In New Haven, an academic education for public school students is not the only goal. Steering students toward emotional and social development is also a top priority.
On Friday, Trey Billings, Evaluation Specialist for New Haven public schools, and Dee Speese-Linehan, Supervisor of New Haven’s Social Development Department, came to Mason Laboratory to talk about public schools and New Haven’s youth. Both speakers highlighted the importance of behavioral control in addition to the usual public school curriculum.
Titled “Trying to Be All Things to All Kids: Universal Prevention Efforts and University Collaboration in the New Haven Public Schools,” their lecture was part of a series that the Yale Bush Center In Child Development and Social Policy has organized for the 2002-2003 academic year.
Billings talked about social problems that face the youth of New Haven public schools. He said schools can become actively involved in preventing drug use, violence, and risky sexual behavior, and they can also address the mental health needs of their students.
The speakers showed a short video about the curriculum New Haven has implemented in its public schools to prevent destructive behavior among its students. Viewers were led through classrooms across New Haven, ranging from first grade through high school.
The curriculum introduces social and emotional learning at an early age. One clip showed first graders sitting in a circle and practicing their “invisible magic bubbles” with their teacher. Stretching their arms around their small bodies, they talked about personal space and respect for others.
In another scene, a teacher engaged his young adolescent students in an open discussion about peer pressure and sex.
After the video, Billings described the positive trends since the early 1990s, when universal prevention efforts began to take force in New Haven public schools. There has been a decrease, for instance, in the number of students who say they have started fights in the last year, he said. Tobacco use is also reportedly down, as is sexual peer pressure, although it is still “high across the board,” Billings said.
However, there has been a significant increase in serious behavioral problems, especially in the elementary grades, he said.
Speese-Linehan emphasized the role of schools in addressing behavioral problems. She said the standardized mission of all schools is to promote academic, social, emotional, and physical development, but the social and emotional components are usually left behind.
Speese-Linehan stressed the need to centralize and integrate social services within the school system. Special education, for example, should not only help students with learning disabilities, but also those with behavioral disorders. She said teachers should be trained to better handle the social and emotional troubles of their students bring into the classroom.
Bernadine Shea, a former New Haven resident, was enthusiastic about the lecture. Shea said she has worked in education, and she recognized a long time ago the issues that Billings and Speese-Linehan raised. She said they are definitely moving in the right direction.
“Schools are not going to solve the whole problem, but they have a role in [it],” Rodnev Lapommeray ’03 said.
Lapommeray said increased attention to programs outside of the school system is also needed to ensure that all of the students’ needs are met.
Sandra Bishop, Assistant Director of the Yale Bush Center, said she thinks it is difficult to determine the degree of responsibility public schools should have for handling students’ social and emotional problems. While schools provide a valuable setting where most children can be reached, she said, there are also disadvantages to expecting the school system to assist with all social and emotional problems.
“There are only so many hours in the day and I can sympathize with the teachers who might feel overburdened,” she said.