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Social and Emotional Learning: An After-School Program Helps Students Beat the Odds

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At 2:30 on weekday afternoons, more than one in three of the students at Chicora Elementary School, in North Charleston, S.C., scampers into the cafeteria. The kids cluster themselves into circles on the floor, bubbling with after-school energy. On the surface, this looks like your typical after-school program—the kids eat string cheese, drink from juice boxes, and chatter loudly while gearing up for an afternoon of craft projects, games, and homework help.

Yet there is much more profound learning going on here in the WINGS for Kids program than meets the eye. Woven into the conversations, the activities the kids will do later this afternoon, and the language teachers use throughout are carefully planned lessons about social and emotional skills.

When Program Director Will Thompson takes the microphone for his daily pep talk, he asks, "Who can tell me what peer pressure is?" A boy named Troy knows: "When someone tells you to do something that you do not want to do." And what are the children going to do when faced with such a negative influence? They pantomime dusting off their shoulders and shout in chorus, "Brush the pressure off!"

Saying no to peer pressure is this week's objective—one of 30 objectives (PDF) that WINGS targets, one per week over the course of a school year. They cover basic social and emotional skills, such as identifying your feelings, regulating your emotional responses, and predicting the consequences of your actions—all taught in the guise of fun.

These small daily reminders serve big goals. WINGS organizers believe that good social and emotional skills will enable the children to overcome the hardships in this low-income neighborhood, learn more in school and, ultimately, become better workers, friends, spouses, and parents. The WINGS motto: "Soar more, struggle less."

How WINGS Works

WINGS for Kids partners with four elementary schools in the Charleston County School District, all of which serve low-income neighborhoods. The schools provide WINGS with access to all of their facilities after school, student records, and an on-site office, and they allow the organization to keep full control of its programming.

Students are placed by grade level in "nests," or groups of 10 to 12, each with its own teacher. Every day, the program starts with all the school's WINGS students—clustered in nests—coming together for a half hour of Community Unity, during which they eat, chat, say the creed, and play games related to the week's objective (and these games are actually fun). One additional staffer, the peace manager, handles serious discipline problems as needed throughout the afternoon.

An important part of the WINGS model is recruiting local college students to serve as teachers, or WINGSLeaders, as they're called. Executive Director Bridget Laird says college students' energy and creativity bolster the program, plus the after-school time slot works with their course schedules, and many of them need part-time work. Laird selects students from all kinds of majors—biology, communications, business—and many end up switching to education.

After Community Unity circles, the children move into Choice Time, two 40-minute-long elective activities that change every nine weeks. The WINGS leaders invent Choice Time classes—such as basketball, drama, reading club, or science explorers—according to their own personal interests, and they perform live commercials to recruit kids to choose them. (Read more about how the program works.)

Teach, Practice, Repeat

The key to making the lessons stick is to repeat them every day, over and over in different ways in all kinds of settings. Each day in the opening Community Unity circles in the cafeteria, the children recite the WINGS Creed, a sing-song chant complete with choreographed hand gestures (which the kids do exuberantly) that encapsulates the program's essential lessons. The staff infuses these messages into everything, from the opening pep talk to the prescribed way teachers correct children's behavior in the halls.

"You're worrying about his choices when you need to be worried about your choices. Make the choice that's best for you," the teachers remind students who complain about their peers' behavior. Or, when someone interrupts, it's: "I listen to you. You listen to me." As usual, they're quoting from the creed.

"The creed is a lot of the stuff that momma told you," says WINGS teacher Raymond Harris, a senior at the College of Charleston who wants to be an elementary school teacher. "But she wouldn't have given you examples of it. We use it all day, every day, and it can help kids not just hear it, but learn it and apply it and live it."

They have only a little data so far—not enough to make a definitive scientific statement. But in the first group of WINGS kids, a small class of 18 that started in 1999, the high school graduation rate was 42 percent higher than the rate for their peers. Which sounds like a step toward soaring.

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