Shye Photo by Coby McDonald
Shyel Meisels talks to his fifth grade class at Malcolm X Elementary School about how his puppy ate his homework. Photo by Coby McDonald

By Coby McDonald

A dog ate Shyel Meisels’ homework. More precisely, Shyel’s puppy Hazel chewed up the book that his 5th grade teacher Jessica Arroyo had assigned.

“She jumped on my bed and demolished the book, and it belonged to the school,” Shyel told his classmates at Malcolm X Elementary, who were gathered on the rug at his feet. “So I totally freaked out.” He was eventually able to calm himself down, he said, by putting the incident in perspective and making a plan: the next day he would come clean to Ms. Arroyo about the book’s demise.

“What tools did Shyel use to find a solution?” Arroyo asked her students.

“The Breathing Tool!” one called out.

“The Courage Tool!” added another.

“He used the Apology and Forgiveness Tool,” said Pearl Gauthier, “because he apologized to you—and he forgave the puppy.”

For the uninitiated, all this tool-talk among Arroyo’s students might seem a bit peculiar, but in Berkeley at least, it’s gone mainstream. Last year, the city rolled out a district-wide Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum meant to teach elementary and middle school students to better manage their own emotions and empathize with their classmates. It’s called Toolbox, and it’s changing the way kids talk about their feelings.

“School can be such an emotional place,” says Joemy Ito-Gates, a 3rd grade teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School. “Not just in terms of social interactions, but also feelings that come up when academics get challenging and frustrating. Toolbox gives students concrete language that allows them to solve their own problems and feel empowered to negotiate those big emotions that come up throughout the school day.”

Time-strapped teachers may find it challenging to squeeze Toolbox into already packed school days, proponents acknowledge. But they believe it will ultimately lighten workloads by easing communication and giving students the skills to manage their own emotions.

There are 12 tools in the curriculum, each one a strategy for responding to tricky emotional situations students may face. There’s a Quiet/Safe Space Tool for when kids feel anxious or overwhelmed; a Use Your Words Tool to help kids use positive language to express their needs; and an Empathy Tool to remind kids to put themselves in their classmates’ shoes.

“We give our kids the agency to choose the tool that works best for them individually in a given moment,” says Arroyo. “Each kid has their own favorites.”

“I’m kind of shy,” says 6th grader Maya Swartz, “so I don’t like when I get called up to talk in front of the class.” Maya learned Toolbox last year in Arroyo’s class at Malcolm X. “First I think, ‘Oh, no! What am I going to do?’ Then I take some breaths and remind myself to be brave. The Courage Tool helps me be more comfortable.”

Though the Breathing Tool is the hands-down favorite of her students, Arroyo especially likes the Garbage Can Tool, a strategy to help kids avoid getting hung up on the small stuff. She draws a big trash can on the board, “and when little issues come up, like someone gets cut in line or someone takes someone’s pen, I have them write it on a post-it note and literally put it in the garbage can. On Friday we empty the trash and just let it all go.”

Jessica Arroyo and her fifth grade students at Malcolm X Elementary School use the Breathing Tool. Photo: Coby McDonald
Jessica Arroyo and her fifth grade students at Malcolm X Elementary School use the Breathing Tool. Photo: Coby McDonald

SEL programs like Toolbox are driven by the notion that empathy, resilience, and emotional self-mastery should be taught in school right alongside the three R’s. After a brief rise in the 1990s, SEL programs took a hit when initiatives like No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards placed increased emphasis on test scores. Districts worried about preparing students for standardized tests and put less emphasis on other facets of their education. However, SEL has roared back in recent years, fueled in part by numerous studies showing that such curriculums significantly improve student attitudes, behavior, and even academic performance. A 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development found that participants in 213 school-based SEL programs averaged an 11-percentile-point gain in academic achievement.

