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The Social-Emotional Side of Student Achievement

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Recently, at a conference for professionals who work with children from birth to three, I heard about an 18-month-old who'd been kicked out of child care. No one at the session seemed to blink an eye, but I was shocked. Yes, I know the work of Yale psychologist Walter Gilliam.

His study, "Prekindergartners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Programs" rattled early childhood educators a few years ago with its ominous findings. The pre-K expulsion rate, he found, was triple the rate of expulsion among K-12 students. And while rates of expulsion varied widely among the 40 states funding prekindergarten, pre-K expulsion rates exceeded those in K-12 classes in all but three of the states.

But toddlers?

Much public soul-searching followed the release, last December, of the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which measures what students across the globe know and can do in reading, math, and science. In what Obama called a "Sputnik moment," and Arne Duncan, "a massive wake-up call," the United States acknowledged the lackluster performance of its 15-year-olds, who were bested by Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Shanghai. With lousy PISA scores, an alarming high school dropout rate, and the number of college graduates plummeting, we're wracking our collective brains for solutions to a national education crisis. Today, national core standards are on the horizon, earlier and more testing the norm, and academic curriculum has become a fact of life for our youngest students.

Something is missing from this picture. Social-emotional development is getting short shrift in our race toward greater cognitive competence and academic achievement -- at our children's, and society's, great expense. Science tells us that the actual architecture of the brain is built in a process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. All domains of development -- social, emotional, intellectual, and physical -- are interdependent, working together to promote children's health and overall well-being. You can't address one domain without affecting the others. Children's skill-building, learning, and emotional intelligence and resiliency are nurtured, in the earliest years, in the context of relationships, and the presence of stress (severe poverty, maternal depression, child maltreatment, family violence) damages the brain's architecture, often leading to problems in learning and behavior.

While we must attend to the social-emotional needs of our youngest ones, we also need to look at education and learning on all point of the education spectrum. Last fall, a National Expert Panel, including James P. Comer, Robert Pianta, Linda Darling-Hammond, Sharon Lynn Kagan, and Kathleen McCartney, issued a series of policy recommendations in "The Road Less Traveled: How the Developmental Sciences Can Prepare Educators to Improve Student Achievement." They present a grim picture of disengagement and alienation among students, noting that "in a national sample of over one hundred thousand sixth to twelfth graders, only 29 percent indicated that their school provides a caring, encouraging environment." They also highlight the average high school graduation rate of 53 percent in the nation's 50 largest cities--damning data that render the PISA exam results unsurprising.

"The Road Less Traveled" tells us that attention to basic skills alone is not enough to improve student outcomes. Student learning and engagement can't be divorced from social-emotional development. Adolescents have a critical need for relationships and connections, as well as a sense of competence, the feeling that they are successful and worthwhile. To ignore child and adolescent development -- or to underplay its importance, the case in many teacher preparation programs -- is to condemn our 15-year-olds, along with their younger and older peers, to the educational stagnation that has everyone up in arms.

Lately, I've noticed the ascent of social-emotional development to a more prominent place on the communal radar screen. One night, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up The New Yorker and read "Social Animal: The science behind everyday life," a piece by David Brooks, whose book, of the same title, is due out in March. Here he was, talking about cross-cultural differences in babies' cries, the early, nonverbal, "conversations" between mother and infant, and the impact of attachment on long-term human development. Earlier that day, Brooks had taken "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua to task for her unrelenting focus on solo cognitively stimulating tasks for her daughters. "Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found," he wrote in his column, "that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others' emotions -- when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others' inclinations and strengths."

Those researchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon might just as well be describing that exquisite dance of mother and infant in the earliest months of a child's life. To foster that level of attunement, or high collective "Emotional I.Q."--not to mention getting kids ready for kindergarten -- we need to start at the beginning, nurturing and supporting all aspects of development.