TORONTO — Jonathan, 16, a student at Jewish Family & Child’s Jerome D. Diamond Adolescent Centre, a school for youth with educational, emotional or behavioural challenges, says when he takes part in the centre’s chess program, he’s playing much more than a game.
The Grade 11 student, who came to the school two years ago with a social anxiety disorder, says chess has given him skills that he can apply to his life. “I have played before, but this is different.”
Stephen, a 12-year-old Grade 7 student who came to the centre in the fall because of family problems, said the chess program helps him find strategies to complete goals, and it helps him focus. “We all look forward to it. It’s a great opportunity for me to socialize with the other students.
“Some of us get angry when we lose, but we learn that losing is part of life. When we do lose, we learn what to do next time.”
Run by the Chess Institute of Canada, the program began last year with high school students but this year, thanks to a grant to JF&CS from the Azrieli Foundation, it has expanded to include middle school students as well. All 34 students at the school are now in the program.
Dena Libman, Azrieli’s director of operations and compliance, said the foundation made a commitment to the initiative for this year because education is a major part of its work, and “I was very intrigued with the chess program. It teaches academics, and social and lifestyle skills, all in one package.”
Robin Cohen, manager of the centre, said the chess program has been “so well received, it has become part of the school’s curriculum. It helps build responsibility and executive functioning, helps students to plan ahead and set goals, and improves math and literacy. Students are also taught to adjust when a chess move doesn’t go right or they lose the game.
“It is wonderful to see kids who often have trouble sitting still become so engaged in the game.”
Tal Granite, the vice-president of the Chess Institute who runs the program, stressed that he uses the game to teach life skills.
“It’s not just chess. I teach them to apply thinking strategies and how to set goals. They learn time management, how to deal with their emotions, how to plan and make decisions, and how to respect other students.
“They also take responsibility for their actions, and take the time to think about consequences.”
As part of the program, he also has the students make a list of the goals they would like to achieve this year. “We’re putting life skills into practice, and we’ve changed the lives of the students.”
Ted Winick, founder of the Chess Institute, said the program’s approach is personalized and child-centred.
“We consider as paramount the well-being and total learning experience of each child. Simply put, we are more interested in the personal growth, social interaction and thinking skills of the child than we are in how good he or she can actually play chess.”