When you send children to school, you expect them to learn certain things like reading, writing and arithmetic. But wouldn’t it be great if they also learned life skills, like how to manage their frustrations or how to talk about their emotions?
That’s the idea behind an initiative called social-emotional learning, or SEL. It may seem obvious, but having a clear program to teach these skills shows real results in a student’s success, both in their personal life and in their academics, experts say.
At Boston Public Schools, officials are able to go a step further than the academic basics with the help of a grant awarded this week by the Wallace Foundation.
The foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that works to improve learning opportunities for disadvantaged children, awarded the grant to both BPS and local nonprofit Boston After School & Beyond, which provides after-school activities.
BPS and Boston After School & Beyond will share the four-year grant to help children in kindergarten through fifth grade at seven schools in the district. Across all six cities that won, 15,000 children will benefit from the Wallace Foundation grant.
The core of SEL, explains Stephanie Jones, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a developmental psychologist who previously developed a guide for the Wallace Foundation, has to do with three big ideas.
“In order for there to be successful learning inside the classroom and outside the classroom, children and youth need to be able to manage and take care of themselves, get along and work well with their learning community and then engage in academic learning,” she said.
To ensure all that, both students and teachers need cognitive, emotional and social skills, she explained, from goal setting to managing your emotions to understanding social cues.
That may seem obvious to us as adults, but kids have to learn these things too. However, it’s not about just adding a “social and emotional” class to the school schedule.
“Emotions are happening at all times of the day, so having just a half-hour lesson on it once a week is probably not enough,” said Jones. “It has to be woven into how adults and kids interact with each other.”
A key part of the BPS effort will be in training and coaching school staff to model this same behavior, officials said, which Jones agreed is fundamental to showing the kids in their care how to behave.
Boston is one of only six communities in the country to receive this grant. It’s not the first effort in social-emotional learning that the school district has undertaken, either. BPS has an entire office called Social Emotional Learning and Wellness, and this grant builds on the district's previous efforts. The grant will provide up to $1.5 million in the first year and will be reassessed each year afterward.