The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 1, 2013

Gerald Zahorchak | District investing in behavioral curriculum

JOHNSTOWN — Young people do not naturally know how to behave well, and if well-informed and well-practiced, everyone can learn self-control to get along better with one’s self and with those who are in one’s environment.

Behavior is indeed instinctive and begins with reaction to any stimulus. When the stimulus is perceived as potentially or actually dangerous, the limbic part of the brain (which man has had since the beginning and well before the more thoughtful brain parts developed) is alerted and orders a hormone burst (adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones) that won’t settle down until long after the situation that caused the burst has ended. This reaction is often referred to as “fight or flight,” a natural reaction.

The beautiful evolution of civilized man came about mostly with the development of the brain’s frontal lobe, where the neocortex and related parts of the brain reside. Here we can learn to make sense of our environment and control our responses when the “fight or flight” response is not required. This part of the brain is capable of higher-order learning, and it learns what it is taught.

Unfortunately for children who come from dysfunctional or seriously impoverished homes, the necessary early learning never occurs prior to starting formal school. Their social and emotional competencies are underdeveloped; and, without training, never develop in a lifetime. These students will have a tendency to either fight often, in response to illogically perceived threats, or withdraw completely in a panic. In schools that don’t pay attention to the need to teach social and emotional competencies, emotional outbursts are frequent and the negative impact is enormous.

It’s not only students from poverty who need to train the executive functions in the front brain, all people, even CEOs or world leaders, need to develop further their emotional intellect, often referred to as the Emotional Quotient or EQ.

We can do this. Business leaders are aware that more than 70 percent of job-performance success is not pure intellect, experience or other skills (collectively about 30 percent); rather it’s the ability to get along with one’s self and all others. A high EQ gets people hired frequently, and often, unfortunately gets employees with underdeveloped EQ fired.

Greater Johnstown School District knows that emotional and social competency learning for children is at least just as important as building achievement in the academic disciplines. We have set the curriculum to teach social and emotional skills.

Starting in pre-kindergarten through Grade 5 we have an evidenced-based program, now funded ($50,000) by our local Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS). Penn State University’s world-renown human development leader, Mark Greenberg, is working with us (he works closely with many schools, and the program is in thousands of schools). It works only in places where the curriculum is well-executed.

We don’t stop at Grade 5. In our Grades 6, 7 and 8 (thanks to the funds from United Way and the University of Colorado), we now have the Botvin Life Skills curriculum (healthy decision-making skills for pre-adolescents) being fully executed.

And finally, we have EQ training provided to our entire freshman at the JHS Success Academy. This is the same training that our partner, Cambria-Rowe Business College, provides all of its students; and chief executives throughout the world are learning.

Emotional control matters a lot. I am expecting and will be monitoring Johnstown’s execution of these programs. If our system delivers the teaching of these curricula and ensure the students are comprehending, I expect that when today’s pre-kindergarten students move into Grade 10 (12 years from now), we will have an entire district population, from executive team to faculty and the whole way to graduating pre-kindergarten students, able to get along. I believe everyone in our community will see the value in creating this kind of Johns-town community, and I believe you can make it happen.

Note: The community, led by the United Way, is deploying evidence-based programs to assist families to ensure healthy development of infants and toddlers via home visits made by trained and certified nurses. The project targets healthy living, literacy and social-emotional competency building.

Gerald L. Zahorchak is superintendent of schools for the Greater Johnstown School District.

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