Thursday, February 10, 2011

Research Shows Social and Emotional Learning Improves Academic Performance

There was a lovely article in today's News and Observer, the major paper in Raleigh, NC, about a mentoring program for 20 middle schoolers in Ligon Middle School, a magnet school in the Chavis Heights neighborhood of Raleigh (an area that was historically a black, low-income community, but is now undergoing some resurgence).  College students from near-by Shaw University, which is the oldest historically black college in the South, have spent Wednesday afternoons with the middle schoolers, teaching them about appropriate dress and behavior, etiquette, and other essential about becoming a "Gentleman of Excellence."  You can read the entire are at this link.

While the article says the school says it is too soon to tell if this program has raised participants' test scores, new research indicates it probably will.  In the February 4, 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Child Development, a research team led by Joseph A. Durlak, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Chicago, did a meta-analysis of 213 school-based program like the Ligon one described above, which are known in education-ese as "social and emotional learning," or SEL programs.  Looking at the results of all those SEL programs, which involved a total of 270,034 students from K-12th grade, the researchers found that not only did SEL participants improve significantly on social and emotional skills (including better behavior and self control, fewer discipline problems, improvements in following school rules and expectations, and better relationships with themselves and others), but both their grades and their test scores rose as well.  Plus, the academic increases were significant;  SEL participants' grades and scores were an average of 11% higher compared to non-participants.   While over half the participants were elementary students, 31% were in middle schools, like the Ligon program above, and 13% were in high school.  So this is an effective educational support for all ages of students.  You can read the entire research report at this link.

While the study reports only on school-based SEL programs, I can attest to the usefulness of such learning in non-school settings as well.  My friend Maggie is running a social skills class in which my son is participating.  It is a small group, and it turned out to be all boys, but they all seem to be enjoying it and picking up some key life skills.  The focus of our class, at least so far, has been on communication skills, but it has also reiterated the need to be more aware of the needs and feelings of those with whom you are dealing.   This week, for example, they talked about how to be a good listener, which included points like the difference between hearing and listening, the need to give feedback to show the speaker you are listening, positive body language to show the speaker your attention, etc.  Some of these things the boys hadn't considered before, and they all seem to get into the role playing of simulated conversations and problem solving better and worse ways of handing various problems or situations.   I really appreciate Maggie for leading this activity, and I know my son has benefitted even after just a few weeks of classes.

However, some of this could be done at home with just a parent and a child.  Simply talking through some of these things as a neutral topic--NOT when you are angry because they haven't listened or been respectful or have interrupted you on the phone on a trivial matter--can be really helpful, I think.  For example, with the listening class, I believe at least some of them who slump over or lie down because that feels good to them, hadn't thought that the speaker might take that as a lack of interest. To some of them, especially those who are uncomfortable in those rapidly-growing middle school bodies, it just makes sense to get comfortable.  Explaining to them how that can be perceived negatively by the other party doesn't take a class or a program; it just takes us realizing that at least some of our less-intuitively-social children need to have these things pointed out to them.  And while I've always tried to do that, I'm discovering that maybe I need to do it even more.  It is certainly a life skill that students need, but also tends to improve their self esteem and their relationships immediately, and, apparently, can even lead to better academic success.

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