What is social-emotional learning, and what does it have to do with academic achievement?
Fifteen years ago, in the early days of education accountability in Massachusetts, a small elementary school in the poor city of Springfield won recognition for demonstrating unexpectedly high achievement. The principal attributed much of the school's effectiveness to one surprising tactic: the school devoted the first couple of weeks of school each year entirely to building school climate and culture. That is, instead of getting right down to learning, the school wasted time with social fluff. And it worked.
Now University of Chicago professor emeritus Joseph Durlak and colleagues have performed a meta-analysis of 213 social-emotional learning programs involving 270,000 students from kindergarten through high school. Meta-analysis is a method allowing multiple studies to be combined to look for larger patterns. In this case, all the included studies examined the impact of whole-school interventions aimed at teaching kids such skills as how to set goals, resolve conflict, and make sound decisions. All the studies included control groups not exposed to the programs.
Overall, students instructed in social-emotional skills had better outcomes on a whole range of measures. They learned the specific skills taught. They had more positive attitudes toward school and got along better with teachers and peers. They got in trouble less and suffered less anxiety and depression. Perhaps most surprising, their grades and test scores were significantly better than those of students who did not participate in such a program. The difference was 11 percentile points, enough to raise a kid expected to be right in the middle of the class into the top 40 percent.
Not all social-emotional learning programs are equal. Those that worked best were integrated into the school day and taught by a regular classroom teacher, not an outside group. Successful programs contained four elements: They took a specific, step-by-step approach to teaching a sequence of skills; they gave kids opportunity for active practice of those skills; they provided plenty of time for the skills to take hold; and they had specific learning goals.
It makes sense that kids who feel connected to school, know how to get along with their peers and teachers, and attend a school with an ethos of good, cooperative behavior will get in less trouble and learn more. What's great about this study is that it provides strong evidence that social-emotional skills can be taught in the regular classroom, and that taking the time to do so pays off not only in terms of student mental and social well-being but also academically. Good school culture can be built, and it makes a difference.