Grit, resilience, social, and emotional learning (SEL), academic mindsets—they’re the talk of the educators, and for good reason. These skills, attitudes, and behaviors might just be the bridge that educators have long sought to close the achievement gap between kids who succeed in school and life—and those who don’t. “Rethinking How Students Succeed” provides a hopeful overview of why that might be the case.

The article describes “effective learners” as those who master a number of noncognitive skills and behaviors. And evidence supporting the important role of noncognitive skills and behaviors in student success continues to mount. In a new report, the Center for Curriculum Redesign identified mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics, and leadership as the top character qualities that students should learn for the 21st Century. A new research paper from Columbia University finds a positive return on investments in six school-based social and emotional learning interventions.

But as we discover more about what students need to learn in terms of skills and behaviors, questions about how become more urgent. From my perspective, after-school programs can help provide the answers.

I have the privilege of leading an organization called WINGS, which five days a week provides three hours of after-school programming to more than 1,200 students across 10 sites in Charleston and Lake City, South Carolina; Atlanta, Gerogia; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  At WINGS, we strive to teach elementary school kids how to behave well, make good decisions, and build healthy relationships.  We believe that kids who commit to attending 80 percent of the time over two years will develop strong social and emotional skills that will lead to improved behavioral and academic outcomes, in both the short run and later grades as well.

We also believe that three characteristics in particular enable our after-school programs to complement in-class efforts to develop effective learners and to reinforce noncognitive skills and attitudes.

First, we take an innovative approach to programming. We focus on the five competencies defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.  Each day, students recite of the WINGS Creed—written in kid-friendly language that helps students understand what SEL skills are about. In addition, guided by research from the CASEL, we’ve developed 30 learning objectives (one for each week of the program) that our WINGSLeaders—college-age mentors—weave into daily activities. Over the course of a week, students will experience these objectives through games or exercises, and they will be reinforced during other activities or homework time.

Independent research finds that the program works. Studies from Yale University and the University of Virginia have shown that students enrolled in two or more years of WINGS had significantly higher math and reading scores, and better grades and school attendance compared to non-WINGS students. And WINGS students report higher self-esteem and less anxiety than non-WINGS students.

Second, WINGS leaders communicate regularly with principals and school-day teachers. This works best when the program is located inside a school building rather than off-campus. WINGS teachers share each week’s learning objectives along with tips on how to infuse SEL during the regular school day; they share academic and behavioral data and reports; and they collaborate on action plans for specific students. They also share the language and techniques from our program with in-school staff, with an eye towards giving students a consistent experience.

Third, the results of quality after-school programming allow us to affect the school climate, and thereby encourage in-school buy-in to the power of developing noncognitive skills and behaviors. Teachers and administrators can see how WINGS kids use positive “self-talk” to overcome challenges or use their “3Es”—eyes, ears, and energy—as a way to focus and limit distractions. Frequently, students who are not in the WINGS program adopt these skills from their peers, and so a positive ripple effect occurs within the school. Experiencing these nuggets of behavioral techniques throughout the school day helps teachers and administrators further understand the skills and behaviors integral to student success.

Educators, practitioners, and funders are keenly interested in taking what works in individual classrooms and spreading that knowledge to the benefit of millions of kids. As a pioneer involved in social and emotional learning in the after-school setting, I see great potential in aligning after-school efforts with in-school initiative to achieve effective learning at greater scale. There’s real value in the integrated approach.

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