Creating a Districtwide Social Development Project - ASCD
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May 1, 1997

Creating a Districtwide Social Development Project

In New Haven, Connecticut, educators take the social and emotional development of their students seriously through comprehensive curriculums that have built-in community support.

Social-emotional learning

To prevent social and health problems among our young people, policymakers have urged us to fight a war on drugs, a war on AIDS, and a war on violence. Using war as a model for prevention, however, is misguided (Shriver and Weissberg 1996). Although single-issue campaigns—even isolated "character education" programs—are well-intentioned, they have so far yielded only limited success.

In the New Haven, Connecticut, public schools, we have found that sustained efforts to enhance children's social and emotional development can help students become knowledgeable, responsible, and caring citizens (Elias et al. in press). This positive approach promotes competence—and it prevents many high-risk behaviors. For the past 10 years, we have continued to develop this program and have enhanced students' academic performance, social competence, and health.

Task Force Findings

In 1987, the superintendent convened a task force—including educators, parents, students, community leaders, university researchers, and human service providers—to assess the high-risk behaviors of students that lead to drug use, teen pregnancy, AIDS, delinquency, truancy, and school failure. Through in-depth surveys, the task force found that a significant proportion of New Haven's high school students engaged in behaviors that jeopardized their academic performance, health, and safety.

Concerns about the social and health-related behaviors of youth are not limited to urban areas like New Haven. For example, in 1995 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a national survey of high school students. In this survey, 30 percent of the students indicated that they engaged in binge drinking and 18 percent smoked marijuana. Another survey finding: 50 percent of high schoolers indicated that they had already had sexual intercourse, and almost 20 percent reported having four or more partners. These data show that many students across the United States are experiencing social, emotional, and health problems and are not succeeding in school.

The New Haven task force noted that the same students experienced several problems simultaneously—problems that seemed to have common roots, such as poor problem-solving and communication skills; antisocial attitudes about fighting and education; limited constructive after-school opportunities; and a lack of guidance and monitoring by adults who are positive role models. The task force recommended that New Haven create a comprehensive K–12 social development curriculum to address these needs.

The Social Development Project

The superintendent and board of education established a district-level Department of Social Development—with a supervