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Addressing social and emotional learning in first grade

Pitsco STEM Units lay the right foundation, say educators at Harmony Science Academy, Austin, TX

Published December 21, 2017
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AUSTIN, TX – Angela Witt is not a typical first-grade teacher. She has a degree in Psychology, and she uses it daily. So, if any teacher understands the intricacies of social and emotional learning (SEL), it’s Witt, who facilitates one of the two Pitsco Education STEM labs at Harmony Science Academy – Cedar Park in Austin, TX.

When she says that the Pitsco STEM Units are a natural incubator for SEL skills, the message is delivered with an air of authority.

At the beginning of the school year, her six-year-olds exhibited typical behavior – occasional selfishness, defensiveness, tears, and fear of failure. That was nothing new to Witt, who is in her sixth year with Harmony. But as the students became comfortable with their first STEM Unit, Exploring Structures in Literature, a transformation began to occur. Each child brought something unique to their four-member teams as they worked through the activity-based unit steeped in reading and art as well as science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Kids coming from different backgrounds see the world differently,” Witt said. “When those different cultures and backgrounds and life experiences come together, it creates such a wonderful harmony, and it’s really teaching the kids not only how to problem solve, but they’re learning social skills. And they’re learning not only independence but that it’s OK to rely on other people to help you.”

SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING

Studies show that educators are taking on a bigger role in the development of children’s social emotional learning skills in the areas of relationships, decision-making, selfmanagement, and awareness. Officials with Harmony Public Schools believe their environment and culture naturally attend to these student needs.

“What we do here is create a safe environment where they can learn,” says Harmony Science Academy Principal Ilker Yilmaz. “Every child can learn but in different ways. That’s what we believe. We have a really positive culture, really positive campus.”

Yilmaz has observed students at several grade levels working with the Pitsco curriculum, and each time he’s found them to be respectful of each other, fully engaged, and eager to work cooperatively. “They share the things that they learn,” Yilmaz said. “Sometimes you learn, but if you don’t repeat it or write it down, if you don’t give it out to someone else, that becomes passive knowledge. But gaining something and passing it along to another by sharing it, then you have active knowledge.”

Witt, meanwhile, makes the most of her three class periods per week with each group of kindergartners and first graders who come into her Pitsco lab, where they develop a host of skills and a high level of confidence that are foundational and transferable.

“I really feel that children cannot learn if they don’t think they can learn,” she said. “We have to build their selfconfidence as teachers and as parents. It’s not about making sure they know how to read. It’s about making sure they believe that they can and that they believe in themselves and have faith in themselves to do it.”

“It’s one thing to make products and another thing to make a product that can work in a classroom. . . . Yes, all of them have products, but there is no comparison to Pitsco.”

– Chendra Garikipati, co-owner, Minerva Learning Systems, India

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