Lawrence Catholic Academy introduces Social Skills Program

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How middle school students navigate social challenges such as introductions to adults, pressures from contemporaries, and friction within teams, while often lacking positive role models, can have both immediate and far-ranging consequences. Lawrence Catholic Academy (LCA) Principal Monica Lucey, attuned to such issues, notes, "ever-spiraling cell phone use and screen time, pandemic influences, and other social phenomena have only heightened these challenges as they've increased deficits in students' abilities to pick up social cues and address issues effectively in real time."

Given these realities, Ms. Lucey is deeply enthusiastic about the intensive Social Skills Program LCA offers for grade five through eight students. LCA Dean of Students Hector Heredia teaches the courses. The curriculum is based on solid social thinking research and tightly tailored to the aims of school leadership and specific needs of students in Lawrence.

"Our mission at LCA is to help form children as disciples of Jesus who get out into the world to help build his Kingdom, and to do that, they need more than an excellent academic education and moral development," explains Father Paul B. O'Brien, LCA trustee and pastor of nearby St. Patrick Parish. "They need to grow as thoughtful listeners, articulate speakers, engaging team members, and strong advocates for God and themselves. The LCA social skills program gets at those realities, in depth, for four consecutive years of schooling."

Students, alumni, and trustees applaud the program. Designed to explore social techniques through role-playing and teamwork exercises, classes have been helping seventh grader Jayden Harris "with communications with my family and friends, and with people I meet. My mom, who knows me like the back of her hand, sees how the class has helped me become more expressive, 1000 percent more."

Asked to name a technique he finds useful, Jayden responds that Mr. Heredia "teaches us to look straight in the eye of everyone we meet, and I do that." When asked why this is important, the charmingly earnest student says, "I look them in the eye to show them that they are important, that they are important to me, and that I feel it is important to speak with them." Jayden's faith and respect for others shine through in his reasoning.

A recent LCA graduate, Denzel Dume, observes, "Mr. Heredia's social skills class offers approaches for resisting, compromising, avoiding aggressive behavior, walking away, and sharing information with an adult when needed to prevent pressure being put on others." Disciplined and resolute, Denzel continues, "When people do things you don't agree with and try to persuade you to do the same for the sake of being 'cool,' learning through this class to be able to say to yourself, 'I don't want to be part of that,' is a crucial lesson . . . We learned in class that you can still remain friends with someone but not engage in something that's not right for you, an important difference."

The selection of Mr. Heredia, a professionally competent, relatable social skills course leader, is critical to its success. Father O'Brien became his first role model: "It became clear to me as a teenager that Father O'Brien wanted to help others and was unselfish towards others. I want to keep to that same path of being there for others. I want to be someone students can relate to and can comfortably come to -- not just an authority figure, but someone who can guide and care for them." Father O'Brien, in turn, explains, "Hector is a native Dominican who lived in Santo Domingo through elementary school, then in Lawrence beginning in middle school. He lives on the ground in Lawrence today. The fact that he has the same background as LCA students and their parents do means he understands them on a deep level. They know he's coming from a shared life experience."

Denzel would like to work in business and negotiation following college. To Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council and vice-chair of the LCA board of trustees, the LCA Social Skills Program will serve Denzel Dume well when he enters the workplace. "Social skills are invaluable assets for students who will be pursuing business careers, especially those from differing cultural backgrounds. They enable students to thrive in diverse and dynamic work environments, communicate effectively across cultures, and contribute to building inclusive and successful businesses."

Yet the benefits of social skills courses extend beyond success in employment to robust civic engagement, Mr. Anderson points out. "Social skills prepare students to be active and engaged citizens who contribute positively to society." Father O'Brien, building on Mr. Anderson's reasoning, says, "94 percent of our students are of color. They will be going out into a country that has a different complexion, and if they're going to be successful young adults and adults, they need to be able to effectively advocate for themselves and for what they believe. Our social skills program empowers them to do that."

Ultimately, social skills "mean respecting God, respecting others, respecting oneself, and making good choices," according to Ms. Lucey. "That is what God wants for you. God wants you to be the best you can be, and learning how to do the right thing helps you become the best you can be."