In 2013, Berkeley was shopping for an SEL program of its own. Ito-Gates, then teaching at Malcolm X, went with Arroyo and principal Alexander Hunt to observe a program that was turning heads at Lincoln Elementary in Richmond. It was Toolbox, developed by Dovetail Learning, a Sebastopol-based non-profit.

“In ten years it was the best thing we’d ever seen,” Arroyo says.

The two young teachers parlayed their enthusiasm for Toolbox into a yearlong pilot of the curriculum at Malcolm X and John Muir Elementary schools in 2013-14. By year’s end, teachers, parents, and students were convinced: the tools worked.

Ito-Gates says she knew the tools were sinking in when she was teaching a challenging group of kids, and one of them became overwhelmed and visibly upset. She caught another boy trying to pass him a note and she intercepted it. The note read: “Dude, use your breathing tool.”

Responding to the positive reception, Berkeley decided to roll out Toolbox the next school year in every elementary and middle school in the district. BUSD spent $30,000 to acquire the materials, according to Mark Coplan, a spokesman. There was an additional $20,000 cost this year but going forward the only cost will be for additional material and refreshers, he said.

The flexibility of the curriculum made it easy to adjust to meet the needs of middle schools students, says Cheryl Draper, P.E. teacher at Longfellow Middle School and a 37-year veteran in the district.

“The older kids are better at abstract thinking, so we used a lot of mindfulness and guided imagery, and the kids just fell in love with it,” she says. “I had a lot of the rowdy kids last year and Toolbox was really soothing. It helped them to be calm and focus on what they needed to do.”

Meitav Arusha, an 8th grader at Longfellow says that the Courage Tool is the most useful. “If I see a classmate getting pushed around or beat up or bullied in the hall, I’ll tell them to stop. I’ll be an ally.”

“Being an ally means stepping up for what’s right,” 8th grader Elijah Arnold adds. “Not being a bystander.”

“It takes courage because you don’t want to get bullied too,” Meitav says. “But you have to show them that people actually care.”

Malcolm X Elementary just began its third year of the curriculum, and Principal Hunt has noticed significant changes. When students make what he calls “poor choices as a result of strong feelings,” he often asks them: What could you have done differently? In the past, he got one of three answers: “I could have walked away,” “I could have ignored it,” or “I could have told a teacher.”

“All three of those are very emotionally unsatisfying,” Hunt says. “You ignore it, but you’re still holding on to it. Walk away, but you’re still mad. None of those lead to feeling better.”

After exposure to Toolbox, he says, “kids have more ideas at their disposal about how to better manage their feelings and are able to resolve small conflicts on their own.”

Malcolm X Principal Alexander Hunt holds up some tools used in the district's new social emotional program. Photo: Coby McDonald
Malcolm X principal Alexander Hunt wears a lanyard illustrating the 12 Toolbox tools. Photo: Coby McDonald

Teachers emphasize that Toolbox is not just for school—and not just for students. Some teachers say they use the tools to manage their own frustrations, or to keep cool when mediating tense schoolyard conflicts. Parents say that their kids use the tools outside the classroom and add that, in some cases, they help family communication.

“It became a common language we could use at home,” says Maya’s mother, April Lee. “If Maya was really upset or angry or frustrated about something, I could say ‘What about this tool or that tool? Do you think this might help?’ It really seemed to click for her.”

Carter Staton, a former student of both Arroyo and Ito-Gates, used the Garbage Can Tool at home. “Sometimes he’d come up with some negative self-talk and I didn’t even know where he got it from,” says his father, Marc Staton. “But then he would say, ‘I’m putting that one in the garbage can.’”

Principal Hunt says he hopes that the skills his students are learning now will enrich their lives well beyond elementary school.“When these kids are in high school or college or when they’re adults, they may not remember the names of the tools, but that’s okay,” he says. “The tools are a scaffold that will probably fall away as they grow, but the structure, the skills, will still be there.”

Berkeley native Coby McDonald is a freelance journalist and student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He writes about health, education, and science.

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