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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Helping Students Avoid Risky Behavior

Social-emotional learning
Walk into Welch Annex School's cafeteria during lunch and you may overhear the custodian asking a student, "Where's your bubble?"
Everyone knows that bubbles pop easily. At Welch Annex, students are taught to maintain "magic bubbles" around themselves at all times. They are taught to always keep a space between themselves and others. Principal Gina Wells demonstrates this concept to students by placing the school's gerbil inside an exercise wheel. The gerbil enjoys its personal space, thus demonstrating to the children the positive aspects of maintaining a bubble.
And it works. Fewer problems occur; shoving matches, tray bumping, food spills, and burns from hot food have all decreased. Most important, school personnel see fewer interpersonal problems. Students learn to respect others and to keep their distance. Students and parents at Welch Annex use their bubbles on the playground, in the stairwells, on the street, and in the grocery store—anywhere that interpersonal problems may occur.
The New Haven school district generated the bubble activity as a component of its Social Development Program. Begun in the late 1980s, this program now plays a prominent role in the curriculum. In fact, representatives from school districts around the world visit the New Haven Public Schools to see the curriculum in action and to develop similar models. Taught in 45 schools, the program builds social competencies that help students avoid risky behaviors.

The Need

The need is tremendous. Young people today cope with challenges different from those faced by earlier generations.
Mary Newell, a New Haven psychologist, recently told the school board that children bring many personal issues to school. Teenage pregnancies, divided families, divorce, and child and spousal abuse are just a few of the challenges.
"We expect these children to sit down and eat lunch when they have so many things on their minds. Some don't even know where they'll sleep at night," she noted.
Indeed, New Haven struggles with many of the same issues that affect school districts across the country, particularly those in urban settings, although the city has made tremendous strides toward improvement. Nearly a third of the city's children live below federal poverty levels. Although crime has fallen precipitously since 1990, when community-based policing began to flourish in the city, many students have witnessed acts of violence.
In 1992, 22 percent of 10th graders reported having carried a gun, according to a social and health assessment that is regularly administered by the district and Yale University's Child Study Center. In that same year, 27 percent of 6th graders reported they had had sexual intercourse. Some 40 percent of children said they had seen someone shot or stabbed.
Just getting children to show up every morning for class has not been easy. In 1990, attendance rates in the school system were poor. In the K–4 grades, 25 percent of students were absent more than 20 days. Ninth graders missed an average of 39 days. Half of all 8th graders did not go on to graduate from high school. In 1992, 40 percent of 6th graders had been retained at least once.

The District's Response to the Need

The district realized that although pushing students academically was important, creating a positive school climate that addressed students' social and emotional needs was essential.
"Students dealing with the death of a family member aren't helped by increasing the amount of time spent in science class," said Reginald R. Mayo, New Haven's superintendent of schools. "Students being ostracized or pressured by their peers aren't helped by math assessment tools. They need help coping with their personal issues."
The New Haven school district recognized that for academic scores to im-prove, social and emotional learning had to be emphasized. Over five years, the district developed a K–12 curriculum that focused on social competencies, such as self-monitoring, problem solving, decision making, and communicating (see fig. 1). The goal of the program is for students to develop these competencies so that they will be less adversely affected by life's stresses and more able to experience school success.

Figure 1. New Haven Social Development Project—Life Skills Programs for Selected Grades

Helping Students Avoid Risky Behavior - table

K–3rd Grade

10th Grade

36–55 lessons taught in each grade 2 or 3 times a week for the school year.47 lessons taught 5 times a week for two marking periods as a Life Skills Class
Project CharlieViolence Prevention
Self-awarenessUnderstanding violence
RelationshipsSubstance use prevention
Chemical use in society
Violence preventonConflict Resolution
Building Blocks: An AIDS Curriculum for Early Elementary Educators (4-6 lessons taught with Project Charlie)Conflict cycle
GermsReview of social problem solving
Communicable diseasesCommunication and human sexuality
Staying healthyViolence prevention
Sickness and medicine
Immune systemStrengthening Relationships with Family and Friends
Seeking health informationApplication of problem solving and conflict resolution to situations with family and friends
Being differentAccepting individual differences

Overcoming Obstacles

To ensure the program's success, the district held many community meetings. In the beginning, coordinators faced protests from some parents who felt that the district had no right to involve itself in the personal lives of their children. The best way to overcome parents' fears, the district found, was through communication. For example, before implementing a 6th grade unit on sex education, the social development program staff presented the curriculum to parents. The staff changed the curriculum to meet parental concerns. In addition, teachers at every grade level were invited to the meetings and were encouraged to give feedback.
The district did not attempt to implement a comprehensive K–12 program all at once, but worked in stages and at different grade levels. The gradual phasing in of the program generated a sense of trust and ownership for parents, who came to believe that social development had a rightful role in the New Haven Public Schools. By the end of 1989, the first year of the program, teachers, too, embraced the program and came to consider it a useful tool for building good, healthy relationships with their students.

