At 2:30 on weekday afternoons, more than one in three of the students at Chicora Elementary School, in North Charleston, South Carolina, scampers into the cafeteria. The kids cluster themselves into circles on the floor, bubbling with after-school energy. On the surface, this looks like your typical after-school program -- the kids eat string cheese, drink from juice boxes, and chatter loudly while gearing up for an afternoon of craft projects, games, and homework help.
Yet there is much more profound learning going on here in the WINGS for Kids program than meets the eye. Woven into the conversations, the activities the kids will do later this afternoon, and the language teachers use throughout are carefully planned lessons about social and emotional skills.
When Program Director Will Thompson takes the microphone for his daily pep talk, he asks, "Who can tell me what peer pressure is?" A boy named Troy knows: "When someone tells you to do something that you do not want to do." And what are the children going to do when faced with such a negative influence? They pantomime dusting off their shoulders and shout in chorus, "Brush the pressure off!"
Saying no to peer pressure is this week's objective -- one of 30 objectives ( 107K) that WINGS targets, one per week over the course of a school year. They cover basic social and emotional skills, such as identifying your feelings, regulating your emotional responses, and predicting the consequences of your actions -- all taught in the guise of fun.
These small daily reminders serve big goals. WINGS organizers believe that good social and emotional skills will enable the children to overcome the hardships in this low-income neighborhood, learn more in school and, ultimately, become better workers, friends, spouses, and parents. The WINGS motto: "Soar more, struggle less."
Teach, Practice, Repeat
The key to making these lessons stick is to repeat them every day, over and over in different ways in all kinds of settings. Each day in the opening Community Unity circles in the cafeteria, the children recite the WINGS Creed, a sing-song chant complete with choreographed hand gestures (which the kids do exuberantly) that encapsulates the program's essential lessons. The staff infuses these messages into everything, from the opening pep talk to the prescribed way that teachers correct children's behavior in the halls.
"You're worrying about his choices when you need to be worried about your choices. Make the choice that's best for you," the teachers remind students who complain about their peers' behavior. Or, when someone interrupts, it's: "I listen to you. You listen to me." As usual, they're quoting from the creed.
"The creed is a lot of the stuff that momma told you," says WINGS teacher Raymond Harris, a senior at the College of Charleston who wants to be an elementary school teacher. "But she wouldn't have given you examples of it. We use it all day, every day, and it can help kids not just hear it, but learn it and apply it and live it."
They have only a little data so far -- not enough to make a definitive scientific statement. But in the first group of WINGS kids, a small class of 18 that started in 1999, the high school graduation rate was 42 percent higher than the rate for their peers. Which sounds like a step toward soaring.