultural differences among our families, how to nurture gender equality in the classroom, and how to help children de- escalate potentially troublesome situations by regulating their own behaviors.
Parents are invited to participate in workshops on topics such as positive parenting, how to recognize warning signs of depression in youth, and more. The hope is that we can begin to speak a common language in the quest for our children’s wellness and development.
It’s our pleasure to partner with you to keep your children healthy, resilient, and ready to learn. Here’s wishing you a beautiful day in your neighborhood.
Benjamin Picard, Ed.D. Superintendent of Schools