Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray: Why We’re Introducing Social-Emotional Learning in New York City Schools

June 20, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC
Students wait for New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina to arrive on April 7, 2014.
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07: Students wait for New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina while she visits J.H.S. 088 Peter Rouget school in Brooklyn to announe the new initiative called "Learning Partners Program" on April 7, 2014 in New York City. The program aims to bring schools together to better share and coordinate successful practices in the classroom. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

In the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, the sixth graders of Meyer Levin Junior High have a routine. Each day, everyone in the grade gathers for a town hall meeting. They cheer on each other’s successes, and support one another through struggles. When one student shared her worries about the results of her grandmother’s custody hearing earlier this year, her classmates responded with encouragement.

These sixth graders understand what many adults have taken too long to grasp: The emotional well-being of students is vital to their success in school. But until now, we haven’t given teachers tools they can use in the classroom to help kids, and we haven’t given kids the skills to grow emotionally.

That’s why at the start of the next school year, New York City is revolutionizing its school system by initiating the nation’s most comprehensive approach to social-emotional learning in every classroom.

Successful adults need to know how to build and maintain positive relationships with coworkers, friends, and family. They need to learn how to resolve conflict constructively. They need to understand how their emotions affect their actions. Make no mistake: These are hard skills. And just like reading and math, they should be taught, practiced, and strengthened over time. That process should begin in our education system.

What will change in our schools?

In every elementary school, students will get more comfortable talking openly and clearly about their feelings. They will learn to embrace diversity, challenge stereotypes, and build positive relationships with the people around them. Every teacher will have access to a strong curriculum for social-emotional learning, and the training they need to teach it in their classrooms.

Social-emotional learning has been proven to improve students’ academic performance by prioritizing communication, empathy, and problem-solving. Many elementary school teachers spend their own money and dedicate their own personal time learning how to teach these skills. For too long, they’ve been on their own. Now they’ll have real support and real resources right in their own schools.

As children get older, their schoolwork gets more complicated. So do their relationships and emotions. In middle school and high school, social-emotional learning will evolve too, and will help kids defuse conflict and work peer-to-peer.

At every school, we’ll give teachers and principals more tools to approach challenging behavior. The concept behind social-emotional learning is simple: Train teachers to teach our students how to use these skills in everyday life. By practicing working together to address their feelings, students learn to regulate behavior and emotions. This is not about taking reactive strategies like suspensions off the table, which we know we need sometimes. It is about providing skills and support to change behavior before it becomes a problem.

So much happens outside the classroom that affects a child’s behavior and performance inside the classroom. Some students come in angry—maybe they had a fight with their parents—or sad—maybe they went through a breakup or lost someone close to them. Some have witnessed violence in their homes or neighborhoods. Without the skills to identify how they are feeling and talk through it, they may express their emotions by withdrawing, shutting down in class, or disrupting lessons.

It doesn’t help anyone to label these students as “bad” or “lazy.” We want to treat all students with respect, help them communicate their problems, and work through them alongside trusted and supportive adults. This will result in a dramatic reduction in the use of suspensions, which are handed out to students of color in greater percentages than to others.

Thanks to the New York City Council, we’re creating a special unit of 85 licensed clinical social workers to support children experiencing a crisis. Instead of calling emergency medical services, schools will now be able to call on these social workers. They will help students work through emotional distress and, if needed, connect them to longer-term care.

We’ve heard the students and parents who have called for these reforms. We want our children to know that their voices, their struggles, and their triumphs matter. And we want them to build and practice the skills they need to become well-adjusted adults. Our students deserve nothing less. This new approach should be a blueprint for other school systems nationwide.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City and a Democratic candidate for president. Chirlane McCray is the first lady of New York City.

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