As teachers and school leaders determine what educational losses students faced due to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another skill that was lost that is harder to quantify – social-emotional learning (SEL).
“With students spending more time at home and away from the normal school environment, it was difficult when the time came to return,” says Brendan Ward, Program Manager, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Coastal & Northern NJ (BBBSCNJ). “Students struggled with healthy relationships, conflict resolution, adapting to new settings and situations – generally, co-existing in a normal school setting was difficult for them. We took it for granted before COVID.”
SEL, according to the Committee for Children, is “the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.” To combat the lost social-emotional learning time students faced due to the pandemic, the Monmouth ACTS Positive Youth Development Hub, of which Ward is Co-Chair, worked to incorporate a Social-Emotional Learning Program into the five-week summer program at Freehold Intermediate School.
BBBSCNJ was awarded a grant to spearhead the initiative, and brought together fellow Hub collaborators and additional agencies – Project Write Now, Lead U, KYDS and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Monmouth County – to implement varied programming that would boost SEL skills. Activities included “self-esteem Jenga,” with prompts such as “Say something you are proud of about yourself” on the wooden blocks, and “Compliment Day,” where students kept a paper heart taped to their backs during their day, so they could collect written compliments from other students throughout the day. Students were encouraged to write essays and poetry to express themselves.
“Throughout the program, students were provided with time for structured relationship and confidence building, learned about smart and health decision making, coping skills/resilience, and self-awareness,” says Joseph Howe, Ed.D., CPA, Superintendent, Freehold Borough School District. “After participating in the programming students reported increased willingness and ability to communicate and higher levels of self-confidence.”
In total, 75 youth from grades 4 to 8 were served, with the majority of youth participating in programming from two or more providers. In addition to programming, the grant allowed for supplying the school with $3,000 worth of grocery store gift cards to distribute amongst families to combat food insecurity, as well as 30 Mental Health Toolkits from Lead U for the school to keep on hand to provide to families in need.
As Howe mentioned, feedback from students and parents/guardians was positive, with one student writing as feedback, “Being able to actually say now how I feel in front of others makes me feel like I have a voice… I used to think I’d forever be writing things just for myself to see, but I feel free now.”
Another wrote: “Honestly any type of writing down your emotions is good for you because it helps you be aware of yourself, but I feel like making it into a poem makes it better because you can string it into beautiful words… it’s ok to feel the way [you] feel.”
“This program at Freehold Intermediate was a much-needed one for our middle school students, especially after periods of remote learning and quarantine over the last two years,” says Commissioner Deputy Director Susan M. Kiley. “Seeing the positive feedback from students and parents is a concrete testimonial to the work of our Positive Youth Development Hub and the mission of Monmouth ACTS.”
Ward reports that further collaboration is planned amongst the participating providers, with BBBSCNJ continuing their partnership with Project Write Now and Lead U for involvement in its school-based programs across the county. A Child Safety Summit in partnership with BBBSCNJ and the Boys and Girls Club is also being planned for Asbury Park.
“Once again, Monmouth ACTS serves as a connector for our County’s outstanding nonprofit and human service organizations,” said Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone. “This is just another example of these organizations coming together through Monmouth ACTS to provide important services for residents of all ages.”