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Can Social-Emotional Learning Support Performance on College Entrance Exams?

Education research has focused extensively on the role of social-emotional and noncognitive learning (SEL) in recent decades, broadening the scope of the role of schools beyond building academic skills to include social skills, learning strategies, and mindsets. The ultimate goal of SEL programming is to face challenges in college, career, and life, including challenges in reaching academic success. Moreover, this programming can play a role in providing more equitable education to students in low-opportunity, high-challenge situations by better equipping them to overcome obstacles their higher-opportunity peers may never face. Evidence supports the idea that SEL programming in schools can improve social, learning, and mindset skills in students (Durlak, et al. 2011)—but can SEL programming also improve academic results for students?

In order to assess whether SEL programming in schools would improve student academic performance and growth, it’s necessary to first analyze what SEL programming is attempting to do. Typically, SEL programming seeks to achieve two goals:

  1. To improve students’ skills in areas incorporating self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship management (Elias, et al. 2008).
  2. To foster the ongoing development of those skills through the creation and maintenance of a safe, caring learning environment in the classroom and school.

How does Social Emotional Learning relate to academic performance?

Theoretically, these skills should apply directly in an academic setting. Indeed, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) meta-analysis of SEL programming in schools investigated this very question (among others). In their analysis of 213 studies covering the experiences of more than 270,000 students, they found that SEL programming in schools showed significant effect (to varying degrees) on student attitudes, positive social behavior, conduct problems, emotional distress, and academic performance (Durlak, et al. 2011).

Further study at the University of Chicago Consortium for School Research (CSR) seeks to operationalize the pathways of SEL, or noncognitive factors, in terms of impact on academic performance. They hypothesized that certain SEL factors, specifically learning strategies and academic mindsets, contribute to the development of academic perseverance. This perseverance, along with social skills, contributes to the development of academic behaviors, which then improve academic performance. These behaviors include attendance in class, doing homework, organizing materials, participating and studying for class, and other engagement in instructional activities (Farrington, et al. 2012).

CSR has found some support for this hypothesis. In particular, they found that the pathways from academic mindsets to the other noncognitive factors (social skills, academic perseverance, and learning strategies) were statistically significant. The impact of social skills and learning strategies on GPA was also statistically significant. This leads us to the conclusion that excellent SEL instruction should focus on the development of academic mindsets: those critical beliefs about a student’s own capabilities in the academic world (Wanzer, Postlewaite and Zargarpour 2019).

How do we do SEL programming to maximize its impact on academic performance? And more specifically, can the effects of SEL programming improve growth on college entrance exams? These exams assess student mastery of high school curriculum—but they also require students to persevere through difficult texts, use problem-solving skills to approach challenging math problems, and persist through more than three hours of assessment, not to mention the years and years of challenging academic courses to develop academic skills. Given that the ACT and SAT are both predictive of college readiness, first year college performance, and college retention, one would hope that school investment in high-quality SEL programming would have the effect of increasing growth on these exams.  Since SEL programming seeks to improve self-awareness and self-management, we expect to see growth on college entrance exams for students who have strong SEL skills.           

How is Academic Approach working with SEL programming?

With this research in mind, Academic Approach has partnered with the Urban Education Institute since 2016 to deliver their Undefeated Minds curriculum to high-need students. Undefeated Minds is a classroom curriculum that works to equip students with a “resilience toolkit.” Students are taught and then practice seven “interventions” help them deal with challenging situations. Prior research on the curriculum (performed on college students) showed remarkable improvement in resilience and grit as well as a decrease in student anxiety. We hypothesize that these same skills could benefit high school students, especially those students in challenging, low-opportunity environments. Moreover, we suspect that—as research has demonstrated—this SEL-oriented instruction can also have broader impacts on student academic performance, increasing growth on college-readiness assessments like the SAT.

We’re piloting the Undefeated Minds program with teachers in high-need schools to equip advisors with an exceptional curriculum designed to support the academic and social-emotional growth of students. The curriculum includes seven one-hour lessons, plus an introduction, designed to be delivered flexibly in high school advisory classrooms. Students participating in the curriculum are better prepared to push through obstacles—academic and otherwise—with a strong sense of purpose. We’re excited to see these students grow!

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