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South Salt Lake Journal

Teaching social emotion skills proves successful at Promise SSL

Dec 03, 2020 02:23PM ● By Bill Hardesty

Teens enjoy interacting with current technology at the Promise SSL Best Buy Teen Tech Center when it was opened pre-COVID. (Photo courtesy of Best Buy)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

In response to concerns voiced by Natalie Pinkney, South Salt Lake Councilmember at-large, Kelli Meranda, the director of Promise SSL, gave a presentation on how the Promise SSL after-school programs affect the School to Prison Pipeline (STPP) at a work meeting on Nov. 4.

"We think it is so important to share and understand the message. We know the after-school programs aren't going to change the School to Prison Pipeline on their own, but we can have an impact in what is happening," Meranda said.

School to Prison Pipeline

The STPP term has been around for a while. The idea is that children and youth are funneled out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.

Multiple studies show that the STPP has an impact on minority and disabled students.

"Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out," according to the ACLU.

Experts often blame “zero-tolerance” policies as a primary driver for the STPP.

"Zero-tolerance" policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while police in school leads to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline," according to the ACLU Utah website.

Promise SSL programs

"What we have tried to do is deliberately design our programs to help mitigate some those things seen in that pipeline," Meranda said.

Promise SSL has built into the program lessons and activities, which help to improve social-emotional skills.

One program used is Positive Actions based in Twin Falls, Idaho. It is a program that has short 15-minute lessons and activities. Promise SSL uses it mainly with elementary students.

The foundation of the program is the Thoughts-Action-Feeling Circle. The idea is "our thoughts lead to actions, and those actions lead to feelings about ourselves which in turn lead to more thoughts. When this cycle is negative, students do not want to learn. When this cycle is positive, students want to learn. The essence of the program is to emphasize those actions that promote a healthy and positive cycle. The Positive Action program works through these concepts in a systematic way," according to the Positive website. 

Another program used is Second Step, created by the Committee for Children ( Second Step takes a community approach so that "everyone can use—on the playground, in the classroom, from school to school, and at home. All community members can use their lessons, concepts, and skill sets to reinforce competencies and help children solve everyday challenges," according to the website. 

The theory is that as children gain social-emotional skills, they can resolve conflicts, work with others and make the right decisions.

A final program is mindfulness, which is more of a concept than a structured program. Granite School District has adopted this concept for the classroom. The idea is to train your attention to the present moment without dwelling on what has happened in the past or worrying about the future.

Multiple studies show that doing this results in physical and psychological benefits. One study reported that 86% of children were able to boost their well-being.

Another way Promise SSL helps is to resolve the digital divide.

"We recognize that for many, the digital divide is real," Meranda said.

Many students don't have digital devices, or they don't have reliable internet at home. Promise SSL after-school programs give them access to distance learning. They also offer homework help at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center at the Columbus Center. 

Many partners

"Our after-school programs are a piece of the success, but we know it is multiple partners coming together to offer programs and services which make an impact and make the needed changes in the community,” Meranda said. “Which is why we do this work collaboratively.”

Promise SSL has wraparound services for participants and their families. Services include food pantries and health services. 

Promise SSL has a strong partnership with the Granite School District. Many of the after-school programs are in community schools. In the case of the new Walker Elementary, a stand-alone community center was built. However, it is not finished due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Other key partners are SSLPD and Salt Lake County Youth Services. An example of that partnership is how they refer students and families for help to the Juvenile Receiving Center. In turn, families using JRC services are often referred to Promise SSL programs.  

Promise SSL highlights

Promise SSL noted some results from their program. From 2010-2019, juvenile arrests declined by 71%. On school days between 3 and 6 p.m., there was a 67% reduction in juvenile arrests.

In 2019, teachers working in SSL reported 74% of elementary and 67% of middle and high school students showed an improvement in in-school behavior.

Also, the same teachers reported 66% of elementary and 61% of middle and high school students showed improved grades.