For This Student, Learning to Manage Emotions Leads to a Breakthrough
By Amonte McCord
Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen, Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, is authoring a series of blogs on the impact of social emotional learning (SEL) in an urban public school system. This month, she spoke with Amonte McCord, a former student at Forrest Hills Academy, the district's alternative school, about her experience with the district's SEL initiatives. Amonte has since transferred to a traditional high school, Frederick Douglass High School. Their conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MJC: Amonte, it's so great to see you again. I hear that things are going well for you this year and that the social emotional learning program at Forrest Hills Academy (FHA) has been a big part of the success. Tell me a bit about your experience.
AM: SEL has helped me a lot with friendships. Before I came to FHA, I hung out with friends who weren't going in the right direction. I followed them and made some bad decisions, decisions I regret. I also had anger issues, holding stuff in, getting mad and then letting it all go. But now, I am using the strategies that Dr. Rosenberg [the school's SEL coach] and the teachers have given me. I can self-manage and handle relationships better. For example, I was at a party recently and there were these middle school girls throwing glow sticks towards me and my friends. Before, I would've gone off instantly. Instead, I pulled the girls aside, told them to squash it as we were there to have fun, and then went back to my area and let it be.
MJC: Great. That sounds as if it was very successful and had a good outcome.
AM: Well it did and it didn't. The girls were still chatty and rude, but I just said to myself "Hey, they are younger, recognize it, and ignore it." So I didn't get in a fight like I would've before, and the girls eventually got asked to leave anyway. So it worked out I guess. Man, I did a lot of meditating and self-talk that day.
MJC: Then it was a success for you definitely. How else has SEL helped strengthen your relationships here at school or with your family?
AM: Here at school the older kids are loud and run their mouths sometimes. It can be nerve racking, but I can control my reactions now. My teachers taught me how to calm down - I close my eyes, I count, I do self-talk. I now really think about all I can lose.
I also really like our circle time with Ms. Fletcher [Amonte's teacher during SEL advisory]. I still don't share a lot in circle time, but I remember this one time we were supposed to share 10 things we liked about ourselves. I couldn't think of 10. This girl next to me said she couldn't believe I couldn't think of 10 things as she could think of lots of things she loved about me - she said I was strong, I was confident, and I was beautiful. I was able to come up with 10 things after that. I felt so good.
And my relationship with my dad, though still not perfect, is better. He went to prison when I was 3, got out the first time on my 9th birthday, but he's been in and out and is in again. I'm just not as angry with him as I once was for all the promises he didn't keep.
MJC: I could easily think of 10 things to like about you too! And those are wonderful examples of how you are growing and learning about yourself and others. You are recognizing that there will always be some things out of your control but you can control your reaction. That's a big step and I'm so proud of you. Anything you wish to share with readers about SEL and what the adults who make decisions should know?
AM: I'd like them to know that a lot would be different for me if I had been exposed to SEL earlier. I was a real-life ticking time bomb. I look at the old me and go "You were a hot mess! You need Jesus!" It would've prevented a lot of stuff and I would have not tried to be so strong and bottle things up.
MJC: Good lessons for all of us, Amonte. Any final words?
AM: Adults should use their voice for kids. They don't always see situations from a child's point of view, like when kids are in arguments. They need to try to understand it from how we are feeling too.
And also know that just because I made a bad decision, that doesn't mean I'm a bad kid. I've got to learn, so don't judge me. One day, I may be your boss!
MJC: I can certainly see that happening!
AM: I will do something in my life one day. I don't know what, but I will. I will not be a statistic.
MJC: Amonte, I believe you won't. Thank you for sharing a bit of your story with me and with others. Your voice matters and it is heard.
Photo: Meria Carstarphen and Amonte McCord. (Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools)