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By Ann Monroe and Tracy Sawicki

Dotting the Buffalo skyline are windmills generating power and tower cranes rebuilding downtown. These images remind us that new changes are happening in our community.

What’s also changing is our educational system, and in order for our children to have the skills necessary to compete and succeed in the 21st century, it is important that they not only have strong reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills, but also have the skills they need to become responsible adults.

With an emphasis on academic preparedness, the importance of social emotional learning (SEL) in our classrooms is often overlooked. In recent years, a body of research has been building to suggest that there is a strong link between young children’s social-emotional competence and their chances of early school success.

In fact, findings from a 2008 report funded by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning demonstrated that SEL programming yielded an average gain on achievement test scores of 11 to 17 percentile points.

When studying long-term effects related to crime, substance use, dropout/nonattendance and other conduct problems, the collaborative’s findings indicated that SEL approaches produced consistently positive outcomes when compared to behavioral counseling, social work and other therapeutic interventions.

Because the first few years of children’s lives play such a critical role in shaping their behavioral, social and emotional development, the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York and the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation have partnered to create PEDALS: Positive Emotional Development and Learning Skills.

This two-year program in Erie and Niagara counties has already shown success in emotionally and socially preparing young children for school, while providing early child care educators with training on how to use one of two evidence-based emotional and social curricula and assessments in their classrooms. Reaching 48 classrooms and 700 children during the 2012-2013 school year, an independent evaluation of the first year of the program shows that the curricula have already improved positive behaviors in the classroom.

Social-emotional based curricula promote overall social and emotional development of children and strengthen academic achievement. In addition to philanthropic support, a strong commitment at the local, state and federal level to implementing research-based SEL programming will help foster our kids’ healthy development.

Ann Monroe is president of the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York. Tracy Sawicki is executive director of the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation.