• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 13th May, 2011

An emotional impact

Revelations that evidence-based programs which aim to improve children's social and emotional skills also bring about stark improvements in academic success provided one headline finding at last year’s Blueprints conference (see The other side of the school report card). Almost a year later, a paper by a team of researchers from Pennsylvania University lead by Brittany Rhoades have began to put some meat on the bones of this fledgling finding.Finding a pathway to link improved social emotional skills to greater academic performance - will go far in backing-up this bonus effect unearthed by evaluations of social and emotional programs. Mindful of this, the research team turned to theory, which clearly cited attention as a possible step between the two outcomes. In short, the authors argue that emotions and attention are intertwined and attention is predictive of academic successes. They point out children with good social and emotional knowledge are more able to read social cues putting them in good stead to attend to positive interactions, while filtering out distracting ones. Good social and emotional skills also better place children to use positive emotions, like, for example, interest, to concentrate on tasks. This, the authors claim, puts children at an advantage in the classroom over their less socially skilled peers. Convinced of the role of attention in linking social and emotional ability to academic performance the researchers tested the suspected pathway by following a sample of pre-school children over three years. They were recruited onto a randomized control trial evaluation of PATHS, an evidence-based program that itself attempts to improve children's social and emotional competence. Deciding it was important to assess participants emotional, attention and academic outcomes in the same sequence as the suspected pathway, the first year of the investigation when children were in pre-school, their emotional knowledge was tested. A year later, when the children were in kindergarten, the research team gauged their attention. In the final year academic ability was assessed through achievement tests. The three lots of results were then statistically tested for associations. As reported at Blueprints the year before, the link between emotional knowledge and academic competence was significant. However, when attention was taken account of it interacted significantly with both emotional knowledge and academic performance. In fact the team’s preliminary analysis indicated that 98 per cent of the total effect of emotional knowledge on academic competence was explained by attention skills. To have more confidence in this newly evidenced link, the researchers started to separate the influence of associated factors, such as verbal ability, maternal education, age, and sex among others. Even under this more stringent test the link between emotional knowledge, attention skills and academic achievement still stood, though the proportion of it explained by attention dropped to 60 per cent.Rhoades and colleagues’ findings aligned well with theory linking social, emotional and academic outcomes through attention. Perhaps, more important, are the prevention implications of evidencing such a link. Citing the soon to be published meta-analysis by Joseph Durlack, which initially indicated bonus effects on academic outcomes, the authors stress that their findings further strengthen the empirical case for using these evidence-based programs in educational settings. They comment that as accountability is increasingly placed on educators for the performance of their pupils, programs that improve their academic success are becoming increasingly attractive. Promoting this agenda becomes all important when considering gaps in achievement are the hull marks of social disadvantage and poverty. While most educators will see initiatives that improve their pupils’ well-being as worthwhile, but an unnecessary extravagance, such research will only bring emphasize that, at least in the early years, constructs like social emotional literacy and academic ability are intimately linked and once young children fall behind early in either, they never catch up completely. References:Rhoades, B., Warren, H., Domitrovich, C. & Greenberg, M. (2011) Examining the link between preschool social-emotional competence and first grade academic achievement: The role of attention skills, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26 182-191.

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