We often overlook the importance of providing emotional and behavioral support for students—and at-risk students in particular—given the ongoing education debates around testing, Common Core, tenure and teacher evaluation systems.
My hope is that “Inside Out”—the Pixar movie premiering this Friday that takes us inside the mind of a child—kickstarts a discussion among parents, educators and policymakers across the country about the importance of social emotional learning.
Kids experience a rollercoaster of emotions as they move through the stages of their childhood, and they grapple with feelings of joy, sadness, anger and fear as they begin to understand the world around them.
Andrew, a sixth-grader from South Carolina, confronted such emotions head on through the support of the WINGS after-school program. When Andrew first came to WINGS, which focuses on teaching social and emotional skills to at-risk youth, his behavior was troubled. He was constantly disruptive and disrespectful, and he stubbornly refused to compromise when his teachers or mentors tried to reign in his behavior.
Now, through the support of his program’s mentors, Andrew’s behavior is very different. His teachers say that he has learned to be kind and caring, and build friendships with other kids his age. He has also become a leader and a role model for his peers. Andrew will tell you that he has learned “everything is not about me.” He is a testament to the positive impact that caring, structured emotional support can have on a child’s life.
Building Skills and Fostering Relationships
Social emotional learning (SEL) programs like WINGS provide a safe space and the resources kids need to develop skills—especially self awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making and relationship building—that will enable them to behave successfully in environments like school, at home or in the community. A recent analysis of 75 different studies of SEL programs found that these programs had positive impacts on key developmental areas, including social skills, positive self-image and academic achievement.
For kids like Andrew, who grow up in high-poverty areas, social emotional learning opportunities are especially necessary. Faced with daunting challenges like family and housing instability, violence and drugs, kids from low-income families and neighborhoods often have a particular need for the emotional skills that will enable them to cope with these difficulties.
Andrew’s transformation is due in part to the specific behavioral skills he has learned from his WINGS program leader and mentors. But the nurturing environment in which he is immersed every day after school has also played a significant role in his emotional growth. Perhaps above all, he has learned how to trust others and trust in himself. Knowing that he is valued and cared for has helped him to see that other people, at school and at home, believe in him and that his behavior matters to them.
Educators and policymakers are increasingly recognizing that high-quality SEL programs can be tremendously valuable, given the growing number of studies that point to the importance of non-cognitive skills to improve the outcomes of all students. As more and more kids receive the life-changing support these programs provide, it is my hope that we will continue to hear more and more turnaround stories about kids like Andrew.