Social and Emotional Learning: A Help or a Hindrance?

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March 24, 2015

Since writing the article, A New View: We Need to Empower Introverts, about introverts in schools, I’ve thought a lot about behavioral influences on learning. My kids certainly approach their education differently. My son focuses intently because he worries about missing something the teacher might ask while my daughter tends to focus on the ceiling, the air conditioning, or even the dust motes. One panics over turning in homework late. The other might turn it in, eventually, next year. But I’ve also seen the effect of their social approaches. One gathers friends like flies to honey. The other sometimes feels lost on the social scene.

These aspects of learning, the skills it takes to navigate the process, have been given more and more attention in the past ten years. Social and emotional learning shows up on state standards and in school programs. But some people wonder if this “mumbo jumbo” takes away from direct academic learning. There isn’t a lot of research to say yes or no.

The American Educational Research Journal published a research write-up last year entitled, Efficacy of the Responsive Classroom Approach: Results From a 3-Year, Longitudinal Randomized Controlled Trial. It asks that question. “Will we diminish children’s academic achievement if we place increased emphasis (and allocate more time toward) children’s social and emotional learning?”

This is the first randomized controlled study of this nature which means, instead of pulling information about students and schools into a study, they took 24 schools in a Mid-Atlantic state, split them up, and 11 of them stayed the same while the other 13 received social and emotional teaching. These classes were followed from the end of second grade through fifth grade.  The experiment used “The Responsive Classroom,” a popular program used by educators that uses a set of teaching strategies to introduce this learning.  Rather than introduce new material, teacher learn how to present the content they already use with a new method.  They state, “…how students learn is as important as what they learn: process and content goes hand in hand.”

As you might predict, these experiments can raise more questions than they answer. The analysis raised questions about leadership, program implementation, and testing. However, what is most interesting to me is the conclusion directly answering their original question. “Findings show that using the Responsive Classroom (RC) approach did not diminish achievement, and if the RC practices were used as intended, students showed achievement gains. Further, use of RC practices was linked to enhanced achievement in children who were initially low in math.”

So, according to this study, there’s a good chance those programs my kids’ schools keep implementing won’t take away from their learning and can, in fact, enhance it.

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