The girl fidgeted uncomfortably with tears in her eyes. “Do I have to?” she pleaded with Kara Sievel, a literacy specialist at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Southington. “What if I take this test tomorrow or next week instead?” the girl negotiated. “Or how about never? Can I just not take it because I can’t do this?”
Sievel has often seen this kind of fear and insecurity among middle schoolers. She said it’s not uncommon for kids this age to have crippling anxiety and frustration around failure. They also don’t always know how to identify and manage their emotions, she said.
This particular student is part of a specialized reading academy that Sievel and a special education co-worker design for a small group of middle school students with dyslexia.
Sievel worked with the girl to develop her comprehension and social-emotional learning (SEL) skills including identifying her emotions and reminding herself of what she liked about being exactly who she was. Sievel leads the SEL work at John F. Kennedy Middle School as Advisory Leader and also serves as Chair of the district’s Emotional Intelligence Committee.
Every day, Sievel, who starts her 22nd year of teaching this year, sat with the girl and encouraged her to use specific mindfulness techniques. Most of the practices were rooted in the RULER approach developed by the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence.
“I would be like, ‘Let’s pause, take a few deep breaths, and check-in with ourselves,’” Sievel recalled. “What emotions are you feeling?”
If the girl couldn’t name her emotions, Sievel had a mood meter where she could point them out. They would then talk through what had happened to elicit those feelings. After that, they would work through the girl’s internal dialogue with herself and strategize ways she could encourage herself. Lastly, Sievel reminded the girl that she didn’t have to be perfect.
I've found that the desire for perfection is what holds kids back from growth. We need to teach kids that it’s okay not to be perfect. Learning to value who we are exactly how we are in that moment is a journey, one we’re all on.
Sievel’s journey as a teacher has taken her as far away as Bali to study mindfulness and leadership practices that she now passes on to students, teachers, and parents. She has participated in Yale’s Changemaker Fellowship, deepening her knowledge of implementing SEL practices in middle schools. In 2019, she presented at the Empowered to Lead Conference, Yale’s RULER Implementation State Conference, and at Yale’s 2020 RULER National Conference. She is also currently working toward her Doctorate in Educational Leadership.
“We’re all on a journey of learning how to be our best selves and a big part of that is learning how to love ourselves,” she said. “Once we learn to love and value ourselves fully – imperfections and all – that’s when the real magic happens. That’s when real growth and transformation occur.”
Sievel said that far too many middle school students view themselves negatively. For kids who struggle academically, socially, and emotionally, she said those views and negative mindsets become habits that take a toll on the child.
That’s what she saw in the girl from the reading group during the months they worked together. In fact, Sievel was concerned that the student wasn’t overcoming her test-taking anxiety.
“And then one Monday, she showed up at my door with a paper in her hand and said ‘Ms. Sievel, I want to show you something,’’’ Sievel said. “She pulls out this sheet, and I was like, ‘What’s this, honey?’ She was like, ‘Look at what I did.’”
The girl had typed up a step-by-step chart of various emotional regulation strategies to try when she gets stressed out – all the things that Sievel had taught her.
The chart went the school-building equivalent of going viral. Sievel posted the chart in her classroom, then she shared it with staff to post it in their rooms too. Then, it was included in Southington Middle School's Advisory lessons where it was shared with the other middle school.
But the biggest transformation was for the little girl, Sievel said.
“She went from being this child who would get so anxious and shut down because she failed to see her own value and gifts to being a fearless leader,” Sievel said. “She started the Kindness Club in our school building and an Instagram account in which she showcases healthy meals she cooks for her family.”
The girl's academics also rose as her confidence did, Sievel said.
“She completely took off,” Sievel said. “I can’t wait to see what this girl will be doing in ten years. She has a lot of gifts to give.”
Sievel said she wants all the students she works with to be empowered about who they truly are, what they are passionate about, and what amazing things they can achieve.
I've found that so many kids don’t feel like they have the power to do much of anything. They feel powerless in a lot of ways. But I try to teach them that they’re not powerless. They have so much inside and they can make changes for themselves.