Walk into a classroom at a school in Brooklyn and you might see a peculiar sight: students gathered around a screen, dancing together. Every so often the music will pause and a voice will suggest an emotion such as “happy,” “sad” or “tired.” The music will resume and the students will try to act out the emotion that has been given.
This is one of the exercises provided by Move This World, a Manhattan startup that creates social emotional learning (SEL) programs for underserved school districts. SEL is a research-backed approach to helping children and adults healthily understand, express and manage their emotions. At the beginning and end of every school day, students and teachers engage in short exercises hosted on Move This World’s online platform that build self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship- and decision-making skills.
Move This World says schools that use the program see a decrease in suspensions, absenteeism and incident reports.
“An educator who is not a mental health professional may not feel equipped to ask a distressed student how they feel or how they can help,” said Sara LaHayne, founder and CEO of Move This World. “Our program allows for the creation of a common language that can be used to address emotions and issues of conflict.”
For example, LaHayne recalls a recent incident in which a Brooklyn student was sent to the principal’s office because they could not calm themselves down. To communicate with the student, the principal asked her which “emoger” she wanted to use to describe how she felt. Emogers are physical gestures used in the Move This World curriculum that students learn to associate with heightened emotions as a way to calm themselves. The principal began performing one of the emogers — taking five deep breaths — and by the third breath, the student joined in. By the fifth breath, she was calm and ready to return to class.
LaHayne first came up with the idea for Move This World as a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia in 2007. She was inspired by watching students passionately dance to reggae music during recess, and wondered if there was a way to bring that passion into the classroom.
“As a lifelong dancer, I knew creative expression could be used as a mechanism to promote social emotional learning skills,” LaHayne said.
A place where kids can “unpack their emotional backpack”
Move This World launched as a nonprofit in 2010 and then changed to a for-profit entity in 2016. The Move This World curriculum is now taught to 500,000 students across 20 states, including eight schools in Brooklyn, five schools in Baltimore and two schools in Washington, D.C. The company closed a $1 million seed round in April, and has also been selected for the AT&T Aspire Accelerator, which supports organizations using tech to promote student success.
LaHayne hopes to continue growing the reach of Move This World, particularly in low-income areas where schools lack the resources to implement SEL techniques.
“I want all students to only know school as a place where they can walk in in the morning and unpack their emotional backpack,” LaHayne said. “By giving them the tools to express themselves and feel safe and supported, we can create an environment where we all reach our potential.”
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