Spreading the love with social-emotional learning

NASHUA — Courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion.

These are four of the character values taught via the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, which is now in place in the Nashua School District. These four concepts can be used to promote personal empowerment, resilience, connection and compassion. Lewis created this movement as a way for all to unite in the effort of stopping violence.

Nurturing, healing and love were the three simple, yet bold words Jesse Lewis etched across the kitchen chalkboard at his home days before he lost his life during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.

His mother, Scarlett Lewis, is now working to spread those concepts in honor of her son via the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement.

Since it began, the movement has made its way to all 50 states and 80 countries, including five schools in Nashua. However, New Hampshire is the first state to do a statewide initiative. In recognizing the positive effects this can have, other community members are curious as to how they the strategy to help prevent violence.

“The schools can only do so much within their four walls to really be effective and I think you need the broader community’s involvement and support,” United Way of Greater Nashua President Mike Apfelberg said.

He joined officials from the school district, Division of Public Health and Community Services and Fire Chief Brian Rhodes for a presentation on the movement. New Hampshire Choose Love Program Coordinator Shannon Desilets delivered them a presentation, guiding them through informative slides.

Since schools can sometimes be isolated institutions, Desilets said this program breaks down those silos. This social-emotional learning (SEL) system fosters a sense of respect and tolerance among students. She highlighted some of the feedback she has received from schools that began implementing this last year. The first thing she hears is that instructors did not realize how simple the program is and also that they too would also gain something, rather than just having an impact on the students.

“They started noticing that pause in students versus reactionary responses,” Desilets added.

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Garth McKinney said Nashua’s kids are coming to school with more and more complex needs, which is why he believes this program helps meet the district’s needs. Desilets highlighted a number of statistics, one of which being that nearly 50% of college-bound U.S. youth have a diagnosable mental illness by the time they are 18. The primary illness is anxiety, with the average age for onset being just 6.

She also said trauma has also taken a toll on a significantly higher number of students than it did 20 years ago. A couple decades ago, one in five students came to school with some form of trauma. She said the updated statistics show more than 50% of kids are coming to school with some form of trauma.

Aside from that, bullying is also on the rise. In addressing those figures, Desilets said SEL in general, is the premier way to have a safe school environment.

“There are stats that say for every $1 invested in SEL, there’s actually an $11 net value return to the community,” Desilets said.

Many schools in the state are looking at the program, which has been endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu. Additionally, the pilot program in Nashua runs for the duration of the 2019-20 school term.

“People want to be a part of this and my vision beyond schools is community-wide. How can we make a difference,” Desilets said.

McKinney said there is already a lot of excitement from educators to learn about the skills in the program and the ways in which it can make an impact for the kids.Last year, the schools faced a number of challenging behaviors among students. He said kids ages 8 and 9 are carrying a lot of baggage to school.

“I think it’s kind of a gift that we can give them some of these tools that they can kind of build a foundation on because life is stressful and I think it’s a nice thing we’re doing,” McKinney said.

Rhodes said unfortunately, a lot of people come to Nashua or Manchester, rather than smaller towns with less resources such as New Ipswich, for example. This, in turn, creates a larger problem for the Nashua community.

“All of these things, I think, are very important for our employees, but for our community to be that resilient community,” Rhodes said.

More information on the movement can be found online at, https://www.jesselewischooselove.org/.

Adam Urquhart may be contacted at 594-1206, or at aurquhart@nashuatelegraph.com.