The Program in Action

At Davis Street Magnet School, social development skills are as much a part of the curriculum as reading, writing, and science. In John Grammatico's 2nd grade class, students invited their classmates to complete this sentence: "When someone is scared, he or she can. . . ." Kids came up with various ways to cope with fear and recorded their ideas on a bulletin board. The most popular solution was to walk away. The students role-played a teasing scene, talked about what makes students scared, and emphasized school as a safe place to be. Then Grammatico led a writing prompt on "I feel scared when. . . ."
In Rosalyn Bannon's 3rd grade class at Davis, students enjoy Clucky the Ducky, a class "pet." They sit in a circle and take turns passing around Clucky, a stuffed animal. The student holding Clucky gets to speak about his or her feelings for the day. If that student has a problem, the other students suggest solutions. Holding Clucky makes the student feel safe enough to share feeings and solve problems.
In another school, a teacher tells of Gerard, a student with a low tolerance for frustration. If the teacher could not help him on demand, he would shout, "You're no good. You don't care," and shove desks as he walked back to his seat. One lesson in the social development curriculum for that grade level deals with timing—the best moment to approach a person about a problem. A week after that lesson, Gerard approached the teacher for help with math. At that moment, the teacher was working with another student. Instead of saying "Gerard, I can't help you now," she turned to him, smiled, and said, "Timing." She waited for the screaming. Instead, Gerard said, "Mrs. D., I get it! I can ask you at another time!" He walked back to his seat with a smile on his face. Those "I get it" moments bring tears to a teacher's eyes.

Parent Involvement

Although staff and teacher development are important, bringing parents into the equation is essential. The New Haven Public Schools reached out by holding a citywide meeting of the parents of elementary school students. Facilitators from the social development program taught the parents the same problem-solving techniques that their 6th graders were learning in classrooms. During three weeks of meetings, the parents were coached in ways to resolve minor problems—squabbles over dish duty, TV watching, homework—and in ways to approach the deeper challenges of parenthood. The parents then applied the techniques to problems with their children, in their schools, and in the community.
Although the meetings were not mandatory, the district offered parents who completed the training a $100 stipend. In addition, the district provided bus transportation, child care, and dinner for the parents. School principals and the social development staff helped recruit the parents; in the end, more than 150 participated. The school district then required the parents to volunteer for 10 hours in their children's schools.
The New Haven school district has trained other employees of the school system who have a role in creating a positive school climate. The district has developed a mechanism to successfully bring all stakeholders to the table, a teamwork approach pioneered by James P. Comer of the Yale Child Study Center and now recognized nationally as a successful model.

The School Development Program

The School Development Program created by Comer has become the governing principle for the New Haven Public Schools. Through its two main components, the School Planning and Management Team and the Student Staff Support Team, parents, teachers, and administrators—and in some schools, business leaders, community service providers, and students—make decisions that shape the life and the climate of the school. Everyone has the chance to plan and coordinate school activities, set the vision for the school, and build mutual trust in resolving issues. For example, the program encourages parents to share their knowledge, hopes, and frustrations. In short, all stakeholders work together to support the developmental needs of the children.

The Evaluation

The Social and Health Assessment Survey, conducted every two years among New Haven middle and high school students by the district with assistance from Yale University's Child Study Center, shows that in New Haven, the investment in social deveopment is succeeding. It is an integral tool in gauging the attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors of students toward school and community. Increasingly, the findings are good.
The most recent survey, in 1996, showed tremendous improvements in students' feelings about school. Fewer students—39 percent in 1996 compared with 48 percent in 1994—reported worrying about safety at their school. The percentage of students carrying a gun during the previous year declined by half (18 percent in 1992, 9 percent in 1996). Reports of carrying a blade, a knife, or a gun in school declined from 30 percent in 1994 to 22 percent in 1996. Much credit belongs to the social development program, in which students feel free to share their fears and achievements with teachers and others involved in the life of the school.
The students surveyed reported that they liked their teachers and felt they could talk about things on their minds with at least one teacher. More than half—67 percent—reported liking school. Far fewer students reported feeling hopeless about the future (31 percent in 1992, 22 percent in 1996). Finally, more students reported high or very high expectations that they will graduate from high school, go to college, and have a happy family life.
Other indicators are heartening. School attendance has risen to 91 percent—above the statewide average and higher than most other large urban districts in Connecticut. Expulsions and suspensions are down. Nearly 75 percent of graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges.
Ultimately, though, true community building—not statistics—determines a school's success. The most successful schools in New Haven have reached out to businesses, parents, residents, and even religious institutions and have imparted the same positive message to children: School is the only place to be. They have taught families and children how to learn and how to cope—within the school walls and in the larger, and increasingly complex, world around them.

Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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