School-Connect: Concepts and Skills

Each School-Connect lesson builds on previous lessons and lays the groundwork for what is to come. During the early development of School-Connect, the authors contacted a number of researchers regarding lessons that highlighted their theories and received feedback from them on lesson drafts and, in several cases, were granted permission to use or adapt specific strategies for high school students. For example, Dr.Carol Dweck granted permission to develop a lesson on Mindset Theory and Dr. Paul Ekman granted use of his facial expression photographs and method of analysis.

Module 1: Creating a Supportive Learning Environment

Module 1 introduces students to social and emotional learning (SEL) and discusses, demonstrates, and provides practice in how to create good first impressions, recognize how others are feeling, actively listen to one another, communicate thoughts and feelings effectively, and build collaborative relationships with classmates. Students learn important academic skills, e.g., how to organize themselves for success in high school, take effective notes in class, improve memorization skills, and develop academic supports. They also explore the value of an education as it relates to interests, lifestyle, and earning power in the workplace, helping them to develop a future orientation.

In the theoretical realm, students examine their underlying beliefs that lead to "mindsets" about intelligence, personality, and other abilities -- habits of thinking proven to have profound effects on student behavior and achievement (Dweck, 2000, 2006). They learn about research documenting the debilitating effects of having a fixed mindset about intelligence and personality (i.e., our intelligence and/or personality is fixed and we can't do much to change them) and the positive effects of having a growth mindset (i.e., we can improve through effort). Students who exhibit a fixed mindset learn to challenge their beliefs, while those who exhibit a growth mindset learn why this attitude works in their favor and how to strengthen it, especially as it applies to academic engagement. Guidelines in cultivating curiosity and a super kind of perseverance known as "grit" help them to apply a growth mindset and view setbacks and challenges as tools for learning.

Module 2: Developing Self-Awareness and Self-Management

Module 2 employs cognitive-behavioral interventions that help students understand how their thought processes affect their emotions, which in turn drive their behavior. This cycle, well documented in the literature on depression, psychological pathology, and violence prevention, impacts the way students perceive and respond to social and academic challenges, directly affecting their success in either realm (Beck, 1976; Seligman, 1998; Guerra &Slaby, 1990). Building on Mindset Theory, Module 2 helps students learn to recognize negative automatic thoughts and attributions prompted by different situations, such as going into a test ("I'm going to blow this.") or passing a friend who doesn't acknowledge them ("He just dissed me!"). Students learn to challenge these thoughts with more neutral or positive assessments and recognize the effect these self-statements have on their feelings and behavior.

In addition to addressing their thoughts, students learn to manage their affective states. They practice reducing negative emotions, such as anger, fear and anxiety, which can become barriers to learning and making friends. Students also learn to employ positive emotions that can increase optimism and their ability to concentrate and apply themselves (Isen, 1990; Rubin, 2009).

Module 2 then delves into the relevance and purpose of high school by tying high school responsibilities to long-term goal attainment. In an extensive study of resilient youth, Benard (1991, 2004) found that young people who showed the greatest success in adolescence and adulthood shared five common factors: 1) a sense of autonomy, 2) problem-solving skills, 3) social competence, 4) a sense of purpose and future, and 5) a relationship with a caring adult. While the curriculum addresses all of these factors, Module 2 focuses primarily on factor four: developing a sense of purpose and future. Students envision what they will be doing 5 and 10 years after high school and at age 65 as they look back on their career and life. Next, they research career paths and college acceptance criteria to gain a greater perspective on how high school grades and activities can impact their future plans and opportunities, and begin mapping a path to reach their envisioned self.

Module 3: Building Relationships and Resolving Conflicts

The primary research supporting the concepts and skills taught in Module 3 is in the area of empathy development. Research in the social development of children has identified three components of empathy: 1) the ability to recognize emotions in others, 2) the ability to take the perspective of others, and 3) the ability to respond emotionally to others (Feshbach, 1975). By middle childhood, most young people have an understanding of the types and causes of emotions, including situations that involve mixed or contrasting emotions, and show personal concern for others in distress (Hoffman, 2000; Bateson, 2009). This is not true for many students with behavioral problems, who, as they grow older, tend to show less personal concern for others (Hastings et al., 2000). In adolescence, empathy is an important skill in friendship but is not readily extended to those outside of one's sphere of friends (Worthen, 1999). Peer bullying, particularly in the form of relational aggression (i.e., exclusion, shunning, gossip, and verbal abuse), reduces students' empathy for those who are targets of this behavior (Ang & Goh, 2010; O'Connell, Peplar, & Craig, 1999).

Module 3 aims to interrupt these negative social processes by awakening students' natural empathic tendencies. It does this by providing practice in: recognizing emotions, actively listening to others' viewpoints, understanding different perspectives, and developing strategies for caring about the welfare of people whom students perceive as different from themselves. Activities that have students listen to each other's experiences with labeling, stereotyping, prejudice, bullying, and cyberbullying and assess their own reactions to diversity, help fuel students' desire to act in accordance with their better selves.

The concepts and skills taught in Module 3 are grounded in prevention research. Numerous studies document the positive effects of teaching interpersonal problem solving and other relational skills, such as refusal, positive persuasion, and apologizing, on young people (Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2004; Durlak et al., 2011). Research indicates that practicing refusal skills in a non-threatening and supportive environment in conjunction with general social skills bolsters high school students' ability to respond appropriately when faced with similar dilemmas in real life (Botvin et al., 2015).

Young people often say that they knew what to do in a given situation, they just didn't know how to do it. Role-playing, a strategy based on Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1986) and proven effective with adolescents (Goldstein, 1980), is used throughout School-Connect. Students role-play how to problem-solve interpersonal conflicts, how to view a situation from another person's perspective, and how to talk a friend or acquaintance out of a risky behavioral decision. When students practice social and emotional skills, they gain a greater sense of self-efficacy and confidence in refusing risky behaviors and making wise decisions.