The Tool Box Program
The Missing Piece
A Social and Emotional Literacy Program For Public Schools
Mark A. Collin
The less a person understands his feelings, the more he falls prey to them.
It all began in 1992 while I was an intern at Lomi Community Counseling Clinic needing practicum hours
for my Marriage and Family Therapist license. I turned to the public school system to acquire counseling
experience with children. It had been forty-five years since I had been in elementary school, now a distant
memory. What I found was shocking. I observed unquestioned behavior that was unkind, disrespectful and
aggressive, from the students toward each other as well as among the staff. I observed an institution that
was committed to "literacy" yet seemed to be missing a big piece. I set out to see if I could contribute
something meaningful to the children or adult professionals in public school. Here is a synopsis of that
journey eight years later. After brief work in several schools I ended up in a small K-8 elementary school with
120 students in a remote Sonoma County town. For the first year I worked in a makeshift office counseling
individual students. When I looked at the bigger picture I was taken aback by the emotionally hurtful quality of
student and staff interactions. I began asking hard questions. Answers from both this school and other schools
where I had worked started to form a pattern. Issues such as self knowledge, empathy, kindness, healthy boundaries,
positive discipline and conflict resolution were taking a back seat to issues such as testing scores and academic achievement.
It appeared that the missing piece was the knowledge, practice, and modeling of personal awareness, values, and social
skills. Over that first year I noticed that the staff's understanding of positive discipline skills and of children's psychosocial
development left room for improvement. There was a general malaise affecting some of the school classrooms and
playground environments. At times children were yelled at and disrespectfully reprimanded publicly as a form of discipline.
Consequently, when conflicts arose on the playground, the children resorted to bullying, put-downs, and name calling.
Teachers seemed over-worked, under-appreciated, and isolated. Faculty meetings were seen as an obligation rather than as
an opportunity to build staff cohesiveness. My first year ended and I left for summer break with much on my mind. As
Parker Palmer says in his book Courage to Teach: "Teaching, like any human activity, emerges from one's inwardness, for
better or for worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being
together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or no less than the convolution of my inner life."
I wanted to have the teachers reflect on how their own inner landscape could be directly affecting the children's feelings of
self-worth. Is it possible that students'disruptive behaviors and the atmosphere of an entire school community are influenced
by projections of the staff? Promoting this inquiry with the teachers has turned out to be more formidable than teaching the
children social and emotional literacy tools and skills. I made my return to the school the following year contingent upon three
requests. First, I asked that they allow my permanent day to coincide with the faculty meetings. Second, I wanted to rewrite
and discuss the discipline plan. And third, I requested access to each classroom to develop skills or tools for children to
learn self-control, self-worth, empathy, and kindness toward each other. That September I entered into the K-3 classrooms
and began my work. The students and teachers helped me over the next seven years to develop the Social and Emotional
Literacy Program (S E.L.P.).The "Tool Box®" is the heart of the curriculum. It provides a common language and common
ground for social and emotional literacy. The first "Tool" we introduce is the breath for calming ourselves. If you would, right
now, hold up your right hand in a closed position. As you read, raise one finger at a time while taking a long slow breath,
until all five fingers are up. Imagine yourself as a fiveyear-old just entering kindergarten and doing this exercise to begin each
day, adding more fingers as the weeks go by. Beginning on the first day of kindergarten, we introduce Tools and the Tool
Box, gradually adding Tools as we go. We sit in a circle and lay an actual hammer, screwdriver, and other tools on the floor.
This profoundly simple and concrete metaphor is one the children grasp immediately. We then begin to cut out a Tool Box
and Tools from manila folders. Each photocopied Tool has a description written on the back as follows:
Along with the Tool Box we introduce the concept of anger using metaphors of volcanoes and escalators. Lessons, charts,
and role-plays regarding emotions and feelings are woven throughout the curriculum. These help children to identify and
differentiate their inner landscape, sensations, thoughts, and feelings as well as learn how these components affect the
choices they make. Tools build "The House." This metaphor is a logical progression to concretize the notion of a self built
with tools such as empathy, boundaries, feelings, and other values. We cut out each House from cardboard. We decorate
the outside, or persona, of our house. We talk about the inside, made of values. The back or inside of each house is divided
into five rooms. Each room symbolizes different aspects of inner life. In one room we write Our Body, then Our Mind, Our
Feelings, Our Will, and Choices. In the living room or social room, with a front door, we put our Family and Friends. This
project is visual, kinesthetic, and personal. The children love to create their own Houses. We keep their Houses accessible,
along with the Tool Boxes, during their various lessons. The students are neighbors and t h e reby form a "Neighborhood."
It is here in the curriculum that we have discussions regarding tolerance for differences and conflict management skills. We
can clearly see that all the Houses are different and unique. It is not an issue of good versus bad or right versus wrong, but
simply one of difference. We have discussions and role-plays on cooperation. We investigate the natural consequences of
being uncooperative and nonempathic. We also introduce the idea of being empathic to ourselves and ask the students
what that might feel like. There is still much to do and to be learned, yet when I walk on that campus each Thursday
I sense that the paradigm is shifting. The referrals to the principle's office have been reduced by 60%. All teachers
regularly attend staff meetings. The discipline plan is now centered around the students writing a "self-reflection paper"
utilizing the Tool Box and what we are calling our common language/common ground. This moves us toward an internalized
set of principles and values rather than a system of punishment and rewards. The eighth grade class of 2000, unsolicited
by me, chose to use the Tool Box as their graduation theme. In 1998 the Social Emotional Literacy Program, S.E.L.P., was
awarded Program of Excellence from the Sonoma County Office of Education. In June of 2000 this program won a Jack
London Award for Educational Excellence from Sonoma State University. As the missing piece is brought into the light, I
feel a new sense of hope knowing the students have some tools to navigate the complex world that lies ahead.
Mark A. Collin, MFT is in private practice in Santa Rosa, CA. He teaches part-time in the public schools and at Kaiser Hospital in the Health Education Department, in Santa Rosa. He is currently submitting this work to various publishers and looking into funding sources to extend this program into a larger community context for research and evaluation.
© 2001 Mark Collin. All rights reserved.
To educate, from the Latin derivation educere, is to bring out what is within.