Learning to express feelings, recognize others' emotions, show empathy, wait for turns, share, follow directions, and solve problems—these are the building blocks Jaletha Smith uses daily to help preschool students lay the groundwork for success in school and life.
Smith is a social-emotional coach with the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan's (CFSEM
) Positive Emotional Development and Learning Skills (PEDALS
) program. This school year, she's working to support nearly two dozen early educators in applying social and emotional learning (SEL) activities in their classrooms. The activities nurture competencies known to
increase academic performance and decrease distress and challenging behaviors that lead to daycare and preschool expulsions
"These are the skills that will carry them through life," Smith says. "They'll know how to handle and deal with certain challenges and traumas they might face. And if they have that social-emotional piece, the cognitive— that'll be easy for them to pick up. But you first have to have those skills to be able to sit down, listen, and follow directions to get to that."
Students work on SEL activity. Courtesy of PEDALS.
In PEDALS cohorts, coaches like Smith collaborate one-on-one with preschool teachers for at least two years, working to introduce or strengthen SEL in the classroom. Organizations that partner with the program receive an evidence-based social-emotional curriculum called Second Step
, developmental screening tools, in-classroom coaching, and data-based sustainability planning for administrators at no cost.
Launched in Michigan in 2017, PEDALS is based on a model developed in New York
in 2012. With total funding from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to expand SEL in the region, the program has grown from a special initiative of CFSEM to a supporting organization serving hundreds of teachers, teacher assistants, and students in over 200 classrooms across Southeast Michigan. This year, it's working to expand into less formal early learning environments.
A seasoned coach of five years, Smith says she strives to create a personal connection with her teachers. Upon meeting, she asks about their self-care practices, their thoughts on social and emotional learning, and how to incorporate its skill-building into the classroom. These collaborative conversations are essential in creating a long-term working relationship, she says, and a strong foundation of support for students.
She visits each classroom at least once a month, observing and recording progress. In these visits, she helps initiate SEL concepts, working to bring them to life for teachers and students through language, music, stories, and activities. She shares new ideas, articles, and exercises throughout the month via email and aims to provide additional support to classrooms experiencing behavioral difficulties.
"I try to go in as often as I can to help them out a little bit more with those challenges," she says. "I'm bouncing around to different sites, but I love it, just meeting new teachers and new children and creating those relationships and those bonds."
The connection is visible between Smith and early educator Etaf Bannoura, a former preschool teacher of 18 years who worked with the PEDALS program to strengthen SEL in her Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) classroom. The team collaborated for two years at Wayne Metro Community Action Agency's Head Start site in Dearborn Heights, where Bannoura transitioned into a family advocate role last March.
Jaletha Smith and Etaf Bannoura
Wayne Metro utilized Second Step's curriculum for over 10 years, Bannoura says. Yet, Smith's coaching provided her with increased support, resources, and activities to help her engage students and parents in new ways.
Each week, the preschool teacher shared SEL lessons with classroom parents and exercises for their children to practice skills like focusing attention, listening, self-talk, caring, and helping. Working together with Smith, she says she saw positive transformations in her students that affected their school environment and home life.
"We can see how the kids change from the beginning of the school year towards the end," she says. "We keep telling parents we need to get them ready socially and emotionally before academics. If they have these skills with them when they transfer to kindergarten, they are going to be okay academically."
She says parents also told her how their children demonstrated SEL at home. For instance, if they heard family members arguing, she says, they shared methods they had learned in class to calm their bodies down: holding their bellies, naming their feelings, using pretzel and balloon breathing techniques, and taking quiet moments.
It's a trickle-down effect, says Smith. Students learn SEL skills in the classroom and display their knowledge with family, friends, and others.
"As they get older, they're gonna face a lot more challenging situations," she says. "I think learning to show empathy at a young age or express how you feel about certain things will cut down on stuff like road rage and school shootings."
She says we all need to learn how to calm angry and frustrated feelings to help us reason through situations, and the time to start practicing is now.
Weaving SEL into the classroom
In the PEDALS program, social-emotional learning isn't a class; instead, it's woven throughout the school day. Bannoura describes how she met her students each morning with a smile and hug to demonstrate welcome. For each week's subject, she initiated daily moments, activities, and "brain-builders" to keep approaching the concept in a new way.
One day, she engaged students with puppets to demonstrate human interactions, emotions, and problem-solving. Another day, story cards provoked discussion involving listening and observing. Still, another activity practiced a particular SEL skill. Throughout the week, she led direction-following games like Simon Says or songs like "Freeze Dance" and "Listen and Repeat."
It's all about being consistent, says Smith.
"Kids' minds are like sponges. They absorb all the information. If you're teaching these social-emotional skills and modeling them every day, they'll eventually get it," she says. "[Soon] you don't have to coach and cue them to express their feelings [or] jump in to see how they'll resolve to play fairly together if they both want the same toy. They are figuring out ways to trade, share and take turns."
Often, older kids who have been in the program longer are helping younger ones learn these lessons, she says.
Some of Smith's teachers use timers to help kids learn fairness with a beloved toy. Bannoura's students used "work-in-progress" cards to keep others from touching their project while they took a bathroom or water break. Her classroom's "universal expectations" posted among many signs on the walls were to be safe, kind, and respectful.
Classroom posters reinforce SEL skills
The PEDALS program provides each classroom with a stipend of $1250, which coaches and teachers work together to spend on SEL resources, says PEDALS Director Kamilah Henderson.
