The township school district has implemented a new curriculum called the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a nonprofit whose mission is to build safer and loving school communities through free social emotional development programs.
Cinnaminson Middle School’s lead guidance counselor, Lynda Colella, oversees the school’s counseling department and its mental-health and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) initiatives. The curriculum was first introduced during the 2020-’21 school year.
“As part of our district pandemic response, school counselors introduced the Choose Love Program through introductory lessons,” said Colella. “The Cinnaminson School District hired two Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) counselors to teach lessons from Choose Love in grades K to 12.
“The pandemic shed light on mental-health challenges in our youth,” she added. “The district developed a team from various disciplines to research a comprehensive SEL program recognizing the impact of mental health on our students and staff.”
Rachel Emig-Tait, an SEL counselor at the middle and high schools, explained that the curriculum is extremely helpful to students and teachers.
“It helps give students the opportunity to discuss and delve into emotions that they all face, but don’t always have the ‘space’ to discuss in school,” she said.
Emig-Tait also noted that while some issues might arise during content-based lessons, having the explicit SEL instruction helps students understand that it’s normal to discuss their feelings and their understanding of the world around them.
“It also helps teachers by giving them the opportunity to connect with students on a deeper level,” she said. “For students and teachers alike, it gives them the time and space to focus on their mental health and ‘check in’ with not only themselves, but others around them as well.”
Emig-Tait’s favorite aspect of the Choose Love Curriculum is the students’ newfound ability to share their feelings with others.
“It was really amazing to find out more about who and what they treasured,” she said. “Some students shared with the class, while others shared more quietly by writing their thoughts.”
“The thing I like most about Choose Love is that it begins introducing topics and skills to students at a young age and continues to reinforce and build upon those ideas as students move up through the grades,” said Krista Forcier, SEL counselor at New Albany Elementary and Rush Intermediate.
“This consistency in language and thought allows students to first build a good foundation and then to continue building upon that foundation, so that by the time students reach high school and beyond, they have the skills to be successful socially, emotionally and academically, both in school and in the larger society,” she added.
Some students have expressed how grateful they are to reflect on SEL topics, whether it be in the hallway or privately in Emig-Tait’s office.
“The older students really valued being able to take a ‘break’ from academics and looked at SEL as a form of self care,” said the counselor. “Especially during this transitional ‘back to normal’ year, it seemed to really resonate with them.”
Colella has seen changes in the school since the program was put in place.
“This program has given students the opportunity and space to recognize and manage emotions,” said Colella, who added that students have been more open with discussing mental illness and seeking the help they need.
The Cinnaminson district is committed to addressing mental health in the community and has recently passed a resolution designating the township schools a stigma-free district.