Student Well-Being

Focus on Social-Emotional Learning Leads to Improved Attendance, Behavior

By Marva Hinton — September 22, 2016 4 min read
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An after-school program for elementary students that focuses on social and emotional learning is having an impact on absenteeism and student behavior in a school district in South Carolina.

WINGS for kids has been working to provide students with these skills since 1996. But obtaining district-level data on issues like the program’s effect on absenteeism and behavior problems had proven difficult until now.

Through the program, students meet five days a week for three hours a day. They spend part of the time working on learning objectives related to social and emotional health. They also work on academics of the principal’s choosing, which is usually homework, and they spend time on enrichment activities such as dance or playing sports. The students also eat dinner together.

This year, through working with the Charleston County school district, WINGS was able to obtain data about attendance and disciplinary referrals for the 2015-16 school year as it relates to students in the program versus their peers who don’t participate in it.

Only 4 percent of WINGS students were chronically absent during that time as opposed to 12 percent of non-WINGS students. Chronic absenteeism was defined as students missing 18 or more days during the school year. The study sample included 289 WINGS students and 1,085 students who were not in the program.

WINGS CEO Bridget Laird attributes WINGS’ students’ low rate of chronic absenteeism to the program’s emphasis on skills such as relationship building.

“They’re feeling good about themselves,” said Laird. “They’re feeling good about school, and that’s making them want to come to school more often.”

Effects on Discipline

The data from the district also showed a big disparity in WINGS students versus non-WINGS students when it comes to disciplinary referrals. Only 93 WINGS students received such referrals, while 338 non-WINGS students did. Of those students, 82 percent of the children in WINGS received fewer than two referrals compared with 32 percent of the students who were not enrolled in WINGS.

(Bear in mind this was not a random sample. Students who have been identified by administrators as having challenges related to academics, behavior, and family background fill the first program slots at each school. Then the rest are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. At each school about 120-150 students participate.)

Laird points to the program’s emphasis on self management or self control. Students in the program are taught how to control their emotions and impulses and to take responsibility when they make a mistake.

“Once they begin to own those skills, their behavior in the classroom adjusts pretty quickly,” said Laird, who added that most of the referrals at the elementary level are for disruptive behavior. “A lot of times they are referred for not being able to control themselves, and when they can’t control themselves, they disrupt the entire class.”

She listed things such as refusing to sit down, being disrespectful to teachers or shoving another student as examples of behavior that frequently sends elementary students to the principal’s office.

“If you have a child who’s used to losing control, and when they do lose control, they throw their pencil, and they roll up their paper, and they kick the chair, it doesn’t take much to help them understand those are not good things,” said Laird. “That’s not going to help you be successful in the classroom.”

She said WINGS helps students find better ways to focus their energy.

Parents and WINGS students seem to agree. A survey conducted by the program found that 84 percent of parents of WINGS participants said their children were better able to control themselves after attending the program, while 82 percent of students said the same.

“Our theory of change focuses on changing behaviors that get in the way of classroom success,” said Laird. “It’s not a surprise. I think it validates what we believe.”

Program Expansion

Since its inception 20 years ago, WINGS has expanded beyond Charleston, S.C. It also operates in Charlotte, N.C., and in Atlanta and has recently started working in the Pomona, Calif., school district through an affiliate program, which allows someone else to run the program while WINGS provides the curriculum and training.

“That’s a really nice option to grow bigger and faster to different parts of the country,” said Laird. “It’s really easy for us to jump in the car and go to Charlotte to check out our program, not so easy to go to California.”

The program, which operates in Title I schools, is funded through a mix of public and private money and recently received a two-year grant for $2.5 million from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

Photo: WINGS students at Heritage Elementary School in the Fulton County (Ga.) school district make the symbol for wings. (Sean Randall Photography)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.