By Stacey Gardner

What will it take to be a leader in the latter half of this century? With technology changing our world at such a rapid pace, it is difficult to discern the hard skills that today’s students will need to succeed in the workforce of the future. As educators, we must be aware of these changes and constantly provide our students with opportunities to learn and practice flexibility, perseverance and empathy.

Preparing the next generation of leaders in our world must be a top priority. Today’s students’ future career choices will reflect our influence as educators and as parents and grandparents. Whether our students choose to become businesspeople, lawyers, teachers, artists, or entrepreneurs, they will need training in their specific discipline. But, more importantly, they will need the interpersonal skills necessary to navigate all kinds of unpredictable life and career situations. How can we prepare our children to ensure that, no matter what the economic or political climate in our world happens to be, they will have the skills successful in whatever profession they choose?

It begins in Kindergarten

Social and emotional learning has become a catchphrase among today’s educational circles, but what exactly is social and emotional learning? What does it look like? When does it happen? Why is it so important?

There are many programs available to schools today that promote social and emotional learning. One such program is called Open Circle. Because of programs like Open Circle, students become empowered to advocate for themselves in situations where they may have previously felt powerless. Among the skills mastered in Open Circle, the school listening look is one of the first. The school listening look gives concrete expectations for demonstrating respect for a person who is speaking. Other skills learned in Open Circle include using intentional breathing to calm oneself down when angry or worried, and a framework for solving problems in a socially and emotionally healthy manner. There are multiple opportunities throughout the day for students to practice using the language of Open Circle, which helps to promote a safe environment in the classroom, as well as in the school as a whole. A sense of community blossoms when children feel safe, can share their feelings, and can be heard. Equally important, this sense of safety enables children to learn.

Another widely used program in elementary schools is Responsive Classroom. The four key domains of this program include engaging academics, positive community, effective classroom management, and an awareness of children’s developmental abilities and needs. One of the core premises of Responsive Classroom is that “How we teach is as important as what we teach.”

Approaching students with respect models positive behavior in the classroom and beyond. Responsive Classroom helps teachers integrate academic and social-emotional skills to create an optimal environment for learning. A predictable structure of a morning meeting every day, followed by a reflection circle at the end of the day provides children with a feeling of knowing what to expect, therefore eliminating many potentially anxiety-producing situations.

Communicating these strategies to parents and caretakers helps to create a partnership that begins benefiting the child from a very young age. When the school and family begin using common language to express behavioral expectations and feelings to children, the whole community succeeds. Transparent, caring, and open communication with students and families creates an environment of trust and cooperation. If a parent sees that a teacher or a principal knows and cares for their child, the conversations surrounding the inevitable bumps in the road become much easier.

Teaching subject matter is not enough. We, as educators, need to focus on the how and the why, instead of just the what and the when. This approach leads to a growth mentality, which gives students permission to say, “I don’t know that … yet.”

As leaders, our children will need adaptive skills that will serve them well in the fast-paced, daily changing technological world we live in − and in which we will likely continue to live for the foreseeable future.

Stacey Gardner is Lower School Dean at Cape Cod Academy. She can be reached at sgardner@capecodacademy.org or (508) 428-5400.