Study Boosts Link between Social-Emotional Learning and Academics

The idea that students who get help in developing their social-emotional skills do better academically received a boost in a multi-state study. The research found "statistically significant and consistent relationships" between students' social-emotional skills and their academic outcomes in grades three to 10, with a heightened connection in grade 9.

The study was a joint project of City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education. City Year advances educational equity by deploying teams of young adults to serve as AmeriCorps members in public schools across the country. The nonprofit works with high schools with low graduation rates and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them. About 90 percent of students in the partner schools qualify for free or reduced lunch status and are students of color. The Everyone Graduates Center focuses on how to keep students on the path to high school graduation and better prepared for college, career and civic life.

City Year's work in schools includes such components as:

  • One-on-one and small group instruction in English and math with SEL embedded into the lessons;

  • Use of data to monitor student progress and better cater lessons;

  • Small group SEL sessions; and

  • "Extended day" activities, such as after-school programming, help with homework, enrichment activities and civic projects that serve the community.

Two years ago, in August 2018, City Year received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to collaborate with the Center in studying the links between social-emotional learning and academic performance and achievement of students in City Year schools during the 2017-2018 school year. According to the authors, the study was one of the first in the field of education to examine the correlation of social-emotional and academic skills through a large scale, multi-city, multi-grade dataset focused on systemically under-resourced schools. The dataset included information on 38,131 students in grades three through 10 in 326 schools in 28 cities across 20 states, including how much time they spent with AmeriCorps members, academic outcomes measured by class grades and test scores, attendance and social-emotional learning (SEL) strengths (assessed through the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA)).

The study found that the more time students spent with City Year AmeriCorps members working on English language arts and math, the better they performed in that subject, the higher their attendance rates and the better their social-emotional outcomes. As a report on the results noted, "This shows that intentional holistic efforts can have multiple benefits and can impact academics, attendance and social emotional outcomes."

The report added that the positive outcomes suggested that the focus on those specific practices "cultivate a learning environment in which students have strong relationships, feel trust and have a sense of belonging." Likewise, the research also supported the notion that social-emotional skills are "malleable"--they "can be learned, and students can build upon and acquire new skills within a single academic year."

The report also detailed a three-step process that others can use "as next steps to creating a more integrated approach to social, emotional and academic development in classrooms and schools."

A 15-page summary report is openly available on the City Year website. The analysis by the Everyone Graduates Center is openly available on that organization's website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.