Student Support at Windward

Stephanie Huie

Progressing Academically, Growing Socially and Emotionally

At The Windward School, social and emotional learning is not simply a curriculum that Windward adds to the plate along with our academic and extra-curricular programs. We recognize that social and emotional learning is the plate. Just as The Windward School infuses rich language instruction in all classes and activities, our students are developing their social and emotional learning with every message and every interaction they have at Windward. It is our intention to offer models of prosocial behaviors and engage students in opportunities that allow them to experience and practice positive interpersonal behavior. When student interactions fall short of our expectations, these situations are always framed as learning opportunities for both actors and bystanders. 

Students attend The Windward School to receive Windward’s specialized instruction and proven educational program to remediate their language-based learning disabilities in order to return to a mainstream education environment. Windward’s goal is to provide a successful school experience, and, at the same time, to build students’ self-esteem and confidence. A challenge for lower and middle school students at any school is the acquisition of social and emotional competencies that will allow them to properly read social interactions and express their own thoughts and feelings through speech. With Windward’s research-based, multisensory curriculum combined with a thoughtfully structured support system to guide them socially and emotionally, students at Windward are given the skills necessary to read with confidence, write with purpose, and lead lives of fulfillment and accomplishment. 

“Within the framework of a very academically focused school, we care deeply about social and emotional wellness,” says Ms. Julie Liebman, Dean of Student Support Services, who also serves as the guidance counselor in grade 5 at the Westchester Middle School. “The student support team of guidance counselors and psychologists—as well as all the adults on each campus—cares about the whole child. We want our students to develop self-confidence and self-advocacy skills, which we hope they will carry with them to their next schools and beyond. I hope all our kids learn to not only feel comfortable with their learning differences but also appreciate their uniqueness.” 

As with all Windward programming, lessons are delivered with particular care for our students’ language strengths and challenges. It is worth noting, however, that Windward’s social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum resonates with a nationally recognized framework of “five core competencies” promoted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). 

Within the framework of a very academically focused school, we care deeply about social and emotional wellness. 

Why is Social and Emotional Well-being so Important for Children, Especially Those at Windward? 

While most certainly not every student’s experience, many students arrive at Windward with lowered self-esteem and even an aversion to school as a result of experiencing severe struggles in the classroom. Furthermore, outside of the classroom, language-based learning disabilities can impact social dynamics for students. According to the student support team, communication can be a challenge for many students with dyslexia, including common issues such as misunderstood peer interactions, misinterpreted conversation meanings, misread tone and facial cues, and difficulties expressing oneself clearly. The combination of academic and social stress along with frustrations in properly articulating one’s thoughts and feelings creates barriers at school for dyslexic students and has the potential to negatively impact their wellbeing. 

At Windward, reversing this attitude of discouragement and promoting a nurturing culture of support is of the utmost importance to the entire team supporting each student. By helping students regain confidence in themselves, the guidance counselors, psychologists, teachers, and administrators foster an environment where children can reach their full academic potential.  

The Windward School’s mission statement reads, in part, “Academic success, combined with opportunities for social and emotional growth within an intentionally diverse and inclusive setting, enables students to understand their learning differences, build confidence, and develop self-advocacy skills.” Citing this, Ms. Liebman emphasizes that students cannot progress academically if they are not progressing emotionally. The warm and inviting community of teachers and peers understand that every student at Windward shares similarities in how they learn. This recognition eases the stress and pressure of being dyslexic and instead enables students to focus their energies on their academic studies and on developing positive social relationships.  

How Does the Windward Student Support Team Promote Wellness? 

The primary objectives for the guidance counselors and psychologists are to help students: 

  • Learn the correct vocabulary so they can express themselves 

  • Understand how to identify and manage their emotions 

  • Encourage positive coping skills 

  • Develop friendships and navigate social situations, including through conflict resolution 

  • Understand how they learn with a language-based learning disability 

  • Develop empathy for others 

  • Learn how to advocate for themselves 

  • Boost their self-confidence and build self-esteem 

  • Succeed socially and academically in a mainstream environment 

The team works towards their goals through four main methods: collaborating with faculty, families, administrators, and external providers (psychotherapists, neurologists, etc.); providing short-term, solution-based counseling for students; developing the lower school social skills curriculum; and teaching group guidance lessons in middle school. 

