Hand in Hand

By Catherine Gewertz — September 03, 2003 11 min read
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The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

In Mary Ellen McDonnell’s 3rd grade class, children have a lot of decisions to make.

Just one slice of a typical day offers an example. As social studies begins, McDonnell asks: What do you want to learn today about Illinois’ early explorers, and how should you go about learning it?

After discussion, and working out differences of opinion, the pupils set one academic goal and one social goal: In small groups, they will research how the early fur traders helped build Chicago, and they will practice listening well to one another. When they’re done, they’ll reunite and analyze what went well, what didn’t go well, and why.

Classrooms like McDonnell’s, in suburban Chicago, are part of a movement to teach children social and emotional skills along with academic content. Its advocates are working hard to persuade educators that schooling children this way does not divert the focus from academics, but actually helps foster learning.

The message can fall on skeptical ears at a time when schools face unprecedented pressure to demonstrate achievement. But proponents of “social-emotional learning” contend that schools will reach their academic goals more effectively if students, while tackling math or reading, are also learning how to manage emotions, challenges, and relationships and to make good decisions.

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Read the accompanying “Research and Resources.”

Researchers have long known that emotion plays a role in learning. Studies have shown, for instance, that stress can interfere with the brain’s cognitive functions, and that students care more about learning

when they feel attached to their schools and valued by their peers and teachers.

But a growing body of research suggests that a deliberate and comprehensive approach to teaching children social and emotional skills can raise their grades and test scores, bolster their enthusiasm for learning, reduce behavior problems, and enhance the brain’s cognitive functions. That holistic approach to education has had its boosters and practitioners for many years, but emerging science is providing a stronger basis for their beliefs and helping catalyze a movement.

“Social-emotional functioning and academic functioning go hand in hand,” says Jonathan Cohen, the co-founder and president of the Center for Social and Emotional Education, a nonprofit advocacy and research group in New York City. “Effective social-emotional learning creates an optimal climate for learning.”

That’s what Mary Tavegia, the principal of Cossitt School, where McDonnell teaches, has found during the seven years she has used the Child Development Project. The curriculum trains staff members and parents in how to create home and school environments in which children develop autonomy, competence, and a strong sense of belonging.

‘Climate Change’

When the elementary school of 550 students in La Grange, Ill., undertook the transition, staff members feared they’d never finish the regular curriculum while also teaching self-awareness, empathy, decisionmaking, and other skills, Tavegia says.

“This is a program that involves a climate change. It permeates everything,” she says. “You’re not saying, ‘Here is our 20 minutes a day to talk about how to get along together.’ The class decides what to do and analyzes how it did. We talk through issues with kids, instead of saying, ‘This is the way it is,’ and moving on. It does take time.”

But the staff’s fears proved unfounded. Students were more excited about learning, misbehavior plummeted, and teachers completed the year’s lesson plans ahead of schedule, Tavegia reports.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, here’s this cutesy thing we have to put on top of all the curriculum we have to accomplish,’” McDonnell recalls. “But it didn’t turn out that way. It gets integrated into everything. It works better for me, because I share the onus of learning with the kids. Everyone feels a sense of responsibility, and it makes it more exciting. It makes reaching our [state] benchmarks more possible.”

The Child Development Project is one of many social-emotional curricula with an expanding research base. An analysis published this year by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a nonprofit research group based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that the project and 21 other programs improved a wide range of outcomes for students.

Evaluations of the Child Development Project in eight districts nationwide have found that pupils in the program like school better, trust their teachers more, and have greater academic motivation than their peers at comparison schools do. Children whose schools implemented the program thoroughly carried those attitudes into middle school and showed better academic performance as well, according to the Developmental Studies Center, an Oakland, Calif.-based group that designed the curriculum 22 years ago.

For eight years, University of Denver senior research scientist Barbara L. McCombs has been studying 30,000 primary and secondary school students and their teachers nationwide. She has seen that students whose teachers adopt “learner-centered practices,” such as tuning in to their needs, making them feel it’s safe to ask questions, and giving them a voice in their learning, are “dramatically more motivated” and do better on standardized tests.

The findings line up with what educators have long known: Children who are distracted by emotional issues cannot learn effectively. Many schools have responded by adopting programs targeted at specific problems, such as drug abuse or violence.

But studies of broader social-emotional curricula are now showing that such programs accomplish many of the same goals as the more narrowly tailored programs, and more to boot. The field has also made progress identifying the set of skills necessary for teachers to build social and emotional strength in their students.

As a result, a growing number of education researchers, including McCombs, view the approach as a promising way to address a wide spectrum of learning barriers while improving academic performance.

“There’s been a mind-set that education’s about content and knowledge and not really about all the ‘soft stuff,’” says McCombs, the director of the University of Denver Research Institute’s Center for Research on Human Motivation, Learning, and Development.

“One of the reasons why we still work under that paradigm is that there’s been no real compelling research-based evidence to do otherwise. Now there is, and it validates a more holistic approach to learning.”

