Do Social and Emotional Programs Really Work?

If you’ve been in the school counseling field for any length of time, you know the importance of social and emotional development. You understand that a kid who is flipping a desk cannot possibility learn math in that moment and those executive functioning skills must be taught first. But how can only one person, the school counselor, teach an entire school about feelings?  The task is too big for one person. You can’t be the only one teaching students how to manage their emotions.  You need to spread out your support and get help from teachers.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you change the environment, not the flower.                                                                                                               -Alexander Den Heijer

According to Daniel Goleman’s best selling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ he makes the case that “helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their disturbing emotions and impulses, and increase their empathy pays off not just in improved behavior but in measurable academic achievement.”  That’s a pretty bold claim.

Goleman backs up these remarks by citing a meta-analysis of 668 Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs for children from preschool through high school done by Joseph Durlak and Roger Weissberg. The data show “that in participating schools, up to 50 percent of children showed improved achievement scores, and up to 38 percent improved their grade point averages.”  Weissberg’s analysis also revealed that “suspensions decreased by 44 percent; and other disciplinary actions by 27 percent.”  Additionally, (because really, could all that really be enough?) the study also showed that attendance rates rose and “63 percent of students demonstrated significantly more positive behavior.”  That’s one heck of an endorsement to implement an SEL program.

The data is compelling and I have been searching for a social and emotional development program to use with our students for months.  This weekend at a conference, I happened to sit down next to another school counselor who helped me find what I have been seeking.  Sanford Harmony is an evidenced-based social-emotional teaching program that “cultivates strong classroom relationships between all students” for preschool through 6th grade.  With this program, feelings would no longer be discussed only during my school counseling lessons, but actually built into our curriculum.

Here is the part that is blowing my mind, it’s free.  No really, it’s free.  In 2014, National University was selected to disseminate this program which was created from the vision of philanthropist T. Denny Sanford with the goal to develop children who are “respectful, compassionate, and caring” by using strategies such a “Meet Up/Buddy Up” and “grade-level lessons and activities.”  I’ve met one of their representatives and watched a number of their educational videos and I’m bought in.  Many of the other programs I’ve found cost thousands of dollars and this one is free and evidence-based with 24,000 classrooms already on board; I’m hoping our school will be added to the list soon.  If the claims of this program are true, it could be a game changer.