A major group of skills I found lacking in 14 years of teaching fourth- to eighth- graders in Chicago and the suburbs is what is now called social-emotional learning. Students couldn’t work with each other, didn’t know how to wait their turn, had no empathy for others and, most disturbing, refused to take responsibility for their actions. I had worked 30 years in business before education and unfortunately I’d seen the same difficulties in adults.

OPINION

SUMMER SCHOOL: This article is part of an ongoing series in which area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.

I needed change, so I enlisted the program I had used in business called “Self ‘I’dentity the Power of One, Education From the Inside Out.” A long title for a life-changing set of activities to teach adults and children to discover their true identity and live responsibly within that identity.

As a first step, I taught students a deep breathing technique called Centering. It included discovering the difference between habits (Little Me) and identity without habits (Inner Hero). We did this each day at the beginning of class, and it opened them to feel empathy and take responsibility for personal actions.

I used Support Circles, where the class gave offending students compliments, instead of punishment. We also worked on completing cycles of activity to achieve success.  Cycles have a beginning, middle, and completion, enabling students to gain a sense of achievement. These activities helped students to succeed in their academic work, but most important, they achieved social-emotional success skills for life.

One student who epitomized this success was Angie, who had alcohol and crack cocaine syndromes as a baby. She couldn’t stay in her seat more than 30 seconds, couldn’t focus on work, and often walked around the room antagonizing classmates. Angie had never scored higher than the 1st percentile level in reading and 4th percentile in math on state standardized tests and never received higher than D’s on class work and tests.

One day after we’d used the Self “I”dentity program for many months, Angie said, “I want to thank you for teaching me to Center.”

“Why,” I asked her?

“Because when I Center it’s the only time the voices stop in my head. It is quiet, and I can think.”

Great!

Soon after, I told the class before Centering to ask their Inner Hero a question that had been bothering them. After Centering, Angie’s hand shot up and I called on her. She said: “Well first I had my Little Me tell me to kick everyone around me. I knew it was my Little Me because it said do something I knew was bad so I ignored it. Then I heard my Inner Hero.”

“What did it say?” I asked.

“It told me to say I’m sorry to you and the whole class for everything I have done wrong this year. So I’m Sorry, Mr. Laz, for everything I have done wrong and I’m sorry everyone for all the things I’ve done to hurt you.”

From that day on Angie stayed seated, stopped being mean, focused, and went to A’s and B’s. She scored in the 24th percentile in reading and 27th percentile in math on the standardized tests. I know these aren’t at genius level, but they represent huge increases over her previous best scores.

Self “I”dentity skills should be taught to all students for true positive change!

Mitch Lazarus is a science teacher in Streamwood. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.