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Schools settle into annual rhythm with new social, emotional component

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Glenn Elementary School in Normal.

Teachers in Bloomington-Normal hope to make more progress this school year on how kids interact with each other. Last year, many kids weren't used to being in a classroom, doing things together, or taking teacher direction. That resulted in increased conflict and tempers, and sometimes emotional withdrawal.

"I think at the fall of 2021, everyone expected we would have a difficult year. I would say no one was prepared for how difficult it was," said veteran Bloomington schools middle school teacher Julie Riley.

Speaking on WGLT's Sound Ideas, Riley said kids started to get better last year after returning to the classroom, though it took them longer to adjust. Many years, she said it takes about a month following summer break to settle in, but last year it was more like a full quarter.

Some students were still not back to normal for their age groups at the end of last year. They continued to struggle, she said.

“Some kids would withdraw and shut down and not do work. If they didn't like what they're being told by an adult, we would sometimes see kids shut down. Other kids would become quite noisy. Kids would get into arguments with one another sometimes. We also saw more kids than I remember seeing pre-pandemic who wanted to bolt. We would have kids who would leave a classroom without permission, which was a strange thing to have to start getting used to and deal with,” said Riley.

Middle schoolers, who Riley works with, have typically been prone to not getting along and trying to figure out it all out. It is an unsettled stage in development.

“For many years, I've been trying to convince kids, you can let that go," she said. "But I think we did see quick tempers, and perhaps not being in school where they were getting that messaging of how do we build our capacity to ignore, how do we get along with people we're upset with.”

She also said social media amplifies any tendency toward strife.

“It was still fairly rough in the spring. What's hard is when you have kids who are struggling, kids who are acting out. They can kind of take all the air out of the room. It might feel bigger than it was on paper,” said Riley.

Teachers placed a priority on emotional health over learning standards; Riley hopes parents also hold their children accountable.

“I would like the public to understand teachers are just doing the very best they can to try and help the kids who are in front of them," she said. "Teachers go into education because they care about kids. They care about the subjects they teach. Teachers really want to work with the children and work with the families. I think sometimes, a parent's desire to support their child, or defend their child sometimes crosses into making excuses. And that's, that's not going to help their student or the class in the long run.”

She said schools are being even more proactive this year as the start of school settles into its annual rhythm.

“I'm sure hoping that we're not going to see the level of need that we saw last year. I do think enough kiddos came along with us and remember this is what school should look like, that we're going to see a better year,” said Riley, adding there's a new curriculum that focuses on social and emotional health.

"The system is called seven mindsets and one of them is 'be positive.' It's general principles of how does one live a happy, productive life. And then each one has four specific behaviors," said Riley.

She said it moves all the way from grade six through the end of high school.

"There's a lot of potential for that to build over time where kids will start learning some of the vocabulary and some of the dispositions that we are hoping to instill and that will carry forward year after year," said Riley, hoping the passage of time and increased attention to those kinds of skills will pay off.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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