PORTLAND — Learning skills like self-awareness, relationship building and responsible decision-making are just as important as academics for students.

That’s according to the new proficiency learning standards that schools across Maine are beginning to implement, including at the Peaks Island Elementary School, where this year the focus is on teaching kids the habits of respect and responsibility.

The goal of a proficiency-based education, according to the Maine Department of Education, is to ensure that graduates can communicate clearly and effectively, be self-directed learners and be responsible and involved citizens, among other goals.

To help schools across the city implement these new standards, the Portland School Department has hired a new director of social emotional learning, Brian Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh said this week that “critical skills such as self awareness, self-management and making responsible decisions” are the best predictor of success, not just in school but in life, as well.

“Students need skills to be able to do things such as self-regulate their emotions, deal with frustration and show respect for others,” he said. And that’s what social emotional learning is all about.


“While we may develop some of these skills on our own or with the help of family members, our world is constantly changing and complex, thus the need to teach these skills in school,” Cavanaugh said.

“If schools are truly going to prepare children to be successful adults, this is an area that can’t be neglected. In Portland this is part of our goal to educate the whole student,” he added.

At Peaks Island Elementary, lead teacher Renee Bourgoine-Serio said, “We know these soft skills are essential for our students to be successful,” not just academically, but in the workplace, as well.

“Our school goal is to have each child know and exemplify these character traits as well as be able to find these traits and celebrate them in others,” she said this week.

So as soon as school started, teachers at Peaks Island Elementary began introducing their students to the new Peaks Pact initiative, which encourages students to both internalize and outwardly exhibit the traits of respect and responsibility.

To that end, posters identifying respectful and responsible behaviors are located all over the school and students can also earn tickets for exhibiting these traits, with the color purple representing respect and blue, responsibility.


“Students who receive a purple ticket could have shown respect by using kind and appropriate language, waiting their turn to speak, or by keeping their body to themselves,” Bourgoine-Serio said.

And, “students who receive a blue ticket could have shown responsibility by following teacher directions, taking care of classroom materials, using their time well and doing their best work.”

Bourgoine-Serio said the posters placed around Peaks Island Elementary “are a constant, positive and tangible reminder of what we hope each child at Peaks is or will soon be as members of this community.”

While the focus is on the students, she said teachers are also being asked to model the specific behaviors of respect and responsibility as well.

That could mean implementing a time for self-reflection during the school day, like fifth-grade teacher Kelly Mascolo has done.

“I try to (be a) model for my students, so I reflect on my day with them and share out,” she said.


For example, “I might say: ‘How can I be responsible with my work if my desk space is so messy? Guys, tomorrow I need to do a better job of keeping my work space organized, will you help remind me?'” Mascolo said.

“As teachers we want our students to (be) successful academically, but big-picture, our students are a part of a community and we want them to be leaders within that community. That means they need soft skills like respect, responsibility, perseverance, courage, etc.,” she said.

“Within our classroom, my students have set a goal to have a chain (of tickets) that will (cover the) perimeter of the room,” Mascolo said.

“Once one side of the room has been reached we will plan a respect and responsibility party. Students have talked about having an afternoon of team building challenges or a mini field day.”

Along with the overt encouragement to practice respect and responsibility, Bourgoine-Serio said Peaks Island Elementary also has a new “social-emotional classroom library of about 20 books that all of the teachers can share and use to teach about and highlight people who exemplify these habits of work.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Fifth-grade students at Peaks Island Elementary School in Portland, Otis McCanna, in back, and Dillon Lynch, show off their classroom’s respect and responsibility chain. This year the school is focused on getting students to understand and exhibit these positive traits.

Some ways students at Peaks Island Elementary School can show responsibility include following directions and turning their work in on time.

Ways that students at Peaks Island Elementary can show respect include waiting their turn to speak and using an appropriate tone and volume.

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