Greenbrier Elementary School in Charlottesville is hosting a pilot program to help at-risk students develop self-regulation and social skills. Credit: Credit: Charlottesville City Schools

Greenbrier Elementary School in Charlottesville is piloting a program for the city school division that aims to support children who struggle to control their emotions and cause disruptions in class.

Greenbrier Principal Pat Cuomo said these outbursts often are related to traumatic experiences in their lives outside of school.

“As educators, we are acknowledging that kids come to us with things that have happened to them which are way out of our control,” Cuomo said. “We are digging our feet in the sand, going toe-to-toe with these children and trying to break them out of a cycle of failure.”

Greenbrier’s Social-Emotional Academic Learning program currently has a first-grade and second-grade class, each with 15 students. Each room is staffed by a teacher with experience in special education and social-emotional development; a gifted education teacher; and an instructional assistant.

“You now have this environment where there are extra adults in a slightly smaller class,” Cuomo said. “Kids who were frequently being removed from their classrooms are now able to tend to their academics. … I like to think we are going to take our best-learned lessons from this program and be able to apply it to support more children.”

Greenbrier’s SEAL classes include students with social and emotional difficulties who transferred from the other five Charlottesville elementary schools, as well as Greenbrier students whose families opted to participate in the program.

SEAL teachers will lead 20 lessons each year with explicit instruction in self-management and social skills. They are familiarizing students with the Zones of Regulation, a framework for developing emotional awareness and self-control.

“It’s designed to make kids aware of when they are ‘escalating’ emotionally,” Cuomo said. “It’s all about kids learning to identify how they are feeling and what their bodies and their brains physically need to move them out of certain stages of crisis.”

Some of the SEAL lessons are derived from Second Step, an internationally-used social-emotional learning curriculum designed by the nonprofit Committee for Children.

Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, in August issued a statement in response to the Unite the Right rally. She said fostering the social-emotional development of children could help extinguish hatred, violence, and intolerance in future generations.

“It is of paramount importance to build children’s social-emotional competencies — so that they might grow up to be adults who start from a place of empathy and kindness, not fear and hate,” Duffell wrote.

“When you read about those horrific stories in the newspaper, you wonder: What did these people look like as kids in elementary school?” Cuomo said. “Were they normal, happy-go-lucky kids or kids who were struggling and slipped through the cracks?”

Cuomo said some students from Greenbrier who opted to participate in the program have minimal need for social and emotional support. However, he said these students also stood to benefit from the program’s favorable student-teacher ratio and opportunities for advanced, project-based learning experiences.

“We want these kids to skyrocket,” Cuomo said. “We want them to do things they’d never get to do in a 20-student class.”

On Thursday, Cuomo and school social worker Jodie Murphy gave a presentation to the School Board about the program

The SEAL classrooms include kneeling and standing tables, bean bags and exercise balls to provide more comfortable options for students who dislike sitting still at a typical desk. Murphy said it took three or four weeks for students to determine which seats met their needs and learn how to use them properly.

“It was a learning process for everybody, but the kids have figured that out with help and guidance,” she said.

Board member Jennifer McKeever asked if teachers in the program were prepared to handle extreme emotional dysregulation that can make children inconsolable for hours at a time.

“[Our program] can manage and intervene with students who can be dysregulated for long periods of time,” Murphy said. “If you have a student who is in the ‘red zone,’ you stay with that student until you have helped them go to ‘yellow,’ and then ‘green.’”

Murphy added that teachers have been able to keep SEAL students from being disturbed by emotional outbursts from their peers.

“In the beginning, I think it was upsetting for them,” Murphy said. “But as we have started to provide discreet instruction about this. … We are not seeing that as much. I can’t say that it is never happening, but it is happening less.”

Albemarle County is piloting a similar program at Agnor-Hurt, Cale, Greer and Woodbrook Elementary schools.


Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.