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More Than Academics: WA Schools Help Kids Develop Life Skills

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The organization Neighborhoods Matter in Spokane, WA uses "play and learns" to develop kids social skills. (James Emery/Flickr)
The organization Neighborhoods Matter in Spokane, WA uses "play and learns" to develop kids social skills. (James Emery/Flickr)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
February 12, 2018

SEATTLE — While people often think of school as a place to learn reading and math, schools also have another important function.

Washington state school districts are recognizing the vital role of social-emotional learning - that is, supporting children's ability to build relationships, understand their emotions, and solve problems. Heather Wallace, a health program specialist with the Spokane Regional Health District, said this type of learning is the key building block to academic education.

"Math and English and writing are all really critical academic skills for kids to develop in elementary school,” Wallace said. “But probably more important is that social-emotional development - because without it, kids can't rise to the next level."

Wallace works with the program Neighborhoods Matter, which supports marginalized community members in Spokane. To promote social skills, they host what they call "play and learns," to help kids and parents connect with each other.

Wallace said increasing social-emotional development also protects kids against child abuse and neglect.

David Lewis, program manager of the Seattle School District's behavioral health services, works directly with kids on these skills. Lewis said children rely on a caring, trusting adult.

One of the first kids he worked with on social-emotional development had an incarcerated father and was getting into trouble at school. So Lewis took steps to connect with him, one-on-one. Once he saw the boy was responding, he began adding expectations for him.

Within a year, Lewis said, the child had grown immensely.

"What we learned in that was, it is about relationship, it is about high expectations, and it's also about supporting students so they can meet those expectations and build their esteem,” Lewis said; “so that when you're not there, they can keep moving forward and pushing."

Sarah Butcher, executive vice chair with the Washington State Special Education Advisory Council, said there are no state standards for social-emotional learning yet. But districts are laying the foundation for this work, which could lead to training and implementation statewide.

"The magic is going to happen when districts and neighbors see what each other is doing and learn from each other, and that creates connections,” Butcher said. “This is a journey. It's not something that will, overnight, shift and change. It will be a process, but an exciting one to watch unfold."

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