Confidence, competence, and care: building social-emotional skills in Minneapolis

When C.J. McGowan became the City Connects Coordinator at Ascension Catholic School, she saw students who had many needs — and also many strengths.

“I saw a Catholic school in the north side of Minneapolis, which is the toughest side of the city, probably of the whole Twin Cities in terms of crime and poverty,” McGowan said recalling her early days at Ascension.

“There were a handful of kids who had gone through trauma. The trauma of immigrating. The trauma of being poor and not being able to afford food on a regular basis. There were academic needs and some intense behavioral health needs. And yet, there were a ton of resilient kids doing their best and doing pretty well.”

She knew that — in addition to addressing students’ comprehensive needs — building on strengths and generating feelings of competence and confidence could change the way these students saw themselves as learners and could help them thrive. So that is what she did.

For the past three years, McGowan’s work as a coordinator has included fostering students’ social and emotional learning or SEL. This is the process in which “children and adults build “the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL, 2018).

Amy Heberle, a Post-Doctoral fellow who works with City Connects’ evaluation team at the Boston College Lynch School of Education, explains: 

“Social-emotional skills are critical to kids’ success in and out of school. Kids learn these skills just like they learn anything else—through observation, practice, and direct teaching. It is so important to think about the opportunities we are providing for kids to develop and practice these skills and about how we are modeling them.” 

“Children use these skills every day—solving conflicts at recess, responding appropriately when they are frustrated with tough school work, and effectively expressing their needs to teachers. It is extremely difficult for a child to do well academically if their social-emotional skills are too weak to navigate the school environment.” 

McGowan says, “One of the greatest things we’ve added is Girls on the Run. That is something I’m really proud of bringing in.”

As we’ve blogged, this program combines a social emotional curriculum with running. McGowan serves as one of the Girls on the Run coaches. One curricular theme of the program is gratitude.

“We do a relay race. You run up and write one thing that you’re grateful for that starts with an ‘A.’ The next person comes up and does a ‘B.’ And then you talk about the answers. The workout also revolves around the theme of the day. So on your first lap of running, you think about people and animals that you’re grateful for. Next lap, you think about places that you’re grateful for. The third lap, about events that you’re grateful for. And the fourth one, think about the strengths in yourself that you are grateful for.”

The program also includes completing a community project, and students discussed the curricular theme of compromise, and developed a process, to figure out what project to do.

“How do you compromise when you want to do a service project for people in Minneapolis and other people want to do it for people at school or after school?

“In the fall, the girls decided to help homeless people in the area, so the girls made bags with socks and mittens and water bottles. And if they saw a homeless person, they gave them the bag. And in the spring, the girls decided to focus on their school community and give goody bags to school staff members.”

The payoff for students is physical and emotional. “Girls on the run makes me feel welcome,” one student said. Another noted, “It makes me feel wonderful.”

McGowan has also works with mental health interns. They help her run several small groups for students.

“A few weeks ago, we started a grief and loss group, which we called Care Club. And we were a little nervous because of the age range. We had kids who were in kindergarten through eighth grade, but it’s really been one of our best groups.”

A student had asked for the group. The group has seven members, all of whom have had a family member die.

“We use a curriculum: there’s some journaling and some sharing. Kids have shared about the loss of a father or a grandfather or a mother or a friend. We’ve done some craft projects. We made lanterns decorated with tissue paper. The students put a battery-operated candle inside, and they can turn on when they think of someone. One girl said, ‘we can take them to the gravesite.’ That was something I hadn’t thought of.”

There is also a boys group and a girls’ skill group that focuses on building friendships.

McGowan plans for next year?

“I attended a training of a program called Yoga Calm where I learned how to teach mindfulness movement to kids. I have eight or nine staff who will be taking it over the summer. Then we’ll do a staff training for others and integrated it into the program.”

“One of my goals — is to have more than homework help programs after school, so I’m going to have an after-school yoga program to get kids moving.”

McGowan’s strategy is to combine social and emotional learning opportunities with a more comprehensive set of resources for students and their families. Using City Connects’ practice, she surrounds students with resources that meet their identified needs: a skills group, the chess club, an after-school program staffed by high school students. She works with community partners including the Northside Achievement Zone, which takes a whole family approach to providing support to low-income parents and children.

“You hope that it saturates someone, so the student gets the message: you have skills, you have things that you are good at. Sometimes you have to hold it for someone until they can believe it themselves.”

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