Community IS curriculum: Building the connection between SEL and academics

As we reopened our doors to teachers and students, beyond health and safety protocols, we focused on building the sense of resilience that children need to recover from the upheavals of the past year.
By: | April 7, 2021
Children play with KIBO Robot kits at KinderCare. (Images provided)Children play with KIBO Robot kits at KinderCare. (Images provided)
Theresa Maves is the Director of Education Innovation at KinderCare Education.

Theresa Maves is the Director of Education Innovation at KinderCare Education.

The last year has been a time of upheaval and uncertainty for children and families—not to mention educators. The COVID-19 pandemic forced KinderCare to temporarily close most of our 1,500+ centers in 40 states and Washington, D.C. (We kept some centers in strategic locations open to serve essential workers.) While the majority of our buildings were closed, we took the time to consider what children were missing the most by not being able to learn and play alongside their peers. As we planned how to reopen safely, we decided to focus first on building a sense of resilience using the principles of trauma-informed care.

Through our “Rebuilding Our Learning Communities” program, we’re helping students learn to adapt to new experiences and rebound from challenging circumstances by creating a positive classroom culture through five themes:

  1. Practice problem-solving;
  2. Build optimism;
  3. Reveal empathy;
  4. Establish a growth mindset; and
  5. Cultivate ingenuity.

As we have reopened additional centers serving children ages 6 weeks to 12 years old, we’re protecting our communities by having all teachers and staff go through extensive training on enhanced health and safety practices we’ve developed. We’re working closely with our expert medical advisors and following CDC guidelines on protocols for centers in communities that are slowly lifting some restrictions.

Our reopened centers look and feel different for children, families, and teachers. This is not only because of our safety precautions but because everything we’re doing—from how we support teachers to what we teach kids—begins and ends with building a strong and supportive community to provide our children the foundation they need to learn and grow.

Starting with community

During their first two weeks back with students last fall, our teachers focused on social-emotional connections and forming relationships. Rather than worrying about academics, they established and reinforced a classroom culture that was safe, positive, and supportive. This included an emphasis on anti-bias education focused on four key skills for young learners:

  1. A sense of identity;
  2. Empathy and respect for human diversity;
  3. An understanding of fairness and justice; and
  4. The ability to stand up for one’s self and others.

Each day students participated in class meetings, social-emotional learning activities, and mindfulness practice. We also made other structural changes, such as creating a pod structure so children are in small, stable groups and moving from two daily, community times to three, supplementing our usual morning and afternoon community times with a mid-day gathering. Taking that extra moment to connect gave teachers a valuable glimpse into how they could best meet children’s needs. Here are a few ways we’re fostering that connection:

Play a game in which each child is called on by name and invited to stand up, help out, or otherwise get noticed. For example, the class could play “Who am I describing?” by giving clues about a child and having children use names to guess who they’re describing.

Find something the group can all do together. For example, is there a song that everyone wants to sing, a book they want to read, or an experience they want to discuss? Our teachers pick the most popular idea that can be done in the time they have available. They ask open-ended questions during the activity, wait for children to answer, and encourage them to say more or ask other children what they think.

Talk about feelings. Our teachers ask children open-ended questions like, “How can you tell how you are feeling? How can you tell how other people might be feeling? How are you feeling right now?” They extend the conversation by asking children what they can do when they feel emotions like sadness, anger, fear, frustration, loneliness, or worry. They also ask children for ideas about how they can support each other when someone is feeling one of these emotions.

As teachers worked to establish a strong community, they put that foundation into action with a curriculum designed to help them develop language, math, and executive function skills.

More from DA

How hands-on projects combine SEL and academics

To help students feel confident and excited about learning, teachers led them in two-week focused projects related to different skills that cultivated resilience. Because project-based learning is so authentic to each student, it’s an effective way to integrate SEL with academic skills. For example, in our after-school program, our Tech Track helps kids develop collaboration skills as it teaches them the basics of coding, game design, and robotics.

One recent project used a robot called KIBO to deliver positives messages from one student to another. Understanding that kids have been isolated more than they were used to, we encouraged them to connect by sending the robot to deliver a positive message to a classmate. First, they used a little billboard we attached to the robot to write the message, which could be as simple as “I like talking with you, Annika.” Then they programmed KIBO to follow a route to Annika. When she got her message, she then wrote another message to someone else and reprogrammed the robot to find the next classmate.

Another robotics project connected with a community-focused activity of talking about feelings. KIBO has a Marker Extension Set that you can use to make the robot draw. Teachers started by asking kids how they felt and then asking how they would represent that feeling in their drawings.

Kids then programmed their robots to draw how they were feeling, whether it was short and jagged for anger or wide, sweeping motions for happiness. They could also choose colors that represented their mood. We then posted their artwork to validate every emotion. This sort of lesson not only teaches coding but underscores that we have to let out our feelings.

In our documentary project, we asked students to look beyond their own feeling and use their interviewing and directorial skills to create a brief documentary by interviewing friends, neighbors, and relatives about what makes them feel hopeful for the future. We began by asking students key questions such as, “What types of questions might you ask to understand what makes someone feel optimistic? How can you incorporate a variety of perspectives into your work when you may not be able to visit with people in person due to social distancing?” In the end, students used their tech skills and their social-emotional skills to connect with others, despite the challenges of social distancing.

In all of these projects, we followed a design model that tech and design professionals use to innovate. Kids shared ideas, offered feedback, asked questions, and gave compliments. The hands-on, real-world experience of solving problems together helped them become creative and critical thinkers as well as stellar team players.

During this tumultuous year, reality has evolved for educators across the country, and how we care for one another and our children is evolving, too. Secure in the power of human connection, we’re rebuilding our learning communities by teaching our children the skills they need today and for the future—and how to use those skills to go beyond surviving to thrive, individually and within their learning community.

Theresa Maves is the Director of Education Innovation at KinderCare Education. She previously worked as the Global K12 Manager of the Corporate Affairs Group at Intel. She began her career in the classroom, as a special education teacher and an 8th-grade physical science teacher. She can be reached at