Social and Emotional Learning: A Central Component of Our Community Schools

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Because of our focus and expertise on the whole child, social and emotional learning has always played a vital role in The Children’s Aid Society community schools.  Even when No Child Left Behind drove too many schools to develop a sole focus on test scores, we and our New York City partners kept our collective “eye on the prize”—students’ learning and healthy overall development.  And, now, in the changing educational landscape focused on implementation of the Common Core State Standards, educators across our city and country seem to be rediscovering the value of social and emotional learning (SEL) as a way to help all children reach their full potential. 

 “Our partners count on us to bring in a level of expertise that supports children and families in the development of coping, problem solving, conflict resolution and self-efficacy skills,” says Myrna Torres, deputy director of the CAS School Age Division, which includes all of our elementary and middle schools.  “Our work in community schools is guided by sound practice that encompasses youth developmental principles, strengths-based mental health practices and parent engagement activities that reinforce strong connections between home and school.” 

Torres observes that the youth development approach fosters a sense of competence in children, positing that young people are agents of their own healthy development—in partnership with consistent, caring adults.  In her view, children can learn to advocate for their own needs, resolve problems, pursue interests and develop positive interactions with peers and adults. Good social and emotional learning can take an intentional approach to helping children develop these all-important life skills.  She notes that a child who is struggling in math can request tutoring specific to his or her individual need. “This kind of self-directed learning is one of the key SEL skills that children learn through participation in our programs.”

Although social and emotional learning has been a central component of Children’s Aid’s work with schools over the past 22 years, we recently deepened our involvement by creating an SEL curriculum that is being implemented across our elementary and middle schools.  Staff received extensive training on implementing the curriculum to make sure children understand and incorporate our values of maintaining focus, working hard, creating community, having fun and being compassionate. The curriculum is filled with activities and visuals that support these values, and demonstrate to children and staff how to bring them to life during out-of-school time programming.  A standardized rubric allows participants and their group leaders to assess the extent to which children have acquired specific SEL skills.

This new Children’s Aid curriculum continues to be supplemented by other excellent resources, such as  Adventures in Peacemaking, an interactive and engaging curriculum created by Educators for Social Responsibility.

In addition to using this new SEL curriculum in our out-of-school time programs, Children’s Aid continues to pay attention to social and emotional learning in a variety of ways, including the provision of mental health services, consultation with teachers on classroom management, implementation of Balance Centers in several elementary schools and whole-school efforts to foster a positive school climate.  We recognize that all of these supports and services interact with one another at the building level, for example, a school with a large number of students who possess good SEL skills will have a calmer, safer environment; and a school with a positive climate establishes optimum conditions for learning for all of its students. Our holistic view is represented by the four outcome areas that are the focus of our work in community schools: education, health, family and socio-emotional development.  The graphic below illustrates the inter-connectedness of these four critical aspects of promoting students’ school success.