By Joe Tash
A program designed to help children learn good social skills, get along with each other and avoid such problems as bullying is earning high marks at Solana Santa Fe Elementary School in the Solana Beach School District.
The school began teaching the “Second Step” program, created by the Committee for Children, a Seattle-based nonprofit, this year to its kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Sixth-graders will begin instruction in the program later this month.
“I would suggest that it’s pretty typical that kids aren’t always nice. This is where they learn how to be nice. And it’s part of our job to teach them that,” said principal Julie Norby. “Schools are a microcosm of society and this is where we learn the rules of life.”
Solana Santa Fe started teaching the lesson plans geared to each specific grade after five staff members — Norby, two teachers, and the school’s guidance counselor and psychologist — attended a two-day training session in San Francisco. The group returned and began training the rest of the teachers in the program, which is also taught at several other schools in the Solana Beach district, of which Solana Santa Fe is a part.
Last school year, parents and teachers became aware of the conflict between some students, primarily girls, which included name-calling and shunning, said Becky Gauthier, a fifth-grade teacher and one of the teachers who attended the training in San Francisco.
The “mean girl” drama was confined to fourth grade, and proved an impediment to learning for some students, said Gauthier. Some parents also brought concerns about the incidents to teachers and administrators.
“When it’s taking away from instructional time, and girls are coming in so upset they can’t focus on the curriculum that’s being covered, that’s when we decide it’s time to step in,” said Gauthier.
Second Step provides lesson plans for students from kindergarten through fifth-grade on such topics as friendship, how to join a group, social skills, empathy or understanding the feelings of others and anger management, said Gauthier. It also teaches kids to recognize bullying when they see it, and steps they can take to prevent bullying, such as speaking up or reporting an incident to adults.
“What we wanted as a school is if kids witness something, how can they help stop it? When should they report it, when should they become involved?” Gauthier said. “Our main goal in school is for them to be safe and happy.”
The program includes photos and videos of different scenarios that children can discuss in class, along with role playing exercises. Teachers in the upper grades spend about 30 minutes a week on the lessons, which can be broken up into 10-minute chunks for the younger students. The program, including training and teaching materials, costs less than $5,000 for the school, said Norby.
Leesa Davis, president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization and the mother of two students at Solana Santa Fe, said she was impressed by how the program is designed specifically for students at each grade level, with singing and puppets for the younger children, and role-playing exercises for upper grades.
“For my two kids it’s been some good dinner conversation,” said Davis. “It’s just good reinforcement of proper and good social behavior.
“It empowers them to say, even though they are my friends, it they are doing something improper… it’s okay to stand up to them,” Davis said.
Norby said Second Step was the only program she found that is research based, and, “I have already seen results on our playground.” As an example, she said, the younger children are taught that when they are upset, they should take deep breaks and put their hands on their tummy. She said she recently saw a first-grader using the technique. “The kids love the program,” she said.
At the beginning of the school year, students were surveyed about bullying, and 56 percent of students reported being bullied occasionally, or less than once a week. Twenty percent of students reported being bullied once or twice a week, and 12 percent said they are bullied most days. Some 80 percent of the bullying came in the form of teasing or name calling, Norby said.
Norby said the survey will be repeated later in the school year to help gauge the effectiveness of the Second Step program.