School Social Programs for Teens Should Focus Less on Skills, More on Emotional Climate

School-based social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions for teens should focus less on improving students’ individual skills and more on encouraging a respectful emotional climate, according to a new analysis published in the journal Future of Children.

SEL programs, which educate students on how to understand and manage emotions, relationships, and academic goals, are a vital contributor to academic achievement and future success. But educators, policymakers, and scholars hold conflicting views on how or whether SEL skills should be taught in schools.

In the paper, University of Texas (UT) Austin psychology assistant professor David Yeager asserts that although elementary school children are still forming basic habits for good conduct, teens are becoming much more sensitive to social and emotional changes.

Because of these differences, skill-based SEL programs taught in elementary classrooms cannot be simply “revamped” for older students; instead, approaches that tap into teens’ values and influence the overall climate are most effective.

Creating a more respectful climate means doing away with authoritarian structures to make way for more authentic relationships with adults through positive, democratic group dynamics, including replacing zero-tolerance discipline strategies with those that are more empathetic.

For example, effective programs tend to harness the adolescent desire for status, respect, and a more welcoming climate and work to reduce the power of threats to peer status and respect — social aspects valued heavily by pubescent adolescents due to changes in brain structures and hormone activity, such as the status-relevant hormone testosterone, said Yeager, a faculty affiliate of the university’s Population Research Center.

“Improving adolescents’ interior social and emotional lives can spill over into other areas of functioning, because social and emotional life matters so much at this age,” he added.

In the analysis, Yeager identifies and evaluates three types of SEL programs: the skills model, focused on changes made to the individual; the climate model, geared toward improving the emotional environment; and the mindsets model, which addresses the interplay between environments and the beliefs develop and that shape their behavior over time.

“Effective programs are not based on the skills model, even though they sometimes teach skills,” said Yeager. “Instead, they find ways to motivate young people in terms of the values that matter most to them, and find ways to make environments more respectful.”

Effective approaches help young people find purpose in both learning and as members of their communities, Yeager said.

In one experiment, Yeager asked 400 students to think about issues or people that mattered most to them, and then presented them with stories and data of other students who had a desire to learn in order to make a difference. Teens were then asked to write a persuasive letter to future students to adopt a purpose for learning. Overall, students improved by 0.10 grade points, with some low-scoring students improving twice that by semester’s end.

In the paper, Yeager also cites a study by Rutgers University psychologist Anne Gregory, which gave students more autonomy in choosing meaningful work, rather than busy work. Students in these academically demanding classes were less likely to need discipline, shortening the racial gap in discipline infractions.

Finally, it is possible to help reduce the power of social threats by teaching teens that socially relevant traits are malleable and not fixed — an incremental theory of personality — which can make them feel more equipped to face social challenges, rather than viewing them as threats and lasting realities.

Yeager’s research shows that teens exposed to the incremental theory coped better on days when they reported more stressors and exhibited higher GPAs seven months later compared with their peers.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

Posted by Patricia Adams