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May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Building Schools as Communities: A Conversation with James Comer

Social-emotional learning
Recently there's been a surge of interest in the social and emotional aspects of learning. That's been the focus of your lifelong work, of course. How did your interest develop?
My interest developed from the fact that the friends I grew up with—poor, African-American youngsters who were just as bright as I—went on a downhill course in life. When I looked back at this, I realized that the only difference was that I received support for my emotional and social development that my friends did not receive. My mother and father taught me respect and gave me the social skills to solve problems and promote well-being.
For example, like most kids I enjoyed "exploring" my environment. While doing so when I was 11, I visited a house where known "problem behavior" took place. Before I even got home, my father knew about it, because one of the "sisters" from our church had called him. Fortunately, he didn't scold or spank me. He simply pointed out that if I wanted to be respected by people in the neighborhood and in my church, there were things I could and could not do. So I learned not to do troublesome things. This close-knit community interaction taught me to seek respect, as well as to respect others.
My mother also arranged for me and my brothers and sisters to play with children of people she felt would be good role models —my doctor's son, in particular. To prepare us, she taught us social skills. One lesson I remember was her advice: "Now, talk enough to be interesting, but don't tell all your business." Because we had good social skills, friends of the family took us many places that my parents could not afford: Chicago Cubs games, amusement parks, and so on.
The importance of these lessons was reinforced when I began training in child psychiatry. It became very clear to me that it is a child's overall development—not simply cognitive or intellectual development—that makes academic learning possible.
Yet the public wants schools to get back to basics; many people seem to think curriculum designed to address social or emotional issues detracts from academic work.
Well, that's because many people misunderstand what intelligence is. Intelligence is really the capacity to gain and use knowledge to solve problems and promote well-being. It has several components: the cognitive, the affective or emotional, and the expressive. People use different terms, but there is now clear recognition that the cognitive is only one dimension of intelligence. To be successful, one needs a threshold level of cognitive ability. But many other things are just as important: creativity, personal discipline, the ability to relate to other people. I call this "effective intelligence"—all the things that come into play in problem solving.
We all see examples of people who have outstanding cognitive skills but who founder because they lack self-insight or have trouble working with others.
Right. And if you talk to employers, they'll tell you they want employees who are able to think, take initiative, get along well with other people, solve problems, be disciplined and responsible. But schools are being influenced by another factor: the demand to produce high test scores. The accountability structures we've created are driving academic activity, driving the way schools are organized. We have overemphasized the cognitive—we think we can measure it, although I'm not sure we even do that very well!
Take us back to the late 1960s, when you began the School Development Program in New Haven. How did you go about providing for students' social and emotional development?
First, we immersed ourselves in the schools and tried to understand what was wrong. We realized that the children were bright and able but that the climate wasn't right. We also realized that the teachers wanted to succeed, but they were stuck with a mechanical model of teaching and did not understand what else was necessary. They weren't prepared to respond to students lack of social and emotional skills, which led to students' acting out or withdrawing from classroom activities. The teachers' response was to try to control the behavior, to "get the badness out of the children." That led to difficulty with the parents, who themselves very often had not done well in school. Parents ended up withdrawing from the school or attacking it. So children, parents, and teachers all wanted to succeed, but all behaved in ways that kept them from being successful.
Next, we built a structure that enabled parents, educators, and other specialists to develop a comprehensive school plan together. The plan had both a social-emotional and an academic component. As we created a good social climate in the school, we then were able to integrate academic learning and social emotional development.
Even at the early stages, did parents really have an authentic voice in making decisions? This was way before the heyday of school-based management.
Our School Development Program contained the essential elements of school-based management. Parents served on the governance and management team, and they had their own parent team. The parents helped design a program to support the academic and social program that the school planning and management team came up with. The parents and the teachers worked together on those activities.
Can you give some examples?
We started out with things like Welcome Back to School pot luck suppers and so on. We didn't do them just because they were nice to do, however. We wanted to establish relationships among the adults, to create authority figures for the children to identify with and become attached to. Our idea was to bring all the adults together to support children's growth along the developmental pathways —the social interactive (how to interact well with other people), the psycho-emotional (how to control your emotions or handle your impulsivity), the moral-ethical, the linguistic, the intellectual-cognitive, and the physical. It is growth along all those pathways that facilitates intellectual academic growth.
Originally, one of your primary teams was called the Mental Health Team. That wasn't designed to "treat" students with emotional problems, though, was it?
To avoid confusion, we now call it the School Support Team. The initial idea was that a Mental Health Team would help children with specific problems. But we found that those problems often grew out of conditions in the school that weren't child-friendly. We learned what we had to do to change the school. The Mental Health Team often took the leadership. For example, we found that children who transferred into the school were often dumped there without adequate support. What happened? Often, they would act up. One boy kicked the teacher and ran out of the classroom. When the Mental Health Team discussed that with the staff, we all learned together about what support children need during difficult transition periods when they are removed from a supportive environment and put into a new one that is threatening. Then we designed ways to support transfer students when they come into the school.
Although we would help children with a particular problem, we made sure to look more closely at what the school was doing. In the traditional way, the child who kicked the teacher might be sent to the principal's office, be punished, and return to the classroom. When he got there, the other kids would laugh, a fight would start, and this would go round and round until the child was labeled "disturbed." In our program, we learned from these experiences how we could change the school and prevent that kind of outcome.
Can you talk a bit about the curriculum in those early schools, and then in today's schools? How did you develop it and how is it distinctive?
We eventually developed the Social Skills Curriculum for Inner-City Children, which we are now revising. It's a curriculum for all kids; it just happens that we were working primarily in the cities when we created it.