Analyses of such approaches have focused largely on how social and emotional competence can predict less-negative behavior, more positive attitudes, and academic success. But now researchers are also beginning to explore how such skill-building can actually affect the brain’s cognitive function.

Cognitive Connections

Examining the PATHS (Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies) curriculum in four studies of regular and special education students, Mark T. Greenberg, the director of Pennsylvania State University’s Prevention Research Center, found that students in the program behaved better in class and performed better on tests of the brain’s planning and problem-solving. PATHS, begun by Greenberg and colleague Carol A. Kusche in 1980, focuses on developing emotional and problem- solving skills and good peer relations.

Research is still sketching a picture of the precise mechanisms by which social and emotional functioning interact with the cognitive. But scientists know now that the neocortex, which is responsible for rational thought, and the limbic system, where emotion is seated, are interconnected and function synergistically, giving the emotional wiring the power to influence the rational.

‘Effective social-emotional learning creates an optimal climate for learning.’

In addition, some researchers reason that because emotional development precedes most forms of cognitive development, emotional skill-building might be a necessary precursor to cognitive skill-building.

Those links, says Greenberg, make a compelling case for an approach to education that integrates students’ emotional, interpersonal, and cognitive abilities.

“Because the emotional centers of the brain are very connected to the thinking and learning centers of the brain, we know that people who are better able to control their emotions and moods are more effective learners,” says Greenberg, who details his PATHS studies in a chapter of an upcoming book about the effects of social and emotional curricula, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say?

Schooling children in such skills as communicating well, managing frustration, and seeing others’ points of view is equipping them with the tools they need to succeed in class, as well as in an ever-changing 21st-century workplace, says Roger P. Weissberg, the executive director of CASEL, which is one of the leading proponents of social- emotional curricula.

He and other champions of that approach worry that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has put school leaders under such pressure to raise standardized-test scores that they believe they can’t afford the time to revise their approaches to incorporate lessons in social and emotional skills.

“They tend to think of the most direct way to make a short-term difference, but it’s a false choice between academics and social-emotional skills,” says Weissberg.

Schools that consider their mission exclusively academic are “very wrongheaded,” says Daniel Goleman, who popularized the notion of emotional intelligence in a series of books. “Social-emotional learning is a win-win, because it is the active ingredient in most [prevention] programs, and may help educators fulfill their mandate as well because you’re teaching children crucial skills they need in order to learn.”

More than ever, children need to master skills such as stress management to succeed in this era of mandates on demonstrating competence and delivering academic results, says Robert A. Sylwester, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Oregon. He focuses on neurocognitive research’s implications for education policy and practice.

‘Therapeutic’ Approach?

“The brain releases chemicals under stress that interfere with learning,” Sylwester says. “In addition to the chronic stress they bring from the outside world, kids come to school and they are subjected to a high-stress situation like a high-stakes test.”

But support for incorporating social and emotional skills into school is far from universal. Tom Loveless, a former schoolteacher who now is the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says each academic discipline includes important such lessons, from empathy and cross-cultural understanding in social studies to reasoning and problem-solving in math.

Supporters of social-emotional learning take heart that federal education officials are committed to safe schools and character education.

“The whole idea that you have to make an explicit effort to single out social-emotional learning doesn’t make sense to me,” he says. “It all gets very squishy. It invites a whole bunch of activities that are nonacademic into the academic curriculum. I’m a skeptic on using schools for therapeutic purposes.”

But interest in the potential of social-emotional programs extends into the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, is about to make eight four- year grants to researchers to examine the academic and social effects of such schoolwide programs.

“We have an interest in character education and socialization because it’s a clear responsibility of the schools,” says Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the institute’s director. “Part of the model here is that if a school is set up as an environment that supports positive behavior, it’s an environment more conducive to academic learning.”

Supporters of social-emotional learning take heart that federal education officials are committed to safe schools and character education. But they contend that the No Child Left Behind Act lends itself to a narrow interpretation of school success by attaching consequences almost exclusively to academic indicators such as test scores.

The effort to improve academic outcomes through research-proven strategies is commendable, says Greenberg, the Penn State researcher. But a complete picture of school success would include measures of a school’s climate and student engagement. Without accountability for the outcomes of social and emotional skill-building, such efforts are doomed to be marginalized, he says.

“I worry that it could turn into the Whole Child Left Behind Act,” Greenberg says.

Weissberg of CASEL acknowledges that making a commitment to weaving social and emotional skill-building into the fabric of a school’s curriculum can seem risky to education leaders when the heat is on to show academic improvement, and show it quickly.

But he and other advocates of such an approach contend that a long-term strategy, backed by emerging research, might suggest that it is the most effective way to educate children academically and also ensure that they become responsible and productive citizens.

“What is required,” says Weissberg, “is courageous leadership at the federal, state, and local levels that says that this is a priority—to say, ‘I’m going to invest in this approach because ultimately, addressing the social, emotional, and academic in an integrated way is better than focusing on academics alone.’”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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