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Researcher: social and emotional learning are key to school success

A healthy school climate and a coordinated strategy for improving social and emotional learning reduce behavior problems among students and improve educational outcomes, researcher Juliette Berg told educators at the College of Education’s annual Panasuk Symposium.

“Social and emotional learning in schools leads to improved attitudes, positive classroom behavior and gains on tests,” said Berg, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, a social science think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Social-emotional competencies are so important in dealing with the stresses of life, and they also affect academics.”

The annual Panasuk Symposium on Research, Policy and Practice is a free forum on issues in education. Alumni and local educators, students in the College of Education and faculty throughout the university are invited to attend.

To be effective, social and emotional learning strategies need to be holistic – integrated throughout schools and districts, with ongoing input from students and families – and consistent over time, Berg said. And the earlier that schools start helping children develop skills like self-awareness, self-management and conflict resolution, the better, her research shows.

“The effects are definitely strongest for the younger kids, so it’s really important to start early,” she said.

The consistent, districtwide implementation of social-emotional learning frameworks in Cleveland and Anchorage, Alaska, led over several years to higher levels of adult support for students and better attendance, a strong indicator of an improved school climate and more engaged students, Berg said.

Neuroscience says that children need secure, trusting relationships with adults to develop and learn, as well as rich and stimulating environments, she said.

“You can’t develop cognitively and academically without developing socially and emotionally. You can’t learn if you’re not feeling safe and supported,” she said. 

Her research shows that social-emotional learning frameworks that specifically address diversity and trauma help children adapt and become more resilient by developing independence and responsibility, a pro-social attitude and the ability to integrate into new communities, she said.

“We saw a lot of competencies that spoke to adaptability and connection: for example, biculturalism, coping with racism, communalism. These competencies are often overlooked, but they’re really important for a lot of kids, and I would argue that they’re important for all kids,” she said. “If we teach these competencies to all kids in a school, you can imagine that it would improve the school climate.”

Berg’s talk was followed by a panel of educators, experts and UML students. Jill Rothschild, director of Lowell High School’s freshman academy, said that three years after implementing a social-emotional learning plan based on positive reinforcement, student suspensions had dropped by half. However, the academy is still working to address disparities in academic performance between different subgroups, she said. 

“We need to do more work to survey our students,” she said.

Emily Crespo, a junior education major and first-generation college student, said schools and teachers can do small things to help improve school climate and learning. Crespo found academic inspiration in a high school physics class because the teacher tried to make the lessons relevant to her students, teaching them about the physics of film, for example. 

She also found security and a sense of belonging with fellow piano students and in a Christian club at her middle school. The teacher who advised the group sat with the students at lunch in the school cafeteria.

“That gave me a club to go to and a teacher to talk to,” she said. “Small things count.”