Early Education

A school district wades through a deluge of social-emotional curricula to find one that works

Concern about the quality of social-emotional programs is rising — but one Virginia school sees academic success by focusing on students’ emotional wellbeing   

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social-emotional learning curricula

Meghan Groves, a teacher at Washington-Lee Elementary School, in Bristol, Virginia, leads her first graders in “closing circle,” where they talk about how their day went.

BRISTOL, Va. — It was nearly time to hitch on backpacks and heed the carpool announcements delivered over walkie-talkie. But first, the kids in teacher Meghan Groves’ first-grade classroom were taking a moment to share their favorite part of the day.

“My sunshine share is quiet time,” said 6-year-old Jasmine, seated on a blue rug in a circle with her classmates. To her left, Makayla offered: “My sunshine share is the part where we learned about oak trees.” A third girl, dressed in a pink fleece, pointed at Groves while exclaiming: “My sunshine share is — you!”

Activities like this one have taken on a near-ritualistic quality at Groves’ school, Washington-Lee Elementary, which serves a high-poverty student body in southern Appalachia. And for good reason: Six years ago, low test scores landed the school on a list of the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state. Then the newly hired principal, Faith Mabe, heard about a new strategy for helping students.

Mabe, a former literacy coach at Washington-Lee, felt the school had already attempted every imaginable academic tweak. The new strategy aimed to alleviate the social and emotional needs of students. At a school where many kids were coming to class anxious, angry or upset, the approach seemed worth a try. Mabe and five teachers traveled to Atlanta, where they were trained in a program to help students control their emotions.

That fall of 2015, they began rolling out twice-daily meetings where students could talk about their emotions, exercises in which students mapped out their goals and aspirations and lessons to help teachers improve how they communicate with kids. It’s this change — the adoption of a social-emotional approach known as Responsive Classroom — that people in the school district credit in part for helping Washington-Lee boost its academic performance by one group’s measure above all but 13 percent of schools in the state. Education officials also cite the counseling and mental-health services the school receives from a handful of local organizations.

“It changes everything,” said Beth Fritts, a day treatment counselor with the nonprofit mental-health organization Highlands Community Services who has worked in the school for six years. “The kids have a contentedness and calmness that wasn’t necessarily here before.”

This effort to help students gain social skills, not just academic ones, is part of a nationwide movement based on evidence that children’s capacity to cope with emotions influences their ability to learn. At a time when many students are coming to class with heightened needs from the stresses of poverty, schools across the country are embracing practices like those employed at Washington-Lee.

social-emotional learning curricula

State Street divides Bristol, Virginia, from Bristol, Tennessee, its twin city across the state line. Known as the birthplace of country music, Bristol has seen rates of poverty and drug use rise significantly since the 2008 recession.

And yet, the increased popularity of social-emotional learning has given rise to concern about ineffective, or even harmful, curricula entering schools. While nearly 90 percent of school district leaders say they are investing in social-emotional products, according to one survey, only a small share of the many programs in existence have been rigorously vetted. The market for the products has shot up in recent years, inundating schools with promotions for programs of questionable quality with little if any research behind them. In the Bristol school district and elsewhere, some administrators feel overwhelmed — and wary.

Keith Perrigan, Bristol school superintendent since 2017, said he gets emails from companies pitching their social-emotional curricula almost every day. He knows enough to be cautious. Years ago, when he worked in another district, Perrigan invested a lot of money in a product that was touted as a way of helping prepare students for state tests — and it was a disaster. In Bristol, he said, the district has been trying to avoid problems by going slow, tailoring interventions to local needs and avoiding taking off-the-shelf strategies and mandating their use. “We don’t want it to be the education du jour,” he said.

New federal and state legislation that encourages the adoption of social-emotional learning strategies has also freed up more dollars for this work, putting pressure on schools to jump on the bandwagon. Shawn Young, chief executive of Classcraft, a tech company that produces educational games and other products, likens the current momentum around social-emotional learning to past trends such as the push to bring laptops and iPads to every student. “There’s a massive, clear thing that needs to get fixed,” he said of the emotional needs of students. “But we don’t know how to go about it right now and as an industry we are picking and choosing what feels right as opposed to using evidence-based practices.”

