First Lady Chirlane McCray was visiting a young relative recently when she saw his fists balling up. He was clearly angry at his sister for taking his things. So, McCray asked if he knew what to do when he felt mad. 

“He said, ‘Oh, I get a pillow and hit on it, or I can take deep breaths,’ and he started breathing deeply and slowly,’” McCray said in a recent interview with Chalkbeat. “And it was clear [to me], ‘Oh my god, he has social emotional training.’”

Those are the sort of skills McCray wants New York City public school educators to instill in their youngest students. 

Social emotional learning is one of the mantras behind education-related programs in her Thrive NYC program, which aims to eliminate the stigma behind mental health and fill gaps where needed, such as screening new mothers for depression at the city’s public hospitals. In all, program officials plan to spend about $850 million on Thrive over five years. 

Thrive has partnered with the education department for some of its programs, including placing mental health consultants in 820 schools this year, who build “custom mental health plans” and connect students to clinical services, especially in schools where there is no on-site, full-time mental health clinician, City Hall officials said. It also announced in June that 85 crisis responders would be available to support the schools suffering from traumatic events or specific crises, working with students up to six weeks.

The expensive initiative has been criticized for not having clear measures of success and falling short of some of its own goals. While the program now lists specific indicators of success on its website, McCray said “it is going to be difficult” to definitively say “what didn’t happen as a result of having this program.”

This week, McCray hosted her annual Cities Thrive mental health conference, which invites city and health leaders from around the country. One of the panels was focused on addressing mental health at an early age, specifically focusing on what’s happening at schools. 

“How do we think about preventative mental health support for all students that help us avert crisis, help us avoid crisis, so we’re able to help young people manage their emotions, but also know when they are about to hit that point and get help before they get there,” said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, the panel’s moderator and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s senior advisor for education policy.

Chalkbeat caught up with McCray to hear more about how city schools are folding social emotional learning into their elementary schools, and what ThriveNYC’s role is. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Chalkbeat: Tell me a little bit about the panel that focused on schools. 

Chirlane McCray: I think we as a country spend so much time focusing on crisis, focusing on the negative disruptions in the classrooms, suspensions, and we don’t talk enough about how we build resilience. 

This is actually something we know how to do: teach children to identify their emotions, teach them to manage them, regulate them. This is all possible if we integrate those skills into the regular curriculum.

This is something that’s possible. It’s not really a heavy lift, it helps the teachers, helps the staff.

CB: What does an ideal social-emotional learning curriculum look like in the classroom? Is that happening in New York City already? 

McCray: I want to dwell on the prevention aspect. [That’s] really about what social-emotional learning is all about. 

Some of our kids walk into the classroom, may have had a fight with another student or a parent, there may be domestic violence at home —all kinds of things. Many of our children are experiencing homelessness. So, it’s hard to focus on learning if they’ve got all these other things on their mind. They’re human. We have a fight with our spouse or any of those things in our lives, obviously we feel it deeply. 

We’re actually helping them problem-solve, giving them a safe space to talk about their feelings…not just previous trauma, but whatever they are walking into the classroom with. 

Our teachers are currently being trained. Our teachers who are teaching pre-K, SEL was built into their training from the very beginning. So we have third graders now who actually had SEL as part of their curriculum. 

Then we made our announcement [in June] about how we are going to train teachers throughout our elementary schools. So, we just had our trainings for 650 teachers recently.  We are going full speed ahead to make sure that we have as many of our teachers trained as possible on this curriculum. (This training is through a partnership with the company Sanford Harmony, which will train teachers on social-emotional curriculum).  

CB: What sort of training IS mandatory for schools staff on social emotional learning and trauma-informed learning? 

McCray:  They’re being trained to listen, first of all. To notice when a child is perhaps not participating in classroom activities. You know, we always pay attention to those who are disruptive because they mess up the flow. They get a lot of attention, but sometimes a child is really suffering, really is turning it inward and not participating for that reason. So, I think listening, observing, we’re giving them a vocabulary to talk about emotions in a positive way. 

We know children have really big feelings and (when) we don’t know what to do with them, they are likely to come out in ways that are negative to them or somebody else. They are biological beings where all that energy’s gotta go somewhere. So, these teachers are learning how to help young people regulate their feelings, making sure there is a place for them to go, making sure they have alone time. These kids have so much going on sometimes, coming at them from every direction, that they just need a quiet place to be.

CB: Will this be for middle schools and high schools too?

McCray: What we have is a restorative justice program that builds on the social emotional learning curriculum. Taking those same skills that children are learning and taking it up a notch. Using those skills to strengthen relationships, to repair relationships that have been damaged. To build community. I think that’s one of the things that excites me the most…how they can turn and be supportive of another.

I visited a junior high school in Brooklyn. Seventh grade starts every day, [students] are pouring into the auditorium, getting to talk about what they’re feeling, like if there was something to celebrate like a birthday, all the students cheered.

If it’s something sad, like I’m not feeling so good because grandmother died, or I had a fight with my best friends, [there were] expressions of “We’re with you.” It was a moment of solidarity that we’ll get through this. 

They play music, they get their students off to a really positive start. Again we don’t know what these children are walking through the door with, what kind of baggage, what kind of burden. But what a wonderful thing to have people greet you, and say they’re glad you’re here. Not memorization or repetition of formulas —not that those are bad things —but affirming who you are as a person. Asking how do you feel? I don’t think we ask each other that question enough.

CB: The program has been criticized about how effective it is and how it is measuring its success. Can you talk about some of the most important work you think Thrive is involved with in schools, and how you’re measuring whether those efforts are effective? 

McCray: SEL is the one that I think is the most important. If we don’t act early and don’t actually build those skills and teachers and everyone around, because they share and understand what they’re doing, we’re in this circle of crisis all the time. 

Negative emotions build up against someone, and bad things happen and we’re running to the emergency. If we only treat people in crisis we will only be treating people in crisis. Crisis takes years and years to develop usually. It doesn’t just happen. So, I’m really, really pleased that we were able to launch this program which I think will have long, long lasting consequences in so many lives. It is difficult to measure: What didn’t happen as a result of having this program? It is going to be difficult.

But there are some early measures we are tracking. For example, disruption in the classroom, changes in school climate, good grades, graduation rate. (There are also specific indicators listed here.) I told you our pre-K class has SEL from pre-K on. Can we attribute [academic improvement] solely to Thrive? Probably not. But can we say Thrive was a factor in that, that SEL was a factor in that? Hell yeah. I would say so.

Let me tell you, I have been in several schools and their favorite time is when they sit in circles and get to talk about what they’re feeling. I think that goes to the essence of who we are as biological beings.