Social-Emotional Learning and Wellness:An Interview with Katie

Children lead lives that are rich with feeling. From whirling joy to frustrated meltdowns, so much of what children experience and express is through the raw, unfiltered lens of emotion. Here at Parker, we understand that this is an essential developmental component of childhood. It is why we prioritize emotional security as one of our four core values.
There is no doubt that the upheaval and unpredictability of the past three years has affected children emotionally. As a school that responds to the needs of our children, we knew that we needed to find meaningful ways to address and support our students as they grow through this period. This presented a joyful opportunity to examine our programming and think about how and where we can add practices such as mindfulness, stress reduction, social flexibility, yoga and more. There was no question that the right teacher to pioneer this new program was Katie Thornton.
Katie holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University with a focus on Human Development & Psychology and Risk and Prevention. Before coming to Parker, Katie was a teacher, camp director, and program director for a social and emotional learning program in the Boston public elementary schools. In addition, Katie is a certified yoga and meditation teacher, teaching yoga at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires. In her spare time, Katie enjoys writing, being in nature, skating, and spending time with her husband Matt and their three daughters, Francesca, Lilian, and Blair.
Please read on to learn more about our Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Wellness programming and about Katie, in her own words…
How did you get in to teaching, wellness, and the intersection between them?
“When I was in college I had the great opportunity to work at the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, NY. This camp for critically ill children had a profound impact on my life and my career trajectory. I immediately fell in love with working with children and focused my senior thesis on the overlapping worlds of critically ill children and their caregivers. This, along with service work I did in college tutoring students in under-resourced neighborhoods, was the springboard for my career in education.  During my first year teaching in NYC, I discovered a new passion: yoga and wellness. There was a small yoga studio blocks from where I worked, and I found great comfort in the practice of yoga and mindfulness. I began a regular practice, and eventually I was trained as a yoga and meditation teacher at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA. I find value in the support these practices offer in different educational settings, to myself as a parent, and moving through my own health challenges. I am thrilled to be in a position that combines these two great passions: education and wellness.”
Describe your educational philosophy?
“I believe that focusing on social and emotional learning and wellness is paramount to a holistic education that puts children at the center of their learning. A child cannot learn if they are distracted by strong emotions, have not eaten, or have been stationary for hours on end. I also believe in educating the whole child in the moment they are in. Yes, we need to plan for the future (which I definitely do), but the most important thing is the moment. This philosophy stems from my work with critically ill-children, where being in the moment is everything. I also think fun and laughter should never be underestimated in an educational setting. Our kids spend much of their young lives in school, and bringing joy into that sphere is critical.”
What do you love about teaching at Parker? 
“Teaching at Parker is a dream. Throughout my career I have had so many ideas about ways I could teach or projects I could do, but often I was met with barriers in terms of time, required curriculum, etc. At Parker, I can actually bring these ideas and projects to fruition! In many ways, the sky’s the limit, and this is so freeing as a teacher. Every teacher and staff member at Parker puts so much thought and creativity into everything they do, which is incredibly inspiring and motivating. Also, teachers and specialists at Parker are already attuned to the social-emotional wellness of their students, so bringing these practices and teachings in to their classrooms feels natural and genuine. My hope is they will have an even greater impact on kids and families.”
What are your curricular priorities for SEL and Wellness this school year?
“My goal is to dive deeply into at least five school-wide SEL themes, including caring communityfriendshipemotional awarenessresilience, and empathy. Woven into each theme will be a common language that students and teachers alike can use in all settings, not just the classrooms. Further, I would like to share a variety of mindfulness practices with our students and faculty that they can “put in their pocket” to use when needed. In many classes, we refer to this as building a toolbox of practices. I want to create a safe and fun environment for kids to try out these practices and move intentionally through their days. One final goal is to support our teachers in continuing the practices that resonate with them so that SEL and wellness is not just happening once a week, but is also woven into the classroom community and routine.”
Describe what you are working on at each grade level right now?
“Many parts of my work are school wide and I love this. For example, right now I am working through a series of mindfulness practices (ie. body scan; joyful memories reflection; room awareness, etc.) with all students grades K-8th. In addition, students in Kindergarten through 2nd grade are working on techniques to help us feel calm. This involves developing an awareness of how and when our body feels calm, and how and when our body feels frustrated, sad, angry, or scared. This is directly connected to my work with the 3rd and 4th grades and middle school as we begin to work on “I-statements” school-wide. Before break, we did a lot of work on friendship and the conflict escalator, building on this with “I-statements” and naming and developing awareness of our own emotions.”
Why do you think this work is important for students?
“Some years ago I read this quote by the Dalai Lama: ‘If we can teach every 8 year old in the world how to meditate, we will eliminate violence from the world.’ I realize that is quite a goal, but I would love to do my part to help in this endeavor.  I feel like the earlier we can give children practice in talking about their emotions using techniques for mindfulness, the better. These are lifelong skills that a child will carry with them no matter where they go. My intention is not to have everything stick, but if even just one thing does, that’s enough! If a 7-year-old finds even one way to calm down that they can then use throughout their day, month, year, or life, I think that’s a pretty big deal.”
What do you enjoy about doing this work with students?
“Kids tend to have an openness to mindfulness practices that adults sometimes take longer to get in touch with. I love the honesty of kids, and I love the sticky parts too. For example, a child might say, ‘This strategy doesn’t work for me.’ I think that is an incredible skill, and that is exactly what I want for them. To be able to discern what works and what doesn’t work for them, and to trust their own voice and knowing is very empowering for a child. In this role, I have the unique privilege of working with students from Kindergarten through 8th grade. This is such a joy, as I get to learn from kids at all different stages of their development. It also affords me the chance to do collaborative projects with classes and implement school wide curriculum and language. I also value the opportunity to work closely with the classroom teachers and meet the needs of their individual classes.”
What are your hopes and dreams for the school year?
“I have so many! My biggest hope is to create a strong foundation for a viable and sustainable SEL and Wellness program here at Parker. On a more daily level, I want to bring moments of calm, reflection, joy and laughter to our students and teachers alike. I think we are doing something unique here at Parker. Dreaming big, I think it would be wonderful if we became a model for other schools wanting to integrate SEL and Wellness into the daily life of their schools.”