United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

October 4, 2017

How Social-Emotional Health Among Kids is Key to Success

Every day when 12-year old Ariana’s parents picked her up from her afterschool program, they found her sitting alone. In fact, in the months she had been attending the program, they almost never saw her interacting with other children. Her parents were concerned that she didn’t seem to be interested in other kids, and that this was affecting her interactions in other areas as well, including at school. In an effort to provide her with more support in social interactions, they moved her to the For Kids Only AfterSchool program in Revere.

The For Kids Only team worked with Ariana one-on-one and in small groups to help her adjust to their new program, guiding her through social situations and providing guidance on interactions as needed throughout her afternoons. Her parents reported that her participation in the afterschool program gave her more confidence at school, increased her ability to easily hold conversations with peers and adults, and helped her do better academically.

INCREASING FOCUS ON Social-Emotional Health

It only makes sense.  Think about your own day-to-day life in the workplace. Relationships matter. How you conduct yourself matters. The decisions you make matter. And when stresses outside of work are on your mind — family, finances, or life in general — they can affect your productivity.

The same goes for students. Whether they face challenges related to poverty or not, we need to ensure they are equipped to build strong relationships, make good decisions and conduct themselves appropriately. And we need to make sure those facing stress outside of school know we are there to support them not only in their lessons and grades but as young people.

Ariana is an example of how an intentional increased focus on a student’s social and emotional development can positively impact their learning. Massachusetts leads the nation in K-12 academic achievement results. However, these impressive results are not universal across the Commonwealth. Students from low-income families demonstrate proficiency in math and reading at roughly half the rate of their more affluent peers.

Low-income children have fewer opportunities to spend time learning outside of school in safe, supportive environments that allow them to build relationships with caring adults and their peers.

This achievement gap is in part a result of a growing opportunity gap between low-income youth and their higher-income peers in terms of access to learning opportunities outside of school.

Low-income students face a variety of obstacles that can’t just be addressed in the classroom or by public schools alone. Poverty, lack of quality early education and social-emotional challenges are large, complex issues that require an all-hands-on-deck approach from the entire community.

With 461 schools in the state serving 40 percent or more low-income students, there is great opportunity to improve rankings, and more importantly, create a lasting effect on student success.

Bringing together the best resources to address the problem

Enter the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. The Rennie Center recently helped launch a partnership with exSEL (Excellence in Social and Emotional Learning) to help integrate SEL strategies into public school districts. Through the partnership, nine school districts are collaborating to address students’ social and emotional needs and help tackle issues such as substance abuse, trauma, anxiety, depression, and bullying.

“Thirty-five school districts applied to be in this network. That kind of interest highlights the importance districts are placing on social-emotional learning,” said Chad d’Entremont, Executive Director of the Rennie Center in a news release announcing the partnership. “This network will help schools address the learning needs of thousands of children across Massachusetts.”

Salem Public Schools is another example of a school district looking to promote the social-emotional growth of students. Tim Potts, District Supervisor of School Adjustment Counselors and Psychologists, says the district is looking to enhance their inclusion of social-emotional curriculum into the fabric of all of the schools. Salem Public Schools is also providing support to students and families with more intensive needs to community services beyond those offered at the school through City Connects, a program of Boston College.

But Salem Public Schools is going even further. Under the leadership of Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Margarita Ruiz, Salem’s By All Means initiative is bringing together community leaders from non-profits, higher education, healthcare and civic and community groups to help support student needs.

Working with the Community

The increased intentional focus on social and emotional skills is not limited to the education field. In the coming year, for example, United Way will prioritize funding for community-based organizations that are focused on these skills and competencies. United Way is adopting the framework recommended by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a national organization providing research, policy and practice to advance SEL as a movement in schools and the community.

Growth in social and emotional skills is linked to improved academic achievement and positive impacts on long-term outcomes such as educational attainment, employment, substance abuse and criminal activity, according to a 2015 analysis by CASEL.

United Way’s focus will be on funding those organizations that are intentionally helping children and youth acquire the knowledge, attitudes and skills they need to recognize and manage their emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations constructively.

“United Way has a history of investing in out-of-school time programs that positively impact student achievement and attitudes toward learning,” said Sarah Link, Vice President for Community Impact at United Way. “Through our grant-making, we will look for programs for youth in grades K-12 that are designed to foster the social and emotional skills that youth need to successfully navigate school, careers, and life.”

Those best practices include offering high-quality learning opportunities outside of the school day, engaging youth in their areas of interest, measuring their progress and results, and partnering with school districts.

Teaching Social-emotional Well-Being

As noted by Mandy Savitz-Romer of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we need to think of these qualities as skills, not traits in our young people. That means they are skills that can be taught and learned.

Second, it is our responsibility as non-profit partners, school leaders, government, businesses and foundations to work together to determine how best to teach these skills to youth in school and outside of school. By harnessing our region’s considerable expertise and resources to better support students’ social and emotional well-being, we will also better prepare them for academic and lifelong success.

“It will take all of us coming together – businesses, government, educators, researchers, funders and community leaders – to ensure students succeed not only in school, but in college, career and life,” said Michael K. Durkin, President at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.

Learn more about how United Way helps prepare children to learn»

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