It’s hard to learn at school when you’re hungry. It’s hard to learn if you’re afraid of the school bully. And classroom lessons hold no interest for you if you have been abused at home, or your heart is otherwise filled with pain and anger.
That reality is no surprise to urban school leaders—and that’s why attendees at the CUBE Summer Issues Seminar in New York City spent part of Friday learning more about how to meet the social and emotional needs of students.
In poor urban neighborhoods, children can be bombarded with challenges to their social and emotional needs even before they’re born—starting with a lack of good prenatal care, said Barbara Cavallo, associate executive director of Partnership with Children, a social service agency that has counselors and social workers in 26 of New York City’s most disadvantaged schools.
Those challenges, which range from neglect to abuse to other social ills, leave many students struggling by the time they reach school age, she says. Those struggles are reflected in behavioral problems that can lead to repeated visits to the principal’s office, assignment to special education programs, or a slow decline in academic performance.
These kids go into “survival mode,” Cavallo says, which leaves them ill-prepared to learn or stay out of trouble.
Recognizing this dynamic, the Partnership attempts to intervene with a program that provides participating schools with extra counseling services. Counselors also can conduct home visits and coordinate referrals for students with more serious problems.
The Partnership also works with school personnel to develop a healthy school culture by training teachers in how to respond to student misbehavior and identify the underlying causes of any problem so that an appropriate response can be planned. Counselors also work with teachers and principals to develop a school-wide plan to create a safe and supportive school climate.
Part of the Partnership’s work is inspired by Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” Cavallo said. Once a child has satisfied such basic survival needs as food and water, what they need is a sense of safety, of love and self-esteem and confidence.
“That’s what we’re focusing on,” she said. “Once students feel confident and supported, they can start to demonstrate appropriate reactions [in school]. They are willing to establish relations with teachers and the classroom. That’s when we’re on our way to preparing students for success.”
It’s not just a touchy-feeling exercise to make children feel better—meeting students’ social and emotional needs have a practical impact on learning, she says. A survey of the Partnership’s program found that school administrators reported a 25-percent decrease in students being referred to their office, and they said they spent about one-third less time on disciplinary matters.
What’s more, another study of similar programs nationwide found that schools that focused on social and emotional learning reported a noticeable bump in standardized test scores.
But such an effort begins with training—of everyone from the school board to the classroom teacher, Cavallo said. And the message is that human connections are key.
“We work with teachers and explain what works. We ask them to greet students every day at the door … to stand outside the classroom and say, ‘Hello.’ It’s a connection to a caring adult that makes all the difference in the world.”