The Case for Social and Emotional Learning

Nova Biro “Don’t give up, keep trying, you can do it!” These messages echo through Claudia Jaramillo’s second grade class at Hennigan Elementary in Jamaica Plain as Ms. Jaramillo and her students focus on positive self-talk, a way of encouraging yourself to do something difficult or challenging. Positive self-talk is just one of the many critical social and emotional skills taught through the Open Circle Curriculum , recently implemented in 23 Boston Public Schools in collaboration with the Violence Prevention Division of the Boston Public Health Commission and funded by a $1 million commitment from Partners HealthCare . This initiative is aimed at improving school climate and addressing a broad range of challenging student behaviors, from disruption of classroom instruction to teasing, bullying, and fighting. The collaboration, announced by Mayor Thomas M. Menino in November, will bring evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programming to over 7,000 elementary students through the training and professional development of 750 Boston Public Schools educators. Open Circle had already been incorporated into 13 other schools in the City. Through a comprehensive approach, parents and caregivers are also learning Open Circle practices to use at home through school-based workshops and Boston Public Schools’ Parent University . Additionally, schools are building capacity for sustained, continuous improvement in SEL through the establishment of SEL peer coaches and multi-departmental SEL leadership teams. At the heart of the Open Circle Curriculum are 15-to-20-minute classroom meetings led by homeroom teachers twice per week. These interactive sessions include group discussions, role-playing, children’s literature, and individual and collaborative activities. Students learn to recognize and manage their emotions (including positive self-talk), develop caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations constructively and ethically.

  “Open Circle is for learning about calm breathing, listening, and cooperating.”*

Educators reinforce these lessons through the school day, for example, by complimenting students’ use of cooperation skills in group work during a math lesson or asking students to describe the emotions of book characters in a reading lesson. The program also helps educators create safe, caring and highly-engaging classroom and school communities.

  “I learned red means stop, green means go, yellow means think. It helps you solve problems.”*

Research has shown that SEL does more than improve school climate and student behavior. It can also help students make significant gains in academic achievement – on average, a gain of 11 percentile points in reading and math, according to a 2011 review of more than 200 studies published in the journal Child Development. SEL also equips students with the skills that today’s employers consider important for the workforce of the future – communication, collaboration, cooperation, goal setting, problem solving, and persistence in the face of challenges. With support from a $220,000 grant from the NoVo Foundation , researchers at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College are collaborating with the Boston Public Health Commission on a broad research study examining outcomes for this program.

SEL is critical to the success of all children in Boston and beyond. This Open Circle initiative can help catalyze awareness and support for implementing evidence-based SEL in all schools. As the second graders at Hennigan Elementary will tell you, “don’t give up, keep trying, we can do it!” And as this first grader wrote from a Framingham school—where Open Circle got its start:

  “I like Open Circle because it helps me to be a better person.”*

*Quotes from first graders at Stapleton Elementary in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Nova Biro is Co-Director of Open Circle, a leading provider of evidence-based curriculum and professional development for social and emotional learning in Kindergarten through Grade 5. Since its inception in 1987, Open Circle has reached over two million children and trained more than 13,000 educators. Open Circle is currently used in over 300 schools in more than 100 urban, suburban and rural communities across the United States. Open Circle is a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.