The U.S. Department of Education recently released its Return to School Roadmap for the 2021-22 school year. It includes three “landmark” priorities that schools, districts and communities are encouraged to focus on to ensure all students are set up for success:
- prioritizing the health and safety of students, staff and educators;
- building school communities and supporting students’ social, emotional and mental health; and
- accelerating academic achievement.
After a year of primarily virtual learning, most students are eager to return to in-person opportunities – both academically and socially. And similarly, we “want our schools to empower students to perform academically, prepare them for life, and provide a safe and positive social space,” said Soren Palumbo, co-founder of Special Olympics “r-word campaign,” in an article highlighting the importance of social emotional learning on Medium.com.
While education has no panacea, leaders across the country are realizing the critical role of social emotional learning (SEL) in creating the schools we want. SEL goes by many names and includes fundamental skills such as character development, self-regulation, ethical decision making, and self-awareness.
That sport is the most effective medium to learn skills of positive social relationships, self-awareness, and empathy would not surprise any athlete. It is particularly plain to anyone who has participated in Special Olympics over the past 50 years. Intuitively, millions of Special Olympics participants with and without intellectual disabilities have — through inclusive sport — developed empathy, overcome fears of difference, grown self-confidence, and fostered meaningful interpersonal relationship skills. As research has caught up to Special Olympics, we have found that these are not curious by-products of a volunteer experience but rather SEL skills developed by creating social inclusion through sport. (For full article, click here.)
Sport is the most effective medium to learn skills of positive social relationships, self-awareness, and empathy.
For schools, and in line with the U.S Department of Education’s Roadmap priorities, a clear, proven path for SEL and better health exists: Unified Champion Schools.
In Virginia, we work with more than 500 schools to implement UCS activities, which include Unified Sports, inclusive student leadership and school-wide awareness activities. Unified Champion Schools share a climate of acceptance where students with disabilities feel welcome and a part of all school activities.
But it’s just as much for the students with intellectual disabilities as it is for those without.
Delaney Herr, a senior at Loudoun Valley High School shared: “[UCS] has taught me the true meaning of the principles inclusion and respect. It has given me some of the greatest friendships I will ever have. It has granted me so many opportunities to meet and befriend people different than me, to experience different things, to just be a better person. Inclusion isn’t just about inviting everyone, it’s about opening up to everyone and being able to really accept them.”
[UCS] has taught me the true meaning of the principles inclusion and respect.
Through the common ground of sport, schools across Virginia are building communities that celebrate differences as gifts vs. roadblocks. Not to mention, sports and fitness also reduce stress, lower blood pressure, reduce obesity and promote stronger and increased levels of cognition.
Want to join us? If you’re a teacher, ask us for Unified Champion Schools resources so we can make your school a place of inclusion and strong SEL education. If you are a parent, contact your school board or principal and share information about the UCS program. If you’re a student, share the impact of UCS with your peers and teachers so your school can be a place where students can grow into inclusive, empathetic young adults, physically, academically and socially.
What our society looks like after the pandemic depends on our collective efforts to build back better, stronger. Now is the time.
To request more information about Unified Champion Schools, contact us at [email protected].