South Carolina Nonprofit Pioneers a Model for Teaching Children in Need

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Scampering into the cafeteria at 2:30 in the afternoon, children at Chicora Elementary School in North Charleston, South Carolina begin to cluster themselves into groups on the cafeteria floor.  Monday through Friday, 1 in 3 students excitedly enters the transformed space gushing with energy.  On the surface, this looks like your typical afterschool program — the kids eat string cheese, drink from juice boxes and chatter loudly while gearing up for an afternoon of hands-on projects, games and homework help.

However, the WINGS for Kids program advances learning in several pivotal ways which diverge from everyday classroom material.  Every element of the program has a carefully planned curriculum with objectives that aim to build social and emotional skills in their young participants, such as identifying feelings, regulating emotional responses and predicting the consequences of one’s actions — all taught in the guise of fun.

By including these fundamental skills into its programming, WINGS for Kids joins several other afterschool programs across the country in teaching Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to advance children’s long-term success in life.

Social and Emotional Skills Help Students Overcome Hardships

SEL is the process through which we learn to recognize and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships and avoid negative behaviors.  It is the process through which students enhance their ability to integrate thinking, feeling and behaving in order to achieve important life tasks.  The International Bureau of Education, from the International Academy of Education, also defines social-emotional skills, or “emotional intelligence”, as “the set of abilities that allow students to work with others, learn effectively and serve essential roles in their families, communities and places of work.”

The inclusion of social and emotional skills as small daily reminders in every aspect of the program’s afternoon serves larger programmatic goals for the  WINGS program.  The organizers believe students possessing strong social and emotional skills are better able to overcome the hardships in their low-income neighborhood, as well as learn more in school and ultimately become better workers, friends, spouses and parents.  The WINGS motto: “Soar more, struggle less” further illustrates these beliefs.

These children, who are socially and emotionally intact, can make better decisions, and learn to be  responsible for their own behavior.  However, for many of our readers as well as the nation’s parents, social and emotional learning is merely a label given to a curriculum without a clear understanding of the barriers it addresses and the student outcomes it produces.

Social and Emotional Challenges Hinder Student Performance

In order to better cater to students’ holistic development, SEL was implemented to cater specifically to children who faced challenges in their home and community much like many of the youth participants at WINGS for Kids.  Many of these children came to school hungry, stressed, abused, distressed and were bullied or served as the school’s bully. Children, who live under these circumstances, have been proven to experience academic difficulties such as the ones WINGS attendees were experiencing prior to the program’s inception.

As a proponent of social and emotional learning systems, Dr. Maurice Elias, a child psychologist and leading expert on SEL from Rutgers University, explains the dangers of omitting social-emotional programs from our children’s classrooms in one of his published reports.  He maintains that many of the problems in our schools are the result of social and emotional malfunction from which too many children have suffered and continue to bear the consequences. Children in class who are beset by an array of confused or hurtful feelings cannot and will not learn effectively.  These youth are frequently identified as the students who filter into schools from low-income neighborhoods and underprivileged areas.

Yet there are many non-supporters of SEL who protest that this type of learning must be done outside of and separate from traditional schooling.  Dr. Elias states that these ideals are misinformed, harmful and may doom us to continued frustration in our academic mission and the need for teachers who must increasingly dedicate valuable classroom time to behavioral damage control and repair, rather than constructive classroom instruction and student engagement.

These insights from experts have alerted educators to the critical value of holistic education, which involves the stimulation and training of both a child’s cognitive and developmental functioning.  By strengthening and increasing social-emotional educational opportunities, we will increase our children’s capacity to learn, give them the tools to aspire to personal and professional achievements and enable them to experience personal satisfaction.  By organizing the educational environment to focus on holistic development as opposed to just cognitive growth, students’ academics/ school involvement will also increase as they are individualized, personalized and made to feel as if they belong to the fabric of their school.

SEL Advances Positive Student Outcomes

Allowing WINGS to again serve as our prototype, the program’s structure of inclusive conversations addressing emotions and real life experiences, group enrichment activities and the presence of socially/emotionally adept teachers, WINGS is able to facilitate students’ holistic advancement.

Along with being an innovative beacon within the social and emotional learning community, WINGS also strives to be a resource to other programmers by providing free SEL incorporated tools, guidelines, activities for afterschool programs and other related material.

If you have an interest in incorporating these materials into your own program or know of other initiatives which may benefit from WINGS supplemental materials, please visit the Wings resource page on edutopia. As for community partners who wish to make the complete transition into the SEL world and are looking for implementation strategies, the edutopia website also houses materials for starting an afterschool SEL program.

blog-photo-marleynaMarleyna currently serves as an intern on the Afterschool team at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. If you wish to contact Marleyna, email her at greene@nlc.org.