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Road to success is paved in earliest years: Classroom Champions focuses on social-emotional learning

One of the most rewarding moments I’ve had during my years of working with students from underserved communities came when one of the children spontaneously reminded me to wear my protective vest as I prepared for a bobsled competition.

This was a big deal. It showed me that the kids were learning something just as important as math or reading: They were learning empathy.

Many of us take social skills and emotional stability for granted, but those elements don’t come easy for a lot of children. Growing up in Buffalo, I was fortunate to have two parents who were both teachers. They instilled in me from an early age not only the value of education, but also the value of cultivating healthy relationships that helped me learn how to behave properly.

Those values are a major reason why my sister, Leigh Parise, Ph.D., and I created Classroom Champions, a program we’re expanding in Buffalo that creates virtual mentorship relationships between Olympians and Paralympians and underserved schools across the country.

Connecting an athlete’s message with a kid who may not have the same advantages I did can make a major difference in that child’s life.

I’m one of the lucky ones. But a lot of kids – including many of the students in the schools that Classroom Champions works with – face problems throughout life that are a byproduct of deficits in social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an educational approach focusing on life skills that will help students become well-adjusted adults. SEL helps teach kids basic concepts like taking turns, managing emotions, making sound decisions, resisting negative peer pressure and working well in groups.

A child’s understanding of SEL concepts by the time he or she reaches kindergarten can be so pivotal that it can predict behavioral patterns stretching well into adulthood.

Research highlighted by the sports leader group Champions for America’s Future reflects that reality: In a study that began two decades ago as part of the Fast Track Project in central Pennsylvania, Nashville, Durham and Seattle, teachers assessed students’ “social competence,” based on SEL-related criteria such as cooperation with peers and understanding others’ feelings.

Researchers announced the results of the study this past July. The take-home point was that social-emotional development by the time kids reach kindergarten can predict with significant accuracy a host of life outcomes by age 25. These outcomes include graduating from high school on time, stable employment, needing special-education services, living in public housing, receiving public assistance, being arrested and having ever stayed in a detention facility.

That range of impacts, from crime reduction to educational success to less reliance on government assistance programs, speaks to the breadth of benefits of SEL.

In fact, one staggering revelation from the study data is that kindergartners who scored well on teachers’ assessments of their social skills were twice as likely to graduate from college than children who scored poorly.

What these results tell us is that the road to success is paved in the earliest years. That’s why we need to invest in quality early-childhood programs, including programs that stress social-emotional learning.

As someone who works with K-8 students, every day I see tangible benefits to SEL for kids older than 5. And since so much social-emotional development can occur before kids reach kindergarten, expanding access to quality preschool can help our youngest learners get an important jump-start. Early-childhood education programs can help kids to become productive members of society, while also fostering a lifelong culture of health.

Investing in quality education programs with an emphasis on SEL should be a goal for everyone who wants to give all children an opportunity to become educated, committed and ambitious adults.

Steve Mesler, an Olympic gold medalist and world champion bobsledder, is president and CEO of Classroom Champions.