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Emotional Learning Brings Real Hope to Schools

A little-known movement helps kids understand the connection between the brain and heart, and improve their behavior (and test scores) too.

Boy with Crayon photo by ND Strupler

Photo by ND Strupler.

Most conversation about our schools today seems to revolve around their brokenness: underfunded classrooms, lagging test scores, and harried teachers. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, the school district's 2010-2011 “report card” found it had failed to meet Ohio’s education standards in 24 of 25 categories. In such environments, raising academic test scores is seen as the Holy Grail, and doing so while also improving students’ attitudes and behavior a miracle.

Now, a fledgling movement to rethink what students need to thrive is proving that miracles can happen. An educational approach known as social and emotional learning (SEL), being implemented in individual schools—and now, for the first time, whole districts—has proven effective at simultaneously improving students’ academic performance, behavior, and well-being.

SEL prescribes approaching students as complex human beings whose learning and behavior are just as impacted by their emotions—and their control over those emotions—as they are by the quality of instruction and discipline. Recognizing that intellectual and emotional faculties develop symbiotically, the approach involves teaching students how to recognize and talk about their feelings, empathize with others, and resolve conflicts peacefully as a way to strengthen both academic achievement and emotional stability.

SEL students exhibited markedly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behavior, compared to similar peers who were not enrolled in SEL programs.

For example, the PATHs (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) program teaches self-regulation to early elementary students with the “Turtle Technique,” which involves using self-talk to inwardly analyze emotions and come up with ways to express oneself other than acting out. Young students learn this technique through trainings on identifying and labeling emotions and using specific strategies to manage them.

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The RULER Approach, developed by the Health, Emotion and Behavior Laboratory at Yale University, uses a set of anchor tools to teach children and teachers to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions. Each day, students and teachers plot how they are feeling on a color-coded “mood meter” and cover a developmentally appropriate, increasingly complex vocabulary of “feeling words” to express their emotions. This approach acknowledges that all people have feelings they bring with them to school or work, and it gives students a structured platform for appropriately articulating those feelings and appreciating those expressed by others.

The effectiveness of SEL programs like these is now well established. A meta-analysis of 213 independent social science studies, by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University Chicago—together involving more than 270,000 students—showed consistent gains among students whose classes adhered faithfully to SEL programs designed on proven principles. These students exhibited markedly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behavior, compared to similar peers who were not enrolled in SEL programs. Not only that, but the academic test scores among students involved in SEL programs rose by an average of 11 percentile points.

Superintendent Comeau emphasizes that by improving the experience and outcomes of education for students, SEL has the potential to transform their lives and ultimately our society.

Findings like these make school district superintendents take notice. Before this year, many schools—from high-rent private schools to inner-city public schools—were implementing SEL programming independently. But now that evidence of SEL’s effectiveness has been established and broadcasted, three pioneering school districts (Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; and Cleveland, Ohio) have joined an effort called the Collaborating District Initiative, through which they are working to institute SEL curricula in pre-K through 12th-grade classrooms district-wide. All three large, urban districts have installed SEL directors at the cabinet level or just below, an indication of how seriously the superintendents are taking the new approach. The Initiative will add five additional districts in the next several months.

“These are districts that really want to be a part of a network of learning, and truly exemplify commitment in learning how to integrate the education of the whole child,” says Dr. Libia Gil, Vice President for Practice with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the organizer of the Collaborating Districts Initiative. “[They want to] really understand the connection between the brain and the heart.”

CASEL is guiding the districts through an intensive planning and implementation process. The priority is to build the districts’ capacity to the point where superintendents and senior staff have internalized the SEL perspectives, chosen specific programs to implement, and can successfully administer and sustain SEL programming for years to come. CASEL has vetted 25 quality SEL programs among which participating districts can choose, offering superintendents the autonomy to design approaches that suit their students’ specific needs.

Carol Comeau, superintendent of Anchorage School District, who has been implementing SEL programming for two decades, finds that bringing SEL to the entire district has had a sweeping and profound influence on students and teachers alike. “I believe that all of our students, and employees, benefit from this intentional work,” she said. “SEL truly transforms the school climate and culture and prepares all of us for life in the 21st-century global society.”

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Imagine what could happen if instead of focusing on worst-case scenarios and fears, we put our attention on what we deeply desire and are working toward?

But while impacting how students are educated in entire districts is indeed a victory for a still little-known educational movement, proponents of SEL haven’t stopped there. CASEL was instrumental in inspiring U.S. Representatives Judy Biggert (R-IL), Dale E. Kildee (D-MI) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) to introduce the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act (H.R. 2437) in the House on July 7 of this year. The legislation proposed amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to allow funding for teacher and principal training and professional development to be used for training in SEL practices. As a result, on October 20, the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions approved the ESEA Reauthorization of 2011, which incorporates SEL priorities in two sections. 

The passage of this federal legislation is great news for CASEL and its supporters, not to mention students and teachers across the country. Superintendent Comeau emphasizes that by improving the experience and outcomes of education for students, SEL has the potential to transform their lives and ultimately our society.

“If more students see the value in SEL work with their peers and in their classes and activities, then we will have fewer discipline issues, fewer special education referrals, and more students graduating with a high school diploma,” she said. “They will leave as good people with a commitment to carrying on this important work as adults.”


Katherine-Gustafson.jpgKatherine Gustafson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor with a background in international nonprofit organizations. Her first book, Change Comes to Dinner, about sustainable food, will be published in May 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

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