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Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, M.A., CAGS, director of Open Circle, testified before the Boston City Council Education Committee at a public hearing on the reopening of Boston Public Schools on October 27, 2020. The hearing was recorded and is available from the Boston City Council. Drummond-Forrester’s full written testimony is below:

Chair Annissa Essaibi-George and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today in regards to the importance of centering social and emotional learning for students particularly during this time.

My name is Kamilah Drummond-Forrester and I am a resident of the city of Boston, Hyde Park to be specific. I am a mother of four and my eldest is a senior at Boston Latin Academy. I am the Director of Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Open Circle is a social and emotional learning program for children in grades K-5. Open Circle has been offering professional development for educators and grade differentiated curriculum for students for over 30 years. I am a lead facilitator with the National SEED Project, another program of Wellesley Centers for Women, SEED stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. In this role I facilitate conversations with cohorts of educators, parents and workplace staff around topics related to racial equity, social justice and systems of oppression. I am also a member of the Board and Steering Committee member of the statewide Social and Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts (SEL4MA) and Steering Committee member for the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Providers Council, whose membership includes over 100 providers from across the country.

There has been and continues to be a profound emotional upheaval in many children’s lives: shift in schooling, loss of family and friends to COVID-19, loss of social and physical connection with friends, shifts in daily routines, food insecurity, connectivity and technological instability and illness. Whether schools are in buildings or virtual, SEL needs to remain a priority. I will be organizing my thoughts around three key pieces that I believe the committee should consider as you deliberate about the reopening process:

  • SEL develops children’s emotional wellbeing. They learn to manage their own emotions and how to relate to others.
  • SEL is critical to academic achievement: SEL = building block for learning.
  • SEL is critical for the adults who support the teaching and learning for our children.

SEL involves developing children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, such as empathy. Self-awareness, Social Awareness, Self-management, Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision Making are some of the competency areas that enable children to understand themselves on a deeper level and engage in healthy relationships with others. It calls for building positive relationships and problem-solving, while helping schools develop communities where students feel safe, empowered and cared for. A quote that we use in Open Circle that captures the essence of why SEL is foundational for teaching and learning is “kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care”. Schools/districts can have the best academic content area experts in the building or on the computer but if a child does not feel a sense of genuine care from the educator, school community and adults in their network that child will not be learning to their full potential. If this didn’t feel critical before, it does in the midst of the current pandemics.

In my recent article published in the Hechinger Report, I mention that at the beginning of the health crisis of COVID-19 last spring, when schools and districts were suddenly met with the need to transition abruptly to remote learning, the emotional and social wellbeing of the students they served was front and center. Eight months later, the need to center the social and emotional wellbeing of our children is just as critical. We are all dealing with intense and multi-layered loss and grief and our children are feeling it just as intensely as the adults who care for them.

SEL might previously have been viewed by some as a nice add-on to academics during the school day. The current crisis has shown us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that SEL is the very foundation teaching and learning should be built upon. Relationships matter, as does centering those relationships in authentic ways.

In a 2011 paper, Durlak and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of social and emotional learning in schools indicated that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated:

  • Better academic performance: including achievement score an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive SEL instruction.
  • Reduced emotional distress including fewer reports of student depression anxiety stress and social withdrawal.
  • Improved attitudes and behaviors: including greater motivation to learn, deeper commitment to school, increased time devoted to schoolwork and better classroom behavior.

In addition a study conducted in 2015 by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies for Columbia University’s Teachers College shows that for every dollar invested in training in social and emotional learning, there is a return of investment of eleven dollars.

There have been several reports published in 2020 that point to the individual and collective trauma our children are experiencing and the greater need and desire for social and emotional supports.

The work of Dr. Karen Craddock and Dr. Amy Banks highlights that the brain registers the pain of social exclusion and isolation in the exact same way it registers physical pain. Our brains are wired for connection, for relationships. Dr. Cradock and Dr. Banks have developed a framework called the STOP model that could be used in conjunction with SEL strategies to counter social pain and marginalization and support social-emotional wellbeing especially during this COVID 19 crisis where the pain of social exclusion, racism and marginalization is compounded. I’ve included their contact information and research for the Committee to review.

Lastly, no conversation about the wellbeing of students can occur without a simultaneous conversation about the psychosocial wellbeing of educators and administrators. We cannot expect our children’s SEL needs to be met with care and concern if the adults charged with that task are stressed and uncared for themselves. Empty vessels cannot fill others up. Educators have been going above and beyond in this current climate, and their wellness matters too. Are there things that can be taken off their plate so they can focus on the support we have just been talking about for themselves and their students? How is the district poised to offer and create spaces that center adult SEL and healing? Self-care cannot occur without community care, and we must develop and maintain policies and practices in district that center the wellbeing of the educators and decision makers. We must shift the focus on standardized testing and evaluations and offer a more humanistic approach to teaching, learning and partnering. This is certainly a difficult and complex time and it is an opportunity to center what should have been foundational from the start – the social and emotional wellness of students, their teachers, and their families.


  1. CASEL. (n.d.). Benefits of SEL.
  2. CASEL. (n.d.). Collaborators’ Research.
  3. Aspen Institute. (n.d.). Social Emotional Learning.
  4. CASEL. (2017). Key District Findings.
  5. Education Week. (2020, April 8). Special Report: Social-Emotional Learning: Making it Work.
  6. Craddock, K.T. (2019). It’s Not in Our Head...Yet Pain is in Our Brain: Why Racialized Exclusion Hurts and How We Can Remain Resilient. EmbraceRace.
  7. Craddock, K.T. & Banks, A. (2017). Stopping the Pain of Social Exclusion: Using Relational Neuroscience as an Approach for Social Action in Gunderson, C., Graff, D., & Craddock, K.T. (Eds). Transforming Community: Stories of Connection through the Lens of Relational-Cultural Theory. Whole Person Press: MN.

October 27, 2020

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