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As an educator, one of the most annoying things you can hear a student say is, “This is stupid,” or, “Why are we learning this?”

But if you think back to the subjects that caused you the most frustration in school, you will likely recall wishing you were given clear reasons why learning them was important and how they would benefit you in the present or later in life.

Understanding and identifying constructive ways to deal with that frustration and helping students interact with one another respectfully are among the guiding goals behind social emotional learning, or SEL.

It’s an approach we’ve been using successfully at the Urban Assembly Media High School in New York City, a high school of approximately 400 students. Our population of students from the five boroughs is diverse: 80 percent come from families living below the poverty line, 60 percent are Latino and 35 percent are Black.

SEL helped our students before the pandemic, and those same skills have supported them throughout this crisis, in which student engagement and connection with peers, teachers and staff is needed more than ever before. The pandemic is affecting their relationships, their motivation for academics and their aspirations for college and careers.

Students and educators need workable skills and solutions to address these issues. SEL can help put all students on equal footing to succeed, socially, emotionally and academically. It’s a concept and skillset that encourages children and adults to better understand their thoughts and emotions, become more self-aware and develop empathy for others.

Related: 10 ways for schools to gain traction with social-emotional learning programs

A culture that welcomes children to an ever-diversifying world starts in the classroom, the place where students are likely to have their first encounters with people who hold beliefs and points of view different from their own.

When schools understand the unique assets and deficits of their students, they can refine and refocus how and what their teachers are teaching, and how their students cope with crises.

At Urban Assembly, we have used SEL as a way of both preventing and remediating dropouts. Teaching SEL skills helps us address lack of motivation, problem behavior and academic failure. This has facilitated a profound change in our school culture and climate.

We have witnessed exponential student personal growth manifested in the following ways: increased empowerment, increased school engagement and narrowed social and academic disparities. All of this has occurred as a result of targeting our students’ capacity for developing emotional intelligence.

Teaching SEL skills helps us address lack of motivation, problem behavior and academic failure.

We approach SEL as a sustainable and consistent process. We teach learners to use new skills and different perspectives to understand and manage their own emotions, thoughts and behaviors. We teach competencies like personal responsibility, goal-directed thinking, decision-making, self-awareness, optimistic thinking, social awareness, relationship skills and self-management.

We foster fundamental skills that help students develop the ability to make pro-social, constructive and healthy decisions. Our school utilizes several models to help build these skills, including the CASEL Framework, the School-Connect curriculum and the Restore 360 curriculum.

Our SEL-trained students are better equipped to deal with personal problems and better able to navigate the pressures of young adult life. Suspensions at our school have almost disappeared, while detention, physical altercations and crisis interventions have been greatly reduced.

We start each school day with small-group advisory lessons. Mondays begin with an academic check-in and reflection, in which we look at students’ progress reports. On Tuesdays, we have direct instruction in identified areas of need. Wednesdays are for circle discussions that relate to direct instruction, and Thursdays are for one-on-one instruction. On Fridays, we have team-building activities like creating art or media pieces. Several times a year, every advisory joins a schoolwide competition. These are generally culminating activities before a school holiday.

As a result of these initiatives, our school has achieved profound success. In their responses to exit surveys, graduating seniors consistently express appreciation for their enhanced relationships and skill development, as well as their increased capacity to navigate school, home and community. Here’s some of the feedback we’ve received from students:

“The stuff we learned in advisory has helped me talk with my parents about difficult topics.”

“My advisor has shared her own experiences with us and that has helped me a lot dealing with high school drama.”

“Advisory has helped me to change behaviors and unhealthy habits and I am much happier now.”

At Urban Assembly, we’ve been implementing SEL for seven years. Initially, there was pushback: Many teachers saw it as another burden they would have to shoulder, and many adults, like students, do not like the vulnerability and discomfort they feel when certain topics are discussed. Robust professional development in the form of modeling has helped us remedy both of these issues.

Essentially, any school can emulate what we have done at Urban Assembly. We believe that SEL increases academic achievement and helps students develop social skills, like compassion, care and empathy. It also reduces stress and anxiety, helping all who practice it learn to navigate fear and uncertainty. With a lot of planning and little to no financial outlay, your school can experience it too.

Jenine De Marzo, Ed.D is an SEL trainer and health and physical education teacher at Urban Assembly Media High School in New York City

This story about social and emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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