On Dec. 14, 2012, Darien native Scarlett Lewis’ 6-year-old son Jesse was killed in his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with 19 other children and 6 adults by a shooter who was barely out of childhood himself.

The horror and pain of that loss is beyond indescribable, but unfortunately, that type of tragedy is no longer unimaginable. With over 180 school shootings reported since Sandy Hook, including close to 40 this year alone, we have to wonder what is happening in our country and how can we change it?

Scarlett Lewis has channeled her pain into a mission to eliminate such tragedies by helping children build their social and emotional skills. In memory of her son, she founded The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a charitable organization with a mission to ensure that every child has access to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

So what exactly is Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and why is it so important?

You may be more familiar with the term Emotional Intelligence (EI), which is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. EI has received considerable attention in recent years as claims began circulating that EI could be more important than IQ for a successful life.  

Social Emotional Learning is basically the process by which we build Emotional Intelligence. According to The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the world’s leading organization promoting integrated academic, social, and emotional learning in schools, “SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”  

CASEL cites research indicating “SEL can have a positive impact on school climate and promote a host of academic, social, and emotional benefits for students” such as improved academic performance, positive social behavior, fewer conduct problems, and less emotional distress (including fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal).  As a result, SEL is “essential to a school safety plan because it gives children the tools to have healthy relationships, build resilience, and manage conflict.”

Children can get overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, loneliness, insecurity, and other emotions that may come out as anger and aggression. Some may not know how else to express themselves. Often, these children are as ashamed of their reactions as others are frustrated by them, but they may put up a defensive wall to hide this shame which in turn alienates them further. Helping children manage their difficult emotions so they can choose alternate behaviors allows them to feel empowered to take positive actions, and builds self-esteem when they see the positive results.

Scarlett notes, “Although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can always choose how to respond. Children can learn to choose a loving thought over an angry one. When a child realizes that they have the power to positively impact themselves as well as those around them — it perpetuates their positive actions and interactions.”

Furthermore, the benefits of increased SEL in childhood carry over into adulthood. It makes sense that the ability to understand and cooperate well with others is important to building strong relationships on both personal and work fronts. And strong relationships are continually found to be the main factor in mental and physical health and happiness levels no matter age, income level, or nationality. When people feel connected to their community, they will not want to harm those within it.

There are several SEL programs available, some currently in use in our schools. The Choose Love Enrichment Program for preK-12 grade claims uniqueness because “it combines Social and Emotional Learning, Character Education, Mindfulness, Neuroscience, Emotional Intelligence, and Positive Psychology.” The program focuses on four important areas – Courage, Gratitude, Forgiveness and Compassion in Action — to cultivate optimism, resilience and personal responsibility. Children learn that they can choose to love themselves and others and practice how to do this.

The Choose Love Enrichment Program is currently available for free to schools and individuals thanks to generous donations, grants, and volunteers.  

On Aug. 31, Darien Summer Nights is hosting a fundraiser for The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement at Tilley Pond from 6-10pm featuring favorite local band and Lewis’ classmates, The Spadtastics. First Selectman Jayme Stevenson has proclaimed that day “Darien Chooses Love Day.”

Be part of the solution and help support the expansion of this program by attending the fundraiser on Aug. 31 or consider donating through The Impact Vine: https://theimpactvine.org/nonprofit/jesse-lewis-choose-love-movement/.  

More information on the Choose Love initiative can be found at www.jesselewischooselove.org.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT, welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at themomfront@optonline.net.