Q&A with 2023 winter graduate, Leandro Chernicoff

On Sunday, Dec. 17, UW–Madison and the School of Education will be celebrating its latest cohort of talented graduates with 2023 Winter Commencement celebrations. Ahead of the big day, we reached out to a few of our graduating students to learn more about their accomplishments, time at UW–Madison, and future plans.

Leandro Chernicoff, who is receiving his PhD from School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology — with a focus on human development — is one person who agreed to share his thoughts with us.

Chernicoff is interested in the development of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills to foster well-being and alleviate suffering. He is a founding partner and the academic and research director at AtentaMente, a Mexican nonprofit focused on teaching these very skills to adults, children, and teens.

At AtentaMente, he leads curriculum development, professional training, and educational and technological innovation. In addition, he spearheads scientific research on AtentaMente’s social-emotional learning programs in collaboration with UW–Madison’s Richard Davidson and the Center for Healthy Minds. Different variations of this curriculum are being developed and implemented for the general public, the workplace, and in educational settings in Mexico.

Leandro Chernicoff
Leandro Chernicoff

Educating for Wellbeing (EW), the organization’s insignia education program, which Chernicoff co-authored, has been spotlighted by HundrED and the Lego Foundation as one of the 13 most innovative and impactful social-emotional learning programs in the world. EW has also been recognized with the Future Learning Award by Falling Walls, a Germany-based foundation, and is shortlisted for the Science Breakthrough of the Year award, which celebrates impact-oriented ideas and discoveries.

EW was also among the six projects that won the 2022 WISE Awards for their innovative approach to pressing education issues and positive social impact. This year, 488 projects applied or were nominated for the WISE Awards.

Chernicoff is also a physicist and is currently on leave from his position as a full-time professor at the Academy of Physics of the Autonomous University of Mexico City, where he had taught college-level math and physics for two decades.

To learn more about Chernicoff and his work check out this Q&A:

How does one go from being a physicist and teaching physics to working in the realm of social-emotional learning? Since I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. I pretty much only studied math and science and I eventually came to the U.S. in 1999 to do my PhD in theoretical physics in quantum gravity. Then, I lost my interest in that and moved into physics and math education. Critical thinking skills, to me, are one of the most important things one can teach through science. But then I got really interested in social-emotional learning, sort of the other component of education — which is also very, very necessary but often not explicitly taught. So, I started learning more about social-emotional learning, and that’s how I ended up doing my PhD in educational psychology.

How did you end up studying at UW–Madison? With my wife and some friends, we started this nonprofit in Mexico focusing on social-emotional learning. And things are working out, and we’re developing a social-emotional learning curriculum for the whole country and all these kinds of things. But then I realized it would be wise to deepen my understanding of this work’s education and educational psychology component. The Department of Educational Psychology at UW–Madison is highly regarded and renowned. Plus, I already had a relationship with Richie Davidson, who had been an advisor with our program and work in Mexico. So it seemed like a really incredible opportunity to do my work at UW–Madison, and Richie could be one of my advisors.

What did you think of your time at UW–Madison? I loved it. It has been incredible. Amy Bellmore (a faculty member in the Department of Educational Psychology) was my co-advisor, and the experience was amazing. I was able to maintain and grow my work and connections with the Center for Healthy Minds, and I’ve improved the work of our non-profit and helped people all across Mexico. As part of my dissertation work, I’ve done a rigorous, large-scale study to examine the impact of AtentaMente’s social-emotional learning program for preschool educators and children.

Tell me a little bit about the non-profit AtentaMente and the kind of work it does. We started it because we saw this gap, this need for social-emotional learning programs for adults and children. We need to help change people at the human level. We need to avoid being self-centered, where we see kindness disappear, a lack of empathy, and a lack of ethics and values.

At AtentaMente, we developed Educating for Wellbeing (EW) in an effort to transform learning environments and empower networks of adults to protect young children from adverse childhood experiences, help them develop healthily, and thrive. There is a good deal of poverty in Mexico and the public school systems have limited resources to support the healthy development of young people. So EW focuses on building adult social and emotional competency (SEC), which promotes adult well-being and the capacity to model and enact healthy relationships in the classroom and school as a whole. This allows for adequate learning environments and student SEC. Our program is a systemic approach to integrating social-emotional learning into all levels of early childhood education — leadership, educators, students, and families. Our team has adapted EW to be implemented remotely through Zoom-based sessions, an online learning platform, and a mobile app. Over time, we’ve started making an impact at a federal level and across many states in Mexico.

What’s next for you? I intend to keep doing new research and collaborating with the Center for Healthy Minds. I hope to continue to stay involved with this work, build on it and, hopefully, as time passes, we will have more evidence-based programs that work for Mexican populations. Hopefully, this work can be extended and scaled to Latino communities in the United States.

Thinking about the principle of the Wisconsin Idea, how will you use what you have learned at UW–Madison to influence other people’s lives or positively impact our world? That’s the reason I pursued this PhD. I guess, in some sense, it’s also related to gaining more knowledge. But the main reason is to develop better social-emotional learning programs that can benefit more and more people more effectively. We want to help more people and do things in better ways — especially for the populations that need this help the most.

Read the full article at: https://education.wisc.edu/news/qa-with-2023-winter-graduate-leandro-chernicoff/