Related: A school where character matters as much as academics

In Bristol, known as “the birthplace of country music” for the Carter family and other artists who recorded there in the 1920s, economic upheaval over the past decade has intensified the need for social-emotional learning, school officials said. Since 2008, the city lost more than half of its largest employers, including three call centers and a beverage-packaging plant. Meth and opioids flooded in. Inside the schools, the share of students qualifying for free lunch, a federal measure of poverty, jumped from 39 percent in 2002-03 to 81 percent in 2018-19.

social-emotional learning curricula

Faith Mabe, Washington-Lee’s principal, talks to a student one recent school day. A former teacher and literacy coach, she has emphasized lessons designed to help her students cope with and express their emotions.

At Washington-Lee, that figure is even higher — 95 percent. The school, nestled on a hill in a relatively affluent residential neighborhood, was rezoned a decade ago to draw in students from the city’s public housing. Families who lived in the stately brick houses surrounding Washington-Lee started sending their children to private schools. Kids were coming to class hungry and exhausted. The PTA withered. Teacher morale sunk.

“Sarcasm had inched its way in, and hopelessness,” said Mabe, 53, a coal miner’s daughter who grew up in nearby Big Stone Gap. Teachers and administrators had succumbed to what she calls a “bless their hearts” mentality, believing that students had too much on their plates to achieve in academics. She found that much of her time was spent shopping at Walmart for kids who lacked clothing, making home visits when students missed school and listening as they confided about parental drug use and neglect.

In the face of such challenges, everyone — including Mabe — was skeptical that a social-emotional learning strategy could help. “I thought it was fluff,” she recalled. But the four-day training session in Atlanta persuaded her and the teachers who attended of the strategy’s promise. Many of the ideas seemed simple, like small tweaks to language (using “expectations” instead of “rules,” for example). Others took a little more work, like strategies to help kids become good listeners, ask thoughtful questions and become attuned to the feelings of their peers. An impulse to discipline was meant to give way to an impulse to listen and understand.

Mabe went all-in. She started the day by greeting families as they dropped off their children, coaxing responses out of reluctant parents by hanging on to their car doors until they acknowledged her and said goodbye to their kids. “It’s marvelous Monday!” she repeated over and over. Then, later in the week, she told them, “It’s thankful Thursday!” Soon the kids started looking her in the eye and saying it back.

Not every teacher liked the new approach. Mabe bid goodbye to about a third of her teachers in the first few years. But each year, more teachers attended training sessions and eventually the approach spread schoolwide. There were challenges: Teachers found it difficult to squeeze in the meetings with academics and some found the activities occasionally contrived and repetitive. But they also saw benefits.

social-emotional learning curricula

Keith Perrigan, Bristol superintendent, said that the school district is inundated by education companies selling social-emotional learning strategies.

Now every class begins with a “morning meeting.” On a recent weekday, Brooke Mabe (no relation to the principal) led her second graders in a discussion of which pet they’d never want to bring home and why. (Think sharks, whales and poisonous toads.) In a fifth-grade class, students exchanged greetings in “elf” and “giant” voices, then talked about the “highs” and “lows” of their week. They mentioned qualifying for a NASA program, losing a football game and learning that a baby sister had tried to eat their art supplies. Mabe likens these lessons to Mr. Miyagi stealthily introducing the Karate Kid to martial arts skills by encouraging him to sand the teacher’s deck and wax his car. Students are learning important skills like communication in a low-stress environment.

“I like it because we get to know how everyone’s day went and if there’s something wrong that we can help fix,” said Gracelynn Belcher, a fifth grader with blond hair and freckles. “I like talking about my feelings, I like to get it out and not hold it in.” She said the sessions helped her feel more comfortable talking about challenges she was experiencing in math: “If it was hard, I get to explain it was hard. I can tell my teacher it was hard and she can help me.”

Related: A cheaper, quicker approach to social-emotional learning?

This year, Bristol administrators brought an instructor affiliated with Responsive Classroom and the nonprofit that developed the strategy, the Center for Responsive Schools, to offer two training sessions for teachers at the district’s five other schools, at a cost of $42,000. But Perrigan, the superintendent, supports having each school forge its own approach to social-emotional learning. Some use other strategies, like Zones of Regulation, an 8-year-old curriculum developed by former occupational therapist and autism support specialist Leah Kuypers, who owns the consulting company that runs the program.

