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How City Year AmeriCorps members nurture students’ social-emotional growth — and their own.

On a sunny June morning, City Year AmeriCorps member Kelly Kittredge works with a small group of students who arrive at 7:30 to attend a “Morning Class.” This extended day program at Sarah Greenwood School in Boston offers students a chance to receive tutoring and extra homework help while building positive relationships and social skills before the regular school day starts an hour later.

Once math homework is complete, the students, Jasmine*, Maria* and Rachel*, turn their attention toward finishing scrapbooks with pictures and memories from their year together. Kittredge asks the girls to write how the early morning class has helped them and what they appreciate most about one another on thin strips of construction paper that Kelly will later glue into the scrapbooks.

“The word of the day is ‘appreciation,'” Kittredge tells them. “What are the types of things you appreciate about each other and Morning Class?”

I appreciate you because… “You are a great friend and you bring me joy,” writes Maria.

What I like best about Morning Class is… “Having fun and being who I am,” writes Jasmine.

How do I feel like I belong in this group? “I feel like I belong here because I learn a lot of things and it’s safe,” writes Rachel.

The girls didn’t start the year as close friends. Fourth grade is when cliques can take hold, said Virginia Bette, City Year’s Impact Manager at Greenwood, and Jasmine, Maria and Rachel started the school year in different social circles. Using training and curriculum developed by City Year, Kittredge’s Morning Class focuses on engaging the students academically and socially so that they will want to come to school and go to their classes “ready to learn” — confident, focused and supported.

“We’ve been creating a community so that everyone feels safe to share,” Kittredge said later. “Kids want to talk and want everyone to listen to them. The idea of our group is that everyone’s voice is heard, and we explore what the students are passionate about.”

Fostering student engagement through positive relationships and SEL

Research and surveys have shown that when students feel engaged with their learning and have formed positive “developmental” relationships with at least one adult at school, they are more enthusiastic about coming to school, can achieve at higher levels and are more likely to graduate from high school — positive outcomes that City Year AmeriCorps members strive to ensure throughout the academic year.

One of the tools Kittredge has used in her morning class is the Clover Model, a youth development framework that recognizes each person’s strengths and builds on them. This approach helps corps members like Kelly forge strong relationships with students, understand their talents and needs, and cultivate key social-emotional skills that students need to succeed and that are in high demand by employers.

The Clover Model is a key component of City Year’s social-emotional development approach, and stems from an understanding that a student’s academic success is directly tied to his or her emotional well-being. A growing body of research shows that to thrive as adults, all children need to cultivate foundational skills that enable them to learn, self-regulate and achieve at high levels. These skills help children recover after setbacks, make decisions, work in teams and develop compassion for themselves and others.

How the Clover Model helps both students and AmeriCorps members

Using the Clover Model offers a double benefit to City Year, said Mithra Irani Ramaley, City Year’s Chief People Officer. “Not only does the Clover Model help students to thrive,” she said, “but it also represents an investment in human capital, as it helps AmeriCorps members understand one another better and work together as a team.”

Developed by Dr. Gil G. Noam, founder of The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience, at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, the Clover Model includes four key elements of youth development or “leaves:” active engagement, assertiveness, belonging and reflection.

Kittredge has learned that instead of labeling a student as “fidgety and unable to control her body,” for example, she recognizes that she has strength in her “active engagement” leaf that may need to be balanced with more support of her “reflection” leaf. She understands that their lesson would be more effective if it started with a game that gave the student an opportunity to move while also helping her practice her impulse control skills.

“The more we work with programs like City Year, the more clearly I see the powerful role education can play in positively impacting the well-being of young people,” Noam said. “These experiences have a huge impact on how young people view themselves and the role of a strong mentor in a child’s life can set them up for long-term success.”

Kittredge, an athlete who played ice hockey in Austria for a year after graduating from Brown University, said she often incorporates physical activities into Morning Class to help keep the girls engaged, develop a sense of teamwork, and work off excess energy to help them concentrate. Many conversations with her students revolve around cultivating a greater sense of connection and empathy — hallmarks of the “belonging” leaf. And creating space for them to each talk and share their ideas encourages “assertiveness” and “reflection.”

This youth development approach has also helped Kittredge relate to her fellow corps members, she said.

“Clover has given me a more holistic view of my students and their growth, and it’s helped me to reflect on my service as a corps member,” Kittredge said. “For myself, I’m usually more focused on belonging and active engagement. It’s forced me to reflect, which is something I don’t usually do. And it’s given me a new way to talk about the needs of my students with my team.”

Fourth grade teacher Katie Ernst, who worked alongside Kittredge in her classroom for the 2015-2016 school year, said that having a City Year AmeriCorps member who is attuned to her students’ academic and social emotional needs and strengths is invaluable.

“The students feel very affirmed by Kelly,” Ms. Ernst said. “They feel heard and accepted. Having two adults in the classroom who are both really in tune with the students helps them feel cared for and nurtured and loved.”

These strong relationships also help Kittredge provide critical academic interventions that help students persevere, stay on track and tackle challenging material.

“It’s a good balance,” says Ms. Ernst. “When I have to be strict with a student, Kelly is able to get in a smile and a kind word. We are a united front.”

At 8:30 a.m., the bell rings. The regular school day is about to start. Jasmine, Maria and Rachel pass in their strips of construction paper, thank Kittredge and say they’ll see her tomorrow.

Kittredge pauses for a moment to read through some of the girls’ notes of appreciation to one another and to her and reflect on how much they have grown throughout the year. Tonight she will put the finishing touches on their scrapbooks.

How do I feel like I belong? “Because my friends give me respect,” wrote Jasmine.

What I like most about Morning Class: “Feeling safe and comfortable,” wrote Maria.

What did you learn about someone in your group this year? “That no matter what, you will always help me,” wrote Rachel.

* The names of Kittredge’s students have been changed to protect their privacy.

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