"Some teachers buy things to create a 'calm down corner' with a plush toy, a soft blanket, or other tactile resources that encourage children to feel more regulated," she says. "Other teachers want a library of diverse reading materials that talk about feelings and friendships...teachers really get a lot of autonomy in choosing what their classroom needs."
Bannoura designed a quiet place in her classroom where students could retreat if they needed a few moments alone. The furnished nook held books, soft music, squishy toys, puppets, and Pop It Fidgets—sensory items to help students release anger and frustration. If she could, she joined them there to offer encouraging words. When they felt ready, they rejoined the group.
A PEDALS-inspired quiet area for calming.
When many of her students were in their second year, they hardly needed the calm-down space and often used it as a place for play.
"Last year was amazing," she says. "We had older kids; after two months, they knew how to problem-solve and help each other.
We had a student who started in October, and when he came in, he was sad. He missed his mom. So the other students helped him, [saying] 'It's okay. Your mommy will be back.' I remember [when they] were crying like him," she says, "and now [they were] helping."
Sometimes a student will consistently exhibit challenging behavior, she says. In these situations, Smith offered time to debrief together, follow up on research, and conflict-resolution methods to try.
"If we need help, she's there for us—to step in with any situation and give us ideas on what to do," Bannoura says. "And the kids love her. She has that energy, and the kids see the relationship between her and me."
Teachers and coaches working together reflectively to figure out SEL in the classroom is the heart of the PEDALS program, says Henderson. She says the "strengths-based relationship" brings SEL alive for the teachers and children. The program removes the barriers teachers face, she says, in integrating SEL in their classrooms: needing more resources, more time or capacity to implement those resources, not having SEL training, or having mandates for more academic-focused priorities.
"Behaviors are what SEL is centered on, making it so children can function well in the classroom, society, and their lives," says Henderson. "Many teachers believe that absolutely should be the launchpad for academic learning, but they don't have the authority to say, 'This is how I will weave this into my classroom day. PEDALS comes in and says, 'Here are the resources. Here's a way to keep with your foundational curriculum and still weave SEL throughout your day, and it'll feel good to you because you'll have less challenging behaviors."
Near the end of the school year, coaches and teachers start talking to students about transitioning into kindergarten. As part of SEL lessons, they discuss what riding a school bus for the first time will be like, methods for making friends, and ways to calm their fears in new surroundings.
There's always one or two students who don't want to leave the preschool classroom behind, Bannoura says, but she takes comfort in knowing they are ready.
PEDALS out of the classroom
Families at Brilliant Detroit have just finished a six-week parenting class focused on social and emotional learning. PEDALS coach Josie Tipton, led the Wednesday class in Southwest Detroit and says the pilot course was about helping kids identify their emotions. As they get a little more advanced, they will be able to look ahead, she says, and at how other people are feeling.
"Today, a little boy made sure one of the little girls got a sticker. That's showing empathy," she says after the fourth class. "So we want to build on that strength and tell him, 'You were being kind."
PEDALS is working on expanding from its primarily preschool classroom setting into infant and toddler environments and home-based care provider settings. Tipton says this SEL community class is aimed at 4 and 5-year-olds, but she is flexible with her lesson plans as many parents in the community also bring their young toddlers.
She co-facilitates the class with Brilliant Detroit childcare employees who help welcome and engage families, some of who are English Language Learners. Oneida Garcia, a co-facilitator, says parents in the community love to come and participate alongside their little ones.
"Most of these parents work, and they don't have too much time, but when they come to the class, it's quality time together," she says.
PEDALS class at Brilliant Detroit in Southwest Detroit.
As the group gathers in a circle on the floor, Tipton leads the kids in a song about using their eyes to watch, ears to listen, and having calm bodies at group time. Afterward, she explains her theme of self-talk as a way to remind ourselves what needs doing. She dumps a bin of crayons on the floor, and the kids crack up as they sing with her, "Pick up the crayons and put them in the box," helping to toss colors into the container.
" You guys are really good at cleaning up and talking," she says, giving high-fives throughout the group: Matteo, Daniel, Arlen, Paco, and others.
She sings in a call-and-repeat song, "I said a boom Chicka-boom! I said a boom Chicka-rocka-chicka-rocka-chicka-boom!" Parents and the laughing toddlers answer back.
Tipton and Garcia lead songs, asking, "Hello, animals, how are you? " and encouraging the children to touch their toes and noses and turn around. In between, Tipton holds cards that display children doing activities and showing certain emotions. She asks the group what they see.
The PEDALS class includes craft time.
After circle time, kids and caregivers come to the table to make a puppet out of the craft materials waiting. In the PEDALS curriculum, a puppet is a toy, a way to express emotions safely, and an opportunity to self-talk. A complex concept for little ones, Tipton reinforced staying on track and focused on the task.
The group eats a meal together when the kids finish. Communal meals are a cornerstone offering at Brilliant Detroit programs. It's also a time when little ones are learning social and emotional cues, Tipton says.
At the end of the first of these community SEL classes, PEDALS and Brilliant Detroit are collaborating on what to offer next. It may be a continuation during the school year or a summer program for families. Garcia says she hopes to see parents and children continue this time together.
"Families get a connection with the kids," she says. "The kids are learning to say when they're happy and sad. It's very good for families and the community.
This entry is part of our Early Education Matters series, exploring the state of early education and childhood care in our region. Through the generous support of the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (SEMI ECFC), we'll be reporting on what parents and providers are experiencing right now, what's working and what's not, and who is uncovering solutions.