• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 12th August, 2010

The social-emotional road to Better understanding

The UK school system’s anxious investment in social-emotional learning is the focus of the latest edition of Better, the house journal of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York.Institute director Robert Slavin provides a reminder of the rationale: “Students who can work productively with others, solve interpersonal problems in peaceful ways, and maintain motivation in the face of challenge and disappointment, are likely to be successful in whatever they do and contribute to society,” he writes.“Students with good social skills, self-esteem and emotional regulation, are also more likely to achieve their full potential academically, to be able to work in groups and learn from their peers.“Such students are likely to avoid delinquency, drug abuse and early sexuality.”With an eye to that optimism and those broadly humanitarian benefits, a variation on the standard UK SEL model, called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) is being trialed in the UK’s most riven society, Northern Ireland.Better reports on the progress of PATHS in the hands of the charity, Together 4 All, and on efforts, under the guidance of US developer Mark Greenberg, to adapt it to meet Irish cultural conditions.Nuala Magee and Danny Perkins explain: “An additional core element was added, based on the troubles between Catholics and Protestants. This included a series of learning units focused on fostering mutual respect and understanding.”The pursuit of “mutual respect and understanding” is so fundamental to post-conflict Northern Ireland that it has become an acronym. “MRU, which implies acceptance of the other person’s culture, religion and background, is a requirement set by the Northern Ireland Department of Education.”The report on another PATHS trial – in Birmingham UK, as part of the city’s ambitious Brighter Futures initiative – allows Michael Little to review the state of the evidence on the main UK initiative, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL).“Visiting a school that has implemented SEAL properly can be a rewarding experience, as well as serving as a reminder of the range of challenges teachers face,” he writes. “In many respects, SEAL is system ready, having established itself among a much larger proportion of UK schools than the equivalent effort in the US, where the approach to implementation is more laissez faire.“But SEAL cannot claim to be an evidence-based program. There is science in the method, but it has not been rigorously evaluated; furthermore, limited testing sponsored by government has suggested negligible impact on student well-being.“Here the waters are very muddied. The poor results are as likely to be the product of the methods used to evaluate SEAL as the program itself, and, by any estimate, the quality of implementation has been variable.“Perhaps this inconsistency is inevitable when a single government-sponsored program is promoted – some would say imposed – on every primary school. Whatever the reason, there are inconsistencies at every turn.“And in such circumstances, when a major national initiative produces at best uneven results and everywhere there are irresistible demands for public spending cuts, it is hardly surprising that the campaign for a return to the rudimentary three ‘Rs’ should appear to be gaining ground.”From the other side of the argument, Little cites the contribution of clinical psychologist Joseph Durlak and colleagues at Loyola University, Chicago, who have demonstrated that wherever social and emotional regulation was part of the school curriculum children tended to be happier and better behaved and to perform better academically.“Their findings are compelling,” Little observes “but with this important proviso: in their review of studies touching on the progress of around 300,000 children they focused on the results of evidence-based programs that had been well implemented and were what we are learning to call ‘system ready’."Durlak and his US colleague Roger Weissberg also contribute to the Better survey. In their analysis of features associated with more effective SEL programs, they resort to yet another acronym: SAFE.Programs were more successful, they write, if they offered a sequential and integrated Skills curriculum, used Active forms of learning to promote skills, Focused sufficient attention on skill development and established Explicit learning goals.• For more about the work of the UK Institute for Effective Education, see the Prevention Action Special Issue; for background on some of the reservations concerning emotional intelligence education, see, Are we being dumb about emotional intelligence?; for the introduction of PATHS in Birmingham, see The future’s bright, the future’s BirminghamBetter on social-emotional learning is available online.

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