By Bethiel Girma Holton, National Director of Student Engagement, City Year, Inc.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has been discussed in many education articles and studies recently – from The New York Times to Education Week and Paul Tough’s book ‘How Children Succeed’. While questions surrounding how a student’s emotional characteristics are developed are still up for debate, many agree that Social Emotional Learning is extremely important to a child’s development and education.

City Year views every interaction as an opportunity to develop students socially and emotionally and to help students make meaning of their school life.  “Learner and Leader” is the term City Year uses to refer to its school culture, student mindset, and SEL skill development work.

Just as City Year seeks to support the development of corps members as lifelong idealists who have the passion, courage and skills to make a difference, as an organization we also aim to support students in their development as lifelong learners and leaders who strive to reach their aspirations, embody the ideals of teamwork, and seek to make a difference in the world. Building on the cultural elements developed over two decades within City Year  which were validated through a longitudinal study of City Year alumni  that demonstrated their increase in social capital through their participation in the City Year program, City Year is building a Learner and Leader experience that supports a culture of academic engagement and student leadership in schools.

The term “learner” reflects the influence of Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on the benefits and attributes of a growth mind-set on City Year’s framework. It is incorporated into the way that corps members coach students as they learn to address their challenges and use their strengths. The term “leader” draws on City Year’s approach to leadership, which is to develop idealists who put their can-do, will-do, and team-fit orientation to work for the common good.

Three years ago we began building an approach to the learner and leader experience through small program pilots of activities designed to impact social emotional development and school culture. In the 2011-2012 school year we engaged Brett Consulting Group, an external research firm, to conduct an initial study into 31 schools who piloted this model.

Early findings among the pilot teams were positive and promising: students’ self-reported pro-social acts increased and their negative behaviors (e.g., suspensions and office referrals) decreased or occurred infrequently. Additionally, middle school students from pilot teams rated five aspects of school climate significantly higher than did those from non-pilot teams (n ≥ 3790. Students in ninth grade from pilot schools rated “My school feels like a safe place” significantly higher when compared to students at non-pilot schools).

Assessments by teachers and principals were also positive- teachers overwhelmingly agreed that corps members had positive impacts on their students, especially on their time spent on learning tasks and their active engagement in learning while principals noted the large impact on school climate and culture. These results suggest that cultural activities amplified students’ connections to school, their engagement in learning, and helped them to interact more positively with peers. We are continuing to investigate how our culture based approach to social emotional development is supporting behavioral and academic outcomes for students.

In addition to our pilot work, across the country Corps members are supporting students whose behaviors reflect a growing disengagement from school, their teachers, and their schoolmates. With the help of school partners, City Year corps members identify specific students, most of who struggle with behavior in the classroom, to receive explicit SEL intervention through an in-house program called 50 Acts of Greatness/Leadership.

Through this program corps members meet with selected students in small group sessions where activities and discussions focus on responsible decision-making, self-management (including goal setting and emotional regulation), social awareness, and relationship skills. Corps members support students setting goals about improving their behavior, relationships and decision making while encouraging students to display acts of leadership- positive things they’ve done for others- throughout the school and larger community.

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