We involved parents in developing the curriculum by asking them what they wanted for their children as adults. We found that they wanted the same things that middle-class parents wanted—good jobs, families, responsible citizenship. We then asked them what kinds of activities would help their children develop the capacity to achieve those things. As we talked about it, our discussion converged on the areas of politics and government, business and economics, health and nutrition, and spiritual and leisure-time skills. So we developed units in those areas that integrated the teaching of basic academics with social interaction skills and appreciation of the arts.
In the process of carrying out these activities, staff members learned how they could help the children with their impulsivity and with any other behavioral problems. I believe that living with and helping children to successfully carry out activities is a much more effective approach than lecturing to them in the abstract about what is right or wrong, good or bad.
Some of today's social/emotional programs focus a lot on teaching kids explicitly to manage their emotions, control their impulsivity, and so on. Is that a bad approach?
I don't disagree with it, but I argue that it's easy to get caught up in a specific curriculum that teaches various social or emotional skills but doesn't address the quality of life in the school. The key question is: Are the adults interacting in a way that creates a climate where children feel comfortable, safe, and protected, where they can identify with and attach to adults? It is difficult to internalize a sense of well-being, high self-esteem, and a passion for achievement in an environment that is chaotic, abusive, or characterized by low expectations for students.
Is it possible for a school to have a traditional curriculum but still be faithful to your model?
I think so. Some people who want great change believe that test scores are unimportant and that we need to teach for deep understanding. I believe that you can do both. If the school climate is supportive enough, you can teach in a way that will enable the young people to pass whatever exam is out there and still help them become deep thinkers and problem solvers.
Your network of Comer schools has received an enormous amount of attention. How big is it now?
We now include more than 650 schools. About 120 are middle or high schools, and the rest are elementary schools. We're now in districts that have as many as 50 different ethnic groups. We are in some majority white middle-class and poor districts, some predominantly Hispanic districts, some predominantly black districts. Some are in rural areas.
That kind of diversity is encouraging. Do affluent districts think they need programs to foster students' social and emotional literacy?
They're beginning to understand. If you look at the trends in social problems, the greatest growth is in the white middle class. Teenage pregnancy was once three times as great among blacks as whites. It's now one and a half times higher. Thirty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan made us aware of the disturbing fact that 25 percent of black homes were headed by single parents. That's now true of the white community. So we're dealing with a systemic problem; it just happened to show up in the most vulnerable group first.
When you look back to the schools that you began to work with in the late 1960s and 1970s, have they been able to sustain their improvements and build on the structures that had been established?
Some have sustained the reforms, some have not. I'd estimate that about one-third of schools made significant changes, one-third made modest changes, and one-third made no changes. Now hitting .333 is pretty good in baseball. But in school change, we need to hit .900. This will require immense changes in the condition of teaching.
What are some of the lessons you've learned about what it takes to bring about and sustain change?
First, to sustain reform, you really have to change the way we train, select, and support school staff. We need to train a large body of people, as well as retool existing staff members, so that they're capable of creating good organizations in every school. Every school must become a place that supports the development of children. Until we do that, schools cannot sustain any program that deals with emotional and social growth. And they limit academic learning, too, because social and emotional growth are so important to academic learning. The importance of preparing and training teachers is a major focus of my new book, Waiting for a Miracle: Schools Can't Solve Our Problems—But We Can, which will be published this fall.
What else have you learned?
That continuity and stability are absolutely vital for kids. What children need more than anything is the chance to attach with and bond to adults who are meaningful and important to them. But look at all the examples of discontinuity and instability we have in our education system: superintendent turnover, principal turnover, the movement of teachers from school to school. Many children move frequently and experience no continuity. We have 45-minute classes, even though we know we can't teach for deep understanding in that time. Schools are becoming more and more fragmented.
We are trying to make this commitment to continuity much more central in our relationships with the schools we work with now. District offices need to understand that you don't bring three new teachers into a building without major efforts to prepare them. And you have to look very hard at the effects of teacher turnover within and between schools. It takes so much to change a school, but you can wipe it all out with one or two careless assignments.
As persuasive as your arguments are, a segment of the public is very opposed to having schools play a more active role in students' social and emotional development. There's a feeling that schools are taking over a role that belongs to parents. Is that something you've had to fight?
For the most part we haven't, because you can't argue with success. Where children are doing better, because families and teachers are all working together, you don't get many arguments. Also, we're very clear that we're not taking over the family's prerogative; we're involving the family in the work of the school. We probably led the call for deeper family involvement in the work of the school. That's the opposite of what's being charged.
The reason we need to strengthen the ties between families and schools is that the nature of our society has changed. We've experienced massive economic changes, technological changes, and the high mobility that technology has made possible. Neighborhoods are not natural communities anymore. And with the growth of mass communications and computers, children are being bombarded with more information then ever before. For the first time in the history of the world, information goes directly to children rather than through important adults who can filter it. What we've got to do is reestablish or create a tighter fabric of support for children's development. To even have a chance to counter the negative aspects of these new developments, you have to connect home and school.
You mentioned that in growing up, you had adults in your community who took collective responsibility for children. What's happened to our sense of community?
Without question, we've had a breakdown in the sense of community. In the past, we tended to overlook how important community is. It provided social and emotional support for children, but we didn't see how that related to academic learning. This is still not widely understood. Now we're experiencing a breakdown in our communities, and we still need to help students attain high levels of academic achievement. The solution is to restore a sense of community. And that is what our program has always been about: restoring community, and doing it within the school.

John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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