“We really try to take care of our kids here at Windward,” shares Dr. Ania Siwek, psychologist at the Manhattan Lower and Middle Schools. “We want them to be able to take care of themselves so we provide them with all the tools and information they need. They then leave here knowing what their weaknesses are and what they need to do to overcome them. We want our students to know how to be self-advocates and ask for the help they may need, so they can effectively navigate their world.” 

Supporting Students in a Collaborative Manner 

The faculty at Windward frequently seek the expertise of the guidance counselors and psychologists at their campuses for help in managing situations that arise in the classroom.  

“Teachers will consult with guidance, share observations and/or ask us to observe, and then together we’ll work as a team to develop an appropriate support plan,” says Mike Ackerman, speaking of the guidance counselor role that he and Lauren Fulco both occupy at the Manhattan Lower and Middle Schools. “For example, we may develop a chart system for particular students to incentivize meeting certain goals, such as increased participation or reducing call-outs.” 

Similar collaboration between the student support team and faculty occurs at both Westchester campuses as well. At the Westchester Lower School, Arielle Papadam, the division’s guidance counselor, explains, “Building self-esteem and helping students feel successful are incredibly important. My work with students, faculty, and families centers around supporting Windward students in mastering challenges and using skills to become confident learners.” 

The student support team covering all three Windward campuses meets monthly to connect and ensure every guidance department member is approaching problems from the same perspective. They talk about different ideas and strategies for grade-level issues or individual student cases, so every Windward student receives the appropriate support no matter where they are located. “It’s helpful that we have a large team and can collaborate across campuses,” comments Mr. Ackerman. “The student bodies in Manhattan and Westchester may have different experiences, in part because of the differences between the urban versus suburban setting. We offer each other different insights, ideas, and strategies based on our various perspectives.” 

Supporting Parents and Guardians 

While parents and guardians will always be the primary influences in fostering self-esteem and building effective coping skills in students, The Windward School makes a significant effort to partner with families in helping students understand and navigate their academic, social, and emotional growth. During the school year, monthly parent seminars are held on topics that relate either to the educational and social/emotional programming students receive at Windward or on advocacy and research concerning dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities. Individual parent/teacher conferences are held three times a year, and any member of a student’s team is available when a parent or guardian is needing additional support.  

“We appreciate hearing from parents and guardians when they reach out and inform us of an issue that we might not know about,” says Ms. Liebman. “Little problems are easy to fix. If we’re not aware of a situation, it may escalate into a larger problem, which is harder to rectify. When we tell parents and guardians to please call anytime, we really mean it. 

When we tell parents and guardians to please call anytime, we really mean it. 

Short-Term, Solution-Based Individual Support for Students 

Counseling with students occurs in different forms in the lower school versus the middle school. In the Manhattan Lower School and the Westchester Lower School, one of the ways in which the guidance counselors provide support for students is by running short-term lunch groups with small groups of students to strengthen peer connections. During these informal lunch sessions, the guidance counselors reinforce social skills, such as making friends, maintaining personal space, conversational reciprocity, taking turns, and staying on topic during conversations.  

Older students in the Manhattan Middle School and the Westchester Middle School will often seek out help from the guidance team themselves if they are experiencing challenges, such as anxiety or conflict with a friend or teacher. Dr. Siwek reaffirms why the availability of short-term counseling, in addition to their group guidance classes, for Windward students is critical. “Many of our Windward students struggle with communication skills, either in expressing themselves or picking up on the nuances of others’ direct messages to them,” she says. “This creates opportunities for misunderstandings, especially with today’s technology—with group chats, Instagram, or Tik Tok videos.”  

Over the years, she has noted that children’s environments have changed drastically as they are exposed to more of the world through technology at younger and younger ages. The prevalence of social media, for example, has led to higher rates of anxiety among youth. Clear and consistent expectations at home regarding computer and cell phone use is critical for the social and emotional safety of students. While Windward can neither impose nor enforce limitations on the exposure of students to social media outside of the school day, faculty and staff are always available to support families as they navigate this new landscape of social and emotional challenges. 

