The Atlantic

The Psychological Approach to Educating Kids

Increased focus on kids’ psychological health may seem like the education world's flavor of the day, but it's achieving results.
Source: Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

On a recent Monday morning, 25 freshmen filed into Rudolph “Keeth” Matheny’s wood-paneled portable classroom on the campus of Austin High School in Austin, Texas. But not before the shake. Matheny greeted each student by name, then extended his hand.

“I won the handshake competition, and there’s an art to it,” one student said. “You have to do webbing to webbing, that’s the trick.” Shake firmly, but not too hard, look the person in the eye, smile. The student demonstrated and, indeed, his handshake was a winner.

In addition to perfecting handshakes, Matheny, an ex-college football coach, teaches Methods for Academic and Personal Success (MAPS), and he happens to be on the frontlines of a growing movement in education: social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL—also called whole-child education—is a systematic, evidence-based approach to teaching kids how to achieve goals, understand and manage emotions, build empathy, forge relationships, and make responsible decisions. In 2012, the Chicago-based nonprofit Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) partnered with eight districts around the country to implement SEL in their schools. Today, CASEL is working with 10 large districts—including Anchorage, Alaska;  Austin; Chicago; Cleveland; Nashville, Tennessee; and Oakland, California—and a growing number of smaller ones. These partnerships mean

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