Kennedy Middle School: Teaching Social Skills When Social Lives Matter Most
Kay Mehas, former principal of Kennedy Middle School in Eugene, Oregon, believes it is never too late to begin teaching social skills. In fact, Mehas thinks middle school is an ideal time to introduce social skills education. "Early adolescence is a time of significant change. Young people begin to think for themselves, try out new ideas, and push away from their parents. Peers have an enormous influence, but so do teachers and other school staff. When students are taught positive social skills at this juncture, and see peers, teachers, and staff model and reinforce these skills, positive results flourish."
Data from Kennedy Middle School supports this principal's claim. Since implementing the Second Step program in 1996, Mehas has seen the number of students referred to her office for disciplinary infractions drop dramatically—from 1,400 (over the entire school year) to 500. Teachers and parents talk enthusiastically about the positive changes they have seen in student behavior and overall school climate. The principal of the high school that receives Kennedy's students informed Mehas that last year's freshmen (the first group of Kennedy students to receive Second Step lessons) are the most socially competent he has ever seen. Tim Finkle, custodian at Kennedy, summed it up this way, "I've been at the school for 17 years, and I've never seen anything make such a positive difference."
Hearing these accolades, I became intrigued and wanted to learn more. Throughout my nine-year tenure at Committee for Children, I've seen that the size and structure of most middle schools pose some of the greatest challenges to effective program implementation. Answering the basic questions about how to choose, begin, and sustain a social-skills program can feel overwhelming for administrators and staff at this level. I traveled to Kennedy to see how the school dealt with these implementation challenges.
I wondered why this school made the decision to implement the Second Step program and how they began. I wanted more details about their implementation plan, the obstacles they encountered along the way, and what the students and staff thought of the program. I was also curious about the factors contributing to the program's sustained success since its adoption three years ago. Finally, I wanted to see for myself why Kennedy's use of the Second Step program was featured as a model program in the U.S. Education and Justice Departments' "1998 Annual Report on School Safety." I spent a full day at the school, visiting classrooms and interviewing administrators, teachers, and students.
Reprinted with the permission of the Committee for Children. © 2007 Committee for Children.
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