“What does SEL on Thompson Island look like?” Olga Feingold, Thompson Island’s Program Director, ponders the question. There is a lot to consider. SEL or Social-Emotional Learning covers a lot of ground- it refers to how children and adults learn to understand and access emotional management practices, attitudes of persistence and resilience, and teamwork strategies. It is also a crucial element of Thompson Island’s mission to incorporate character building into our science and outdoor exploration programming. So Olga surprises me when she presents an elegantly simple entry point: “When I think of SEL on Thompson Island,” she says, “the first thing I think of are circles.”
“It starts with how we stand,” Olga explains. “We always stand in circles.” She laughs, “It’s an Outward Bound thing. At this point we do it unconsciously, even just standing around the office. Bringing groups together in a circle equalizes the playing field, there is a psychological equilibrium of voices… everyone is facing each other. It keeps the students engaged not only with the instructor but also with each other.”
Starting the day in a circle helps lay the foundation for the teamwork and communication practices that will continue when the circle breaks apart and students move on to their next activity. Circles are also incorporated into how students create and manage their own peer-to-peer group dynamics. When classes arrive on the island, they are broken down into smaller groups. Each group creates a document known as a full values contract outlining how its members will conduct themselves. To create the contracts, students draw a circle on a piece of paper. On the inside of the circle, they write down rules of conduct they have defined for their group. Students generate their own rules – not ones told to them by adults. The students select the values they want to see enacted by their peers such as treating others with respect, providing emotional security, and acting with integrity. “It’s the first step of introducing SEL,” Olga explains. “Students already know what good behavior means. They know how they want to be treated by others. By allowing them to create their own rules, they’re more likely to engage in the program and the expectations.” Outside the circle, they document unacceptable behaviors like talking over each other or teasing and taunting others. The students use their contracts to create flags that function as a reminder of their pact. Instructors reference the flags as the students engage in different activities on the island. If conflicts arise, students are advised to think back to the contract and reflect on whether their behavior would fall inside or outside of the circle they drew and how they can adjust their actions to adhere to the values the group selected.
In many ways, circles get to the heart of what social-emotional learning is: a continuous, circular process. Ongoing. Enduring. An unending cycle of personal awareness, reflection, the interpretation of one’s emotions and behaviors, and the application of SEL strategies towards positive growth and peace. Thompson Island’s staff hope to equip students with social-emotional tools that they can use not just during their time on the island but over the course of a lifetime. Their goal is to help students to see what Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn observed: that “There is more to us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”