Perrigan said the district isn’t on the hunt for new social-emotional activities. But that doesn’t stop the pitches. One urges him to test drive a “model program” for social-emotional skill building. Another said it offers “one of the most powerful social-emotional learning lessons teachers have shared with students” and a third claims that 86 percent of schools that use its lessons report increases in students’ self-awareness. None of these curricula have been recognized by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a group that evaluates social-emotional learning strategies.

Researchers warn of the uneven quality of such programs. A 2018 study of existing research on social-emotional curricula found an overall positive effect on math, reading and science learning. But Roisin Corcoran, chair in education at the University of Nottingham and the study’s lead author, notes that there were significant differences among curricula; some popular interventions even produced small negative effects on academics. Many other social-emotional curricula simply hadn’t been evaluated in any high-quality way, she said.

Corcoran said some programs may flounder because they’re poorly conceived, don’t train teachers adequately, or don’t effectively integrate academics into their approaches. Many companies market their products as “evidence-based,” she said, when in fact there’s no real evidence demonstrating they work.

Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation who studies social-emotional learning, also cautioned that many programs are untested. And even those interventions with research behind them aren’t guaranteed to work; teachers must be effectively trained and results carefully monitored. In a review of social-emotional programs she co-authored, she found that Responsive Classroom, the intervention used by Washington-Lee, showed promise for improving math, reading and student behavior but, to date, studies of the program have not been as rigorous as those of other programs.

Even advocates of social-emotional learning acknowledge the risks of shoddy programs. But they also note many efforts underway to assess interventions and ensure bad actors don’t undermine the field. CASEL’s guide to social-emotional learning programs, for example, offers one quick way for schools to weed out untested curricula.

“I would put up the evidence we have against any other curricula,” said Timothy Shriver, CASEL board chair, of the social-emotional field. “How much evidence is there that teaching the Periodic Table in 10th grade is really the most important thing?” The data on social-emotional learning is far from perfect, he said, but “most of the work we do is under-evaluated in education.”

Related: The difference between being eligible for college and ready for college

At Washington-Lee, officials insist the work has been vital but it’s also part of a broader effort. The school, which serves just 200 students, receives assistance from a variety of community organizations that have stepped in to help meet the growing needs of students.

social-emotional learning curricula

Meghan Groves shows off a book in which her students have chronicled their hopes and dreams for their future. The book is part of a social-emotional learning strategy used by Washington-Lee Elementary School and a growing number of schools nationwide.

Three day-treatment counselors from Highlands, a nonprofit mental health organization, are stationed in the school to provide support to students who are most at risk. An employee from a second nonprofit, Communities in Schools, provides case management and helps connect students with clothing, food and other basic needs. Washington-Lee runs an after-school program in which more than half of its students participate. There’s been a big push to provide support to family members and involve them in their children’s education. Last academic year, at a school event, families watched a documentary on a high school coping with student trauma and discussed traumatic events they’d experienced. Other groups, like the local United Way chapter, have also helped out. A nearby church has taken on part of the role once filled by the PTA, Mabe said.

One recent afternoon, Mabe was on the phone with the Department of Social Services, which runs the city’s child protective-services agency. One child had reported a troubling incident to a teacher. Another family had nowhere left to go after bouncing among three hotels since being evicted a few weeks earlier. “None of us signed up to be social workers,” said Mabe, who said she has to make these calls often. “But when you’re seeing that day in and day out, that’s when you realize the social-emotional piece is just as important as academics.”

She knows some people feel this emphasis on social services and students’ emotions isn’t the role of schools. The rise of social-emotional learning has sparked concerns, especially among right-wing critics, that schools are trying to indoctrinate kids and treat them like patients instead of students.

Mabe said she’d prefer not to have to do this work. But she doesn’t see another solution.

“This isn’t what schools are designed to do,” she said. “But unfortunately society isn’t what it used to be either and if we don’t do it, no one else is going to. And we can’t get to the academics until we do.”

This story about social-emotional learning curricula was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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