A fairly new district-wide program in Moffat County Schools aims to change the way students treat each other and make the classroom setting easier for learning.
The Second Step program, adopted last year, gets school counselors into elementary school classrooms at least once a week, helping students to deal with a wide array of emotions. Previously, students were afforded a counselor's attention by a one-on-one basis and usually as a result of a classroom disruption or outside family issue.
But these days, counselors are giving students a wider cache of tools in an attempt to empower them to first resolve issues on their own with other classmates, before searching for adult intervention.
"I've learned that you have to tell people if they hurt your feelings," said second-grader Ripley Bellio of East Elementary School. "First you talk to them. Then, if they don't stop, you walk away. If they keep doing it, then you squawk."
The talk, walk and squawk lesson has caught on quickly, said Alison Hobson, a counselor at Sunset Elementary School.
"Kids know they have the tools to work with and what's expected of them," she said. "It's helped to reduce the amount of tattling if everyone knows what the steps are involved when dealing with problems."
Students are encouraged to try the talk before you squawk method except when they feel they've been the victims of outright bullying.
Curriculum for the Second Step Program corresponds with recent legislation aimed at keeping schools free of violence and hurtful teasing that can cause students to miss class or feel uncomfortable at school. The Safe Schools Act comes on the heels of the Columbine School killings.
According to Hobson, some research suggests that if students' aggressive behaviors aren't contained by third grade, it may be too late.
"It's harder to change the behaviors of an eighth grader than a first grader," she said. "Usually a bully has the thinking that everything should go my way. They think, 'If I'm hurt then it's OK to hurt back."'
During a class at East Elementary School early Friday morning, students were asked to comment on a picture of a young boy visibly angry, holding clenched fists. Counselor Wendy Nadolny asked students to comment on it and then draw a picture about a time when they felt angry. Some students pictured fat tears coming from a face and others drew smoke coming out of their ears or heads.
"It's OK to be angry. When I get angry the tips of my ears turn red," Nadolny told students. "You just have to learn to deal with it."
Second-grader Charlotte Patrick-Curley said she liked the class.
"I like it especially when we do role-playing," she said. "Last time, I got to do it."
Second-grade teacher Michelle Georgiou, of East Elementary School, said the in-class support and the high visibility of its school counselor goes a long way to helping students feel comfortable talking about their problems.
"It's such a relief for us to get this kind of advice and know how to help these children with what they're feeling," she said. "Even at this grade they all have issues and individual societal concerns."
Through the empathy and anger management training in Second Step, school officials hope to hedge off negative behaviors before they become explosive.
"We try to teach more skills than the immediate impulse of revenge," she said. "That's the goal."
Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.