Lower School Social and Emotional Learning 

The student support team members at both the Westchester Lower School and the Manhattan Lower School work together to develop a year-round lower school SEL curriculum and keep the content consistent at both campuses. The lower school homeroom/social studies teachers teach discreet lessons on a regular basis, organized into a three-year rotating curriculum. The lessons are on the topics of kindness, empathy, inclusivity, considerate communication with others (peaceful conflict resolution), handling mistakes and taking responsibility, how to be a good friend, teasing and bullying, coping skills, cultivating an attitude of gratitude, problem solving, managing impulses, and digital citizenship. All throughout these lessons, common language is emphasized to reinforce target skills across classes. All homerooms also display social skills posters for visual reminders on a daily basis. Language arts and social studies classes also regularly include discussions that explore perspective-taking and promoting empathy.  

The lower school social and emotional learning program exists well beyond the formal curriculum. For instance, at the start of the school year, new student gatherings are coordinated to strengthen peer relationships and reinforce prosocial skills. During “New Student Days,” students will have the opportunity to meet classmates and acclimate themselves to their new school prior to their official first day. In September, the annual “Make a Friend, Be a Friend Day,” a day filled with games requiring teamwork and collaboration, is another wonderful introductory community-building activity.  

Implementation of the SEL program occurs outside confines of the classroom as well. Community meetings are held regularly and include all lower-school grade levels gathering together to learn about or celebrate a community service effort, a national holiday, or simply a core value of the school. Each lower-school's student council also hosts monthly community service initiatives to encourage compassion towards others.  

Middle School Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum 

The middle school guidance counselors and psychologists each teach group guidance classes in a curriculum that is a modified version of the Yale Decision Making Program and is aligned with New York State SEL standards. These classes build a sense of community and offer regular opportunities for students to learn from each other in an intimate context. Students are able to check-in with their guidance counselors individually as they need support to manage personal, family, and social challenges, and counselors are always kept informed when concerns arise for students.  

While similar themes and lessons will cycle through different grades, the middle-school curriculum is grade-specific and tailored in content to the particular development levels of the students in each grade. Due to the ever-changing landscape of social and emotional challenges facing students (e.g., social media, technology, news stories, fads, etc.), Windward’s curriculum is flexible to respond to new events as necessary. 

Ninth graders also enrich their social and emotional learning by taking part in a community service program that includes reading to lower-school students, administering a food drive, delivering donations to Lifting Up Westchester, and making meals for the needy. 

Additional school-wide programs include community meetings that promote prosocial initiatives and often showcase student accomplishments. Student council community service projects for different causes and organizations include grade-level breakfast projects that create valentines for seniors, thank-you notes for veterans, and more. A big buddy program that pairs older students with younger students to encourage peer-to-peer support. Grade-level meetings are held as necessary to discuss timely topics, and during Step-Up Month, there are yearly presentations on diversity issues. Student of the Month is a significant honor for a student to receive at a community meeting, recognizing an individual who consistently exhibits the character and performance values that faculty wish to highlight. A final example of a middle school SEL tradition at Windward is the “Caught Being Kind” initiative at community meetings, which recognizes and celebrates students who are caught doing random acts of kindness; and more.  

It Is All About Helping the Students 

Windward’s guidance counselors and psychologists enjoy coming to work every day for one specific reason—the students. Every member of the Student Support team is in their profession because they want to teach students the skills they need so that they can become their own problem solvers.  

“In our work, it’s sometimes hard to see the progress from day to day,” says Ms. Liebman. “But when you look at the big picture and watch how a student has blossomed into a whole child, it is so gratifying. It’s the reason why we do what we do. When you see a child who at the beginning of the year had no self-esteem and was so insecure then be filled with great confidence by the end of the year, it is an amazing thing. Our students are here at Windward for the academics, and we see their character evolve most effectively when Windward and families partner together to support our students’ social and emotional growth.”