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Sterling creates a culture of caring

Some days at Sterling Middle School start with students viewing a photo and describing the action or situation depicted. Not surprisingly, a classroom of 7th-grade students can suggest as many interpretations as there are students. While the exercise may open a Language Arts lesson, it also is designed to build empathy, tolerance and collaboration. Activities such as this are the result of a conscious, intentional six-month-long reboot at Sterling led by Michele Carmichael, Director of Culture & Climate Programs, Peoria County Regional Office of Education and Peoria Public Schools Director of Social Emotional Learning, Derrick Booth. 


In January 2018, Sterling Middle School embarked on an effort to create a culture of caring for students and staff, says Principal Lynn Lane. The effort began by recognizing that Sterling teachers were, in Lane’s words, “suffering from compassion fatigue.”


Carmichael, an expert of integrating SEL on a schoolwide basis, began by observing Sterling classes and meeting weekly with grade-level teams. She also brought in technological resources teachers could use to bring SEL concepts into their classrooms.


Concurrently, Lane emphasized to all staff members, including teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, transportation staff, social workers and psychologists, that working as a team and extending support to each other was a first, vital step toward extending support to students.


According to Carmichael, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has set three standards for SEL: awareness of self; awareness of others, and the ability to problem-solve and resolve conflict peaceably. Two decades of research defines specific building blocks for a child’s social emotional health. First, the child must be able to form healthy attachments to others. The ability to attach helps a child learn to self-regulate emotionally and cognitively which in turn leads to the ability to form friendships, become aware of others, empathize, be tolerant and resolve conflict peaceably. These attributes coalesce to build respect for oneself and for others.


“Implementing a culture of caring for students and staff is promotional and preventive. It requires a conscious daily commitment not to be in an emergency mode response attitude,” says Carmichael. “Educators must look and plan for SEL growth because it is the foundation for academic success. Just as we teach students to have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, educators must also have a growth mindset and believe in students’ ability to achieve because that leads to a focus on solutions.”


Although Sterling’s efforts to strengthen social-emotional health began only six months ago, discipline issues have declined significantly. For example, comparing September 2017 to September 2018, daily major office discipline referrals fell from 30.5 to 11.5, a reducation of almost 60 percent, says Lane. 


Booth says creating a culture of caring for students and staff is being implemented district-wide.  A formal SEL curriculum now in use for grades k-8 and being introduced at Manual Academy and Peoria High School, gives teachers activities and lessons integrating SEL concepts in all content areas. The district’s multi-tiered system of support, extensive staff and partner-agency resources within schools and at the Wraparound Center further these efforts. The District’s SEL team includes:

  • Seven Children’s Home Association of Central Illinois (CHAIL) therapists
  • 5 Family Core therapists
  • 5 social workers
  • 11 fulltime and two part-time school psychologists
  • 17 certified occupational therapists
  • 13 SEL classroom aides

Since opening August 20, the Wraparound Center has provided services to approximately 12 families referred for basic needs and therapeutic supports.


“Implementing SEL takes all of us,” Booth says. “Everyone has a role – administrators, coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teachers – it takes all of us to embed a culture of caring in our schools and our community.”