Reading, writing and arithmetic may still dominate class time, but skills like empathy, altruism and kindness are getting more attention. They’re also vital for students’ success, academically and beyond — especially students of color, who face unique challenges outside the classroom.
These skills fall within the purview of social and emotional learning (SEL), and according to a 2012 survey of teachers, the majority believe SEL is a critical part of the in-school experience.
“I’ve worked in very privileged environments where students who are not resilient — or who don’t know how to manage emotions around setbacks — and no matter how much money their parents have, it doesn’t matter because they’re not able to bounce back,” said psychologist Audrey Bland Hampton, head of the newly opened Ryan Banks Academy on the South Side, whose goal is to primarily serve students of color. The school, which is in the process of becoming Chicago’s first private boarding school that is not religiously affiliated, adapted its SEL method from Valor Collegiate, a network of free, public charter schools in Nashville, Tenn.
SEL focuses on five core competencies: understanding and managing emotions (self-management), setting and achieving positive goals (self awareness), feeling and showing empathy for others (social awareness), establishing and maintaining positive relationships (relationship skills) and making responsible decisions.
Hampton, who has worked in boarding schools around the country, believes students should have at least a 60 percent grasp of SEL concepts and has seen that anything less can impede personal growth.
“You see the spiraling of their emotions. I think part of that is because we’re not teaching students (that) failure is going to happen and it’s OK. Someone can be the most intelligent person ever and end up having issues with depression or anxiety because there’s something that they can’t get over that no one has explicitly taught them how to get through.”
Neila Adams, Englewood resident and mother of Laci Adams, a senior at Humboldt Park’s Chicago High School for the Arts, does what she can to ensure her daughter’s emotional intelligence is on par with her cello-playing skills. Neila said she touches on race in her conversations with Laci because she needs to be prepared for things that other students — white students — don’t.
“I keep it real with her because (of) the state of racism right now in our country. She really needs to understand it’s a lot more complicated than what you presume it to be,” Neila said. “There’s a lot of things that are going to go on in life that you don’t like, but you have to show some type of maturity.”
Neila said the school does what it can, but ultimately it’s up to the parent, so she checks in with Laci every day to make sure that foundation of social and emotional intelligence is solid. She acknowledges there will be challenges in building healthy relationships and making responsible decisions, but Laci is up to the task.
“If I’m mad, I’m not about to go off on people who approach me, since I’m not that type of person,” she said. “But then again, I don’t think I completely know myself 100 percent, and I don’t think anybody does, no matter how old you are. I feel like you know more of yourself the older you get.” Laci believes she has more emotional awareness than most of her peers — that she’s able to roll with the curveballs life throws.
Educator Lori Harris has taught at Marcus Garvey Elementary for 19 years and believes students need a strong SEL base. Her school teaches the five SEL competencies with the Second Step curriculum. Students get points for showing any of the competencies during the school day. If a student needs individualized help, the support escalates.
“There’s been research done on the outcomes of social and emotional learning on the lives of students — and how they’ve been able to learn how to negotiate and show compassion for others — and that translates into increased academic scores,” Harris said. “You see where children are actually working together and working through stressful situations because now they have the tools to do so. We’re here to develop the whole child, academically and behaviorally and socially.”
Antonio Saucedo, a junior at World Language High School in Little Village described a crisis he faced in middle school. As a new kid in school, his sole friend — whom he considered a best friend — dismissed him.
“Having a best friend do something really horrible to me, I felt lost,” said the Brighton Park resident. “I broke down. I really didn’t talk about it with anyone. I didn’t know really how to react to it, and I kept that to myself. I needed help at that time — serious help — because it was bullying, and I didn’t know how to admit it.”
Between his parents and Luciano Medellin — director of male programs for Chicago nonprofit Options for Youth and its “What’s Up With Manhood?” program, which is aimed at teen boys growing up in Chicago’s most underserved neighborhoods — Saucedo rebounded from the traumatic event. The 16-year-old said Medellin teaches teens like him about life.
“There’s a lot of things that aren’t really taught in schools because the curriculum is designed for education. But a lot of the things that used to be taught by parents, unfortunately, you see the school is having to do it because the parents are too busy working,” said Medellin,who also teaches at World Language High School, where roughly 95 percent of the students are Hispanic and 5 percent are black.
“A lack of coping skills can stunt emotional intelligence,” he said.
The Illinois State Board of Education added SEL skills to its student learning standards in 2003 and organizations like dropout-prevention nonprofit Communities In Schools of Chicago (CIS of Chicago) are doing their part to make sure SEL remains at the forefront of education. Student support managers from CIS Chicago work with CPS students who have challenges with attendance, behavior or coursework. They offer group and individual help with things like anger management and grief support.
“Our whole goal is to build a relationship of care and support with that student, so they can be successful in school and in life,” said Simone Woods, a student support manager and licensed clinical social worker with CIS. “The opportunity to practice and develop over time is very important. If I never practiced working through how I handle my emotions or any awareness about what they are, I cannot just be assumed to know what to do in situations such as that when I come into adulthood.”
CIS expects to serve 75,000 students in 160 CPS schools this year, according to CIS of Chicago’s chief innovation and communications officer Bartholomew St. John.
Bland Hampton hopes that the more focused administrators, parents, teachers and students are on SEL, the more that teaching those skills will shift from intervention to prevention.
“We ask students to do things like ‘we want you to be kind.’ And yet no one is explicitly teaching children how to be kind,” she said. “We believe that certain habits inform who a person is. The more we can talk about kindness as a habit and the more that you do it and the more you talk about it, the more it just becomes who you are as a person.”
(Article written by Darcel Rockett)