Social Emotional Learning at Thrive

Heart Work at Thrive:

Thrive’s Unique Approach to Growing Empathetic Humans

By Sherre Vernon, CAO & Shelli Kurth, Founding Director


As public school educators, we have two charges: to educate our students in academic content and to help them become the best versions of themselves.  This is why at Thrive we think that Social Emotional Learning is as important as literacy and numeracy. If we want the children of tomorrow to walk through the world with empathy, then we have a responsibility to teach them how.  Here’s how we do it:


  • Build community.  A sense of belonging and connection make up the foundation that our entire program is built upon. Our teachers, leaders, support staff, parents and students see themselves and each other as valuable, contributing members of a thriving community.  We create both formal opportunities (like overnight camping trips in middle and high school) and informal opportunities (like the buddy bench) for our community members to get to know each other as people.


  • Emphasize speaking and listening from the heart. Once we see that we are all a part of the community, the next layer of learning is providing tools for our students to speak and listen from the heart. We use circle practices to help our students hone this skill.  At the lower grades, we use the Morning Meeting and Closing Circle routines offered by Responsive Classroom. Students learn to greet one another, to share about their lives and to celebrate one another’s successes.  As our students get older, we use a more organic form of circle conversation, Council. Council, which at its core is a heightened awareness of self and other, is an opportunity for students to hear about each other’s lives, thoughts and beliefs. Circle practices ask students to listen compassionately as others speak and to imagine experiences different from their own.  This is the core of empathy.


  • Help students understand that choices have consequences. Even when students are connected and skilled at listening and speaking, they are still learning about the world around them, and about the effect, their choices have on themselves and on others. At Thrive, we help students see that their choices, both positive and negative, have natural consequences (If I don’t charge my phone, it will run out of batteries. If I wash my clothes on Sunday, my favorite shirt will be clean to wear on Monday). As adults, we also help students navigate logical consequences to their decisions.  This means, when students break something -- be it a relationship or a lego construction -- we provide an opportunity for them to contribute to fixing it. We also help them see that sometimes we need to take a break and recollect ourselves before re-engaging with a peer or group. And, of course, students may lose privileges if they are unable to be safe and productive with others. You can read more about choices and consequences here.


  • Give students agency over their own lives. All of us as human beings prefer to have a say in what happens in our lives.  At Thrive, we provide many opportunities for students to be the voices and agents of their own learning experience.  During Student Led Conferences, students lead their parents and teachers in conversations around learning progress and goal setting.  Students also have many opportunities for voice and choice as they work on their projects.


  • Model the empathetic communication and responsibility we want to see.  One final and crucial ingredient in our SEL model is that we ask all adults in our community to model empathetic communication and responsibility, both on campus and off.  We are just as mindful about what to say when we feel invisible (like on social media) as when we are in front of a crowd. And when we make mistakes -- as we all do -- we own up to them.  


You can support our SEL work at home with these three activities:

  1. Practice thinking about other people’s choices. In addition to asking your child what happened at school, help them to infer why people make the choices they do. Help your child to look for motivations they do not see at first and to imagine how the other people felt during the day. This will build your child’s ability to empathize with others.
  2. Show your child that you are listening and ask them if you got it right.  When your child shares, resist the urge to interrupt, correct or add.  Ask them questions that get them to tell you more. Then, when they are done, offer them a short summary of what you heard and ask them if you understood them correctly.
  3. Model empathetic communication.  Remember you are your child’s first and most influential teacher.  If they hear you express patience and understanding for others, they will build their language to do the same.

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