Providence makes students’ social skills a priority

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the bell rings and schools in Rhode Island’s capital city open their doors for another school year Tuesday morning, teachers throughout the district will be focusing on more than just math and English.

Providence is one of many school districts across the country investing in social and emotional learning (SEL), which attempts to teach students self-awareness, good decision making and relationship-building skills alongside their traditional coursework.

The goal, district officials say, is to improve academic outcomes by preparing students to navigate difficult tasks and encourage them to take risks in the classroom without fearing failure.

“I think our world kind of demonstrates that the lack of those skills can lead to lots of problems for people, but I think one of our pushes is to improve student outcomes so that they’re ready for the workforce,” Gail Mastropietro, a psychologist for Providence schools, told Eyewitness News. “So there’s a lot of research that indicates those skills are essential skills.”

Providence will spend about $350,000 on social and emotional learning during the 2017-18 school year, according to Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the district. Hart said the costs include professional development, employee salary and benefits and curriculum materials as well as a public-private collaboration to provide student mental health services in select schools.

“When we talk about SEL, we talk about it in terms of part of the instruction that students receive just like they receive math and English,” Mastropietro said. “Anyone in the building can help reinforce model and teach social emotional skills to children. “

The need is there. Mastropietro said research shows one in five adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 in the country will be or could be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. She said she believes social and emotional learning can help reduce those numbers in the long run.

Academically, Mastropietro said there is already evidence that social and emotional learning can lead to better results. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based nonprofit that is widely considered the leading research organization on SEL, has found that students who take part in this type of training outperform their peers who don’t receive similar support.

Providence isn’t alone. The R.I. Department of Education is currently working on SEL standards and plans to unveil them to the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education this fall, according to Megan Geoghegan, a spokesperson for RIDE. She said Broad Rock Elementary School in South Kingstown and the International Charter School are other examples of schools investing in social and emotion learning.

And Mastropietro said you don’t need to be a psychologist or social worker to teach social and emotional learning. Everyone has a role.

“There are skills that we all need and have and it’s just a way of identifying them and calling them out and being able to re-teach when kids seem to have difficulty with one or more of those skills or competencies,” she said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan