Social-Emotional Learning at Breakthrough South

Social-Emotional Learning at Breakthrough South

On Jan. 9, 2020, in Lisa Hauckins 5th grade math class, students were absorbing a different kind of lesson. Notebooks pushed aside on their desks, the students were asked to read a poem projected on a screen in the front of the class. The poem was about, of all things, a hole in the sidewalk, and how the protagonist learned to avoid the hole after falling in a few times.

Ms. Hauckins asked her students to first recap the poem and discuss details of it. Referring to the person who fell in the hole, and her students, she asked, “do you own a piece of everything that happens to you?”

The poem and discussion was part of a character lesson that exemplifies the social-emotional learning, SEL, taught at Breakthrough South. Regarding the poem, a student explained, “it teaches you to not make the same mistake over and over, and not blame everyone else for it.”

The next activity involved a story about a girl who woke up late, causing her to be late for school. She initially blamed the bus driver for lateness, then her mom. Eventually, the girl accepts her role in her own lateness.

Using the story as a launching point, Hauckins then asked her students to write their own stories about a difficulty they had in school and how they admitted their own role in the problem and changed it. Referring back to the poem, she asked the students to share “holes” they fell into in school and life, and how they decided on blame. The teacher reminded them to use “Breakthrough words” such as “own” to detail problems and solutions.

A Model of Social-Emotional Learning

This class was just one of several examples of SEL at Breakthrough South that were captured on video over two days by, a website supported by the NOVO Foundation and Education First. The videographers also filmed scenes from other classes and interviews with Breakthrough’s Principal, Holly Gustafson, and Mindfulness Director and School Social Worker, Maritza Soto-Gomez.

According to the website, social and emotional learning (SEL) “refers broadly to the practices, processes and strategies through which students, and adults, gain crucial skills such as responsible decision-making, self-awareness, understanding and management of emotions, and empathy.”

At Breakthrough South, SEL has been growing for several years and takes many forms. In addition to character lessons, the school offers a mindfulness room available to all grades, and occasional school assemblies focused on the topic. In each classroom, there’s a mindfulness corner, where students who need a break can sit and color to calm their emotions and refocus their attention.

Breakthrough’s SEL was first recognized a few years ago by and has continued to develop under the leadership of Gustafson and Soto-Gomez. Initially, mindfulness was focused on upper grades, 5th to 8th graders, but is now offered to all grades, once per week.

“We had already been doing mindfulness but it wasn’t a big program,” Gustafson said. “It was building to that. Our social worker, Maritza Soto-Gomez, who is our Mindfulness Director, worked with mostly upper grade students, 5th-8th grade, and selected students to train as mindful coaches so they could help roll it out in the lower grades.”

Students have benefited from the reduced stress while doing coursework or participating in sports. Gustafson described one new student who used mindfulness to cope with the anxiety of transitioning to a different school.

“It’s amazing because our whole school is exposed to it. Every grade-level class, from Pre-K all the way through 8th grade, gets to have a mindfulness session once a week. So the teacher takes the whole class into the mindfulness room. For the younger students it’s a smaller amount of time, 15, 20 minutes once a week. For older students, it’s a 40-minute block,” Gustafson added.

Soto-Gomez offers mindfulness sessions to teachers once per week, and even parents have started to ask about it for themselves.

The advantages of the culture of social-emotional learning at Breakthrough South are myriad. “We definitely see benefits in suspensions and behavioral issues, resiliency in kids, benefits in academics, even around all the assessments they have to take and the stress that brings up for students,” the Principal said. “It directly correlates to more positive culture, less behavior issues, students who can persevere, and even if they’re angry, learn ways to calm themselves down.”