Social Impact

Teaching social and emotional skills may contribute to academic success

A holistic approach to education is needed to nurture the skills, researchers find

January 14, 2016 Eric Lindberg

New research suggests that helping inner-city children gain social and emotional skills can help them improve in basic reading, writing and mathematics.

A report published in School Psychology Quarterly outlines the findings of a randomized trial indicating that a holistic approach to education is needed to nurture a range of skills and capacities to help children become healthy and competent adults.

Researchers led by David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and director of the USC School of Social Work-based National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, tested the effectiveness of a social and emotional learning program known as PATHS, or Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies. Students in grades 3 to 6 who completed the program were more likely than peers in a control group to achieve basic proficiency in reading, writing and math.

The project involved all students enrolled in regular or bilingual education in an inner-city school system in which two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and nine of 10 students are African-American, Hispanic or Latino-American.

The project focused on advancing academic proficiency at the lowest level (i.e., below basic proficiency) because the curriculum has been shown to have positive effects on behavior and emotion for high-risk students who might be most vulnerable to the negative influence of poor social and emotional skills, classroom and school climate, and school engagement. Additionally, this group of students contributes most to the achievement gap that has challenged the country’s educational system.

Positive effects at varied grade levels

Children randomized to schools in which the enhanced social and emotional learning curriculum was taught were more likely to achieve basic proficiency in the three academic areas evaluated by state-administered tests in later grades. Researchers also noted a dosage effect. In schools in which PATHS was implemented, students whose teachers reported teaching more of the lessons were more likely to achieve basic proficiency.

The curriculum had positive effects in at least some grade levels for all three academic content areas. Specifically, the intervention group showed greater basic proficiency in fourth-grade reading and math and fifth- and sixth-grade writing, compared to the control group, with analyses of the dosage effects providing additional support for the intervention effects on reading and math skills.

Although the effect sizes were relatively small, considering that the curriculum is designed to teach socio-emotional skills and was implemented to reduce the onset of high-risk behaviors (a prior paper published by the research team in Sexuality Research & Social Policy showed that the program helps reduce early sexual behavior), the effect of PATHS on academic test scores is noteworthy. This is one of the first studies to examine the impact of a multiyear social and emotional learning program on academic achievement among young students.

Many schools are actively restricting classroom time devoted to any subjects or activities that do not appear to directly prepare children for high-stakes testing in reading, writing and math. Teachers and school administrators are increasingly finding their job performance linked to the degree to which their students demonstrate achievement in these subject areas.

As a result, many important components of children’s education, including building socio-emotional skills, are being seriously compromised or eliminated. This research provides support that social and emotional learning may be a promising approach to promote basic academic proficiency, especially for students most at risk of negative outcomes.