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Focus on Social and Emotional Health Raises Test Scores

July 21, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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A new trend in public schools is helping students focus not just on math and science, but also on their feelings. John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on how social and emotional learning is improving test scores.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, learning about reading, writing and feelings. Our story comes from special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour.

STUDENT: My name is Claudia. And when I’m very angry, I cry and scream.

JOHN TULENKO: Once a week in Sherley Guerrero’s fourth-grade classroom, students set aside academics to focus on a different kind of learning.

STUDENTS: I feel angry when you bother me because I need respect.

JOHN TULENKO: Guerrero’s students at Public School 24 in Brooklyn, New York, are learning to identify their feelings and communicate what’s behind them. It’s part of a small, but growing movement in education called social and emotional learning.

Today’s lesson is about self-expression, using what’s called an “I” message.

STUDENT: My name is Julia. And when I’m angry, I, like, want to yell at people.

SHERLEY GUERRERO, Public School 24: An “I” message is basically a way to communicate. It opens up communication, and it helps kids do exactly that: express their feelings and what they need.

We have to talk about what we feel, because that’s the only way that we’re going to solve our problems.

A lot of children hold in what they’re feeling and then that’s what interferes with their learning.

They’re going to embrace the anger, but we’re going to transform…

JOHN TULENKO: Watching you in your class, I thought, “She’s their therapist.”

SHERLEY GUERRERO: No, far from it. That’s not what we’re doing. It’s not about therapy. It’s about giving them the tools they need so that they can deal with those emotions so that they can focus on the academics.

JOHN TULENKO: Down the hall, a different kind of lesson. The teacher is Martin Alvarado.

MARTIN ALVARADO, Public School 24: So, Kevin, do you want to start?

STUDENT: Mr. Alvarado, I have a problem outside in the schoolyard, that a kid is calling me a villit (ph) and — Mr. Alvarado?

MARTIN ALVARADO: Yes?

My lesson today was on active listening. I wanted them to actually see what poor listening looked like.

STUDENT: I can’t do stuff, because I’m weak. Mr. Alvarado, are you listening?

MARTIN ALVARADO: Yes, I’m listening.

If you’re actively listening, you can better understand where one person is coming from, from their own point of view.

STUDENT: Mr. Alvarado?

Curriculum gives students a voice

MARTIN ALVARADO: Yes. All right, so what happened there? Who would like to share out?

We're trying to teach kids here how to get along with one another, how to speak with each other, how to be respectful, how to alleviate conflict. This is a curriculum that gives students a voice. It gives them a time to reflect.

JOHN TULENKO: Lessons like these are taught throughout the school and now in about 10 percent of public schools nationwide. States are getting behind it, making social and emotional learning a requirement.

The movement started with this book, "Emotional Intelligence," by psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: Social and emotional learning is life skill training. What are the skills? Well, self-awareness is the basis of good judgment in life. Managing your distressing emotions is going to help you in any situation.

Empathy and sensing how other people are feeling and using that to create rapport and chemistry means you're going to have rich relationships. Social skill, getting along well, learning how to work out difficulties and disagreements in a win-win way, these are life skills any parent would want for their child.

JOHN TULENKO: Interest in the field has risen as families and children face greater economic and social strains.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: There are some children who, for whatever reason, have real deficits in social skill, in attention, in emotional self-control, which is why I think it's so heartening that these social emotional learning programs help those kids the most, because it helps them get a more equal playing field for the rest of their lives.

JOHN TULENKO: Helping students manage emotions and find ways to get along could also help teachers. In national surveys, they've consistently identified disruptive behavior and discipline problems as top concerns.

SHERLEY GUERRERO: There was a lot of aggression within my classroom. And when we covered a lot of what to do when we're feeling angry, that helped the students. They know how to handle the anger; they know how to stop and think. I think stopping and thinking is a key skill that they need to be able to do.

STUDENT: When we leave the school or at home, we know how to solve our problems.

Sharing helps academic performance

JOHN TULENKO: These fourth- and fifth-graders at Public School 24 say they've changed because of the things they've learned in school.

What do you get out of talking about your feelings?

STUDENT: When I share my feelings now with other people, I feel safe and I feel like I can let my feelings out. It doesn't stay inside of me.

JOHN TULENKO: Has this class helped you?

STUDENT: I used to get -- like if somebody said something to me, I used to get so angry. I learned to, like, relax for a second and, like, think about what I was going to do next, like, instead of just acting out of the while.

JOHN TULENKO: What's different about you?

STUDENT: Whenever someone wanted to be my friend, I used to, like, move away from them. And now I've learned that get to knowing people is much better, so, like, you could, like, share your stuff with them and you could trust them.

SHERLEY GUERRERO: The more relaxed they are, you know, the less problems they have. The less negative emotions that they're feeling, the better able they are to deal with the academics.

JOHN TULENKO: Teachers at Public School 24 say that's what they're seeing. Test scores here have risen, and the school has an A rating from the New York City Department of Education.

And a new report analyzed results for some 300,000 students nationwide in schools that teach social and emotional skills.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: Ten percent less antisocial behavior. Do you know what that means? It means that children are better behaved. Fewer kids in middle school sent to the principal because they're fighting, all of that goes down.

The other thing is that the positive behaviors go up 10 percent, listening in class, not cutting class, liking school, enjoying my education, feel I'm bonded with the teacher, there's someone at school that cares about me, up 10 percent.

Bottom line -- this is spectacular -- academic achievement test scores up 11 percent.

JOHN TULENKO: At the same time, however, Goleman cautions that, when students become adults, academics may only take them so far.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: The education that we get is essential. It's the necessary platform. It's not sufficient for success for outstanding performance. What distinguishes you is how you manage yourself and how you handle your relationships, something completely other than the standard curriculum in school.

JOHN TULENKO: To raise test scores, schools have piled on the academics, devoting more time to math and reading and less to things like social and emotional learning.

MARTIN ALVARADO: If they focus on test scores, they're focusing too much on data and numbers. But if you have this class, when they become adults, they'll have better skills, they'll have better relationships, they'll know what to do when there's conflict. I think that's the payoff, when they become adults.

JOHN TULENKO: But while they're still children, they'll bring emotions to school, whether they're learning to handle them or not.