Committee for Children Blog

Narrowing the Socio-Economic Achievement Gap with SEL

A recent blog post in the Washington Post discusses nine education predictions for 2014 made by educator and writer Larry Ferlazzo, covering such topics as computerized standardized testing, political forecasts, and one-to-one school computing initiatives. But it was number eight that jumped out at us. Ferlazzo posits that although social-emotional learning will continue to grow in popularity among schools, some “school reformers” (his quotation marks) will try to use this positive shift to “minimize the role of poverty and other causes of academic challenges and push their agenda instead.”

First question: what is this nefarious “agenda” of which Ferlazzo speaks? Are these “school reformers” plotting to take over the world with their sinister talk of character building and self-regulation? A closer look at some of his other blogs (here and here) makes it clear that he has gripes with specific programs, and with the idea that character building is not enough to help poor children.

This seems like a non-leap to me. Teaching character building and other social-emotional skills should never be at the expense of addressing the issue of poverty; it’s just that eradicating poverty is not something our existing schools are set up to do. What they are set up to do is teach children skills to succeed in life, whether in reading, math, computer science … or self-regulation.

And it just so happens that self-regulation skills can help children of all backgrounds succeed in school, reduce problem behaviors, and become more socially and emotionally competent. Not surprisingly, poor children with stronger self-regulation skills fare better than those with weaker skills (Committee for Children white paper). Schools can’t change the fact that some families are poor, but by teaching all kids self-regulation skills they can help mediate the effects of childhood poverty.

Ferlazzo may just be on the flip side of the same coin as most people working to educate children in SEL. Both would likely agree that a single focus to help disadvantaged people can never be enough. As reported in the CFC white paper, studies show that “children who grow up in poverty are much more likely to be exposed to negative environments that have direct and lasting effects on brain development, compromising their chances for success.” Poor people need jobs, housing, food, education, opportunities. This almost goes without saying (but we should keep saying it anyway until the problem is solved).

What Ferlazzo doesn’t say (or understand) is that meeting the so-called “agendas” of social-emotional learning and narrowing the socio-economic achievement gap do not have to be mutually exclusive projects. On the contrary, teaching SEL to poor children may be exactly what helps them close that very real gap.