• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 13th July, 2010

The other side of the school report card

Most schools believe evidence-based programmes designed to improve the well-being of their pupils are a luxury they can’t afford. Indeed, many argue that their primary job is to teach children to read and write, encourage critical and creative thinking, and help them pass examinations and gain qualifications. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many head teachers are reluctant to divert valuable time, and limited resources, away from teaching academic skills in order to improve outcomes that many consider peripheral. But new research presented at this year’s Blueprints conference, suggests that this is a false choice. Hailed by “the pioneers of prevention” as one of the most critical and potentially influential pieces of work to emerge in recent years, it suggests that evidence-based programmes are intimately linked to improving children’s academic performance. Roger Weissberg, president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has long been at the forefront of studying what Daniel Goleman termed “emotional intelligence” (for further information about Roger Weissberg see ‘Adding the nerve to working together’) . CASEL’s work has stimulated and nurtured the design, implementation and rigorous evaluation of a growing range of evidence- based interventions designed to improve children’s social and emotional skills (referred to as Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL programmes). Analysis of such interventions by CASEL has consistently demonstrated that, if implemented well, schools have the capacity and potential to improve demonstrably children’s social and emotional skills. These social and emotional outcomes, argue Weissberg and his colleagues, comprise the “other side of the school report card” and are just as critical as the cognitive and academic skills that schools teach. What’s more, there had been tantalising, but inconclusive, indications that improvements in social and emotional skills may also improve children’s academic performance. So Weissberg teamed up with his long-term collaborator and master of the meta-analysis, Joseph Durlack, in order to undertake the largest and most rigorous assessment to date of the impact of SEL programmes on children’s academic performance. After subjecting studies to strict inclusion and exclusion criteria, Durlack, Weissberg and their colleagues synthesised the results of over 200 rigorous experimental studies of SEL programmes. In total, these comprised data from over a quarter of a million children. Given previous reviews of SEL programmes, they were not surprised to find that these interventions were highly effective at improving children’s social and emotional skills. The average effect size across studies was .57, a highly impressive score in the world of evidence-based programmes.But what will make the pulse of educational policy makers and school head teachers start racing is that SEL programmes not only improve children’s social and emotionnal skills, they also significantly improve their academic performance to the tune of an effect size of .27. Put another way, Durlack and Weissberg demonstrate that SEL programmes have the potential to elevate a child performing at the 50th percentile in terms of their school achievement (i.e., doing better academically than 49 percent of their peers) to the 61st percentile (i.e. doing better academically than 60 percent of their peers) - an 11 percentile rise.Interventions or teaching approaches designed specifically to improve academic performance would be hailed as a great successes if they were able to achieve an effect size of this magnitude. But SEL programmes appear to achieve this without even explicitly trying to. And for schools, the news gets even better: they don’t need to employ expensive external consultants to make these interventions. Programmes that train and use existing school staff, and that implement programmes as they were designed to be implemented can achieve almost equally impressive impacts upon children’s social and emotional outcomes. Moreover, those programmes that are made by trained school staff appear to be the only ones that show marked improvements in children’s academic outcomes. What this indicates is that teachers and school staff are critical if programmes are to translate improvements in children’s social and emotional skills into so-called “hard” academic outcomes. The conclusions are inescapable. SEL programmes not only improve social and emotional outcomes but these skills are vital for children’s academic performance. No longer can schools and educational policy makers dismiss evidence-based programmes to improve children’s wider well-being as a desirable but unnecessary extravagance. Instead, it’s hard to see how schools can fulfill their central academic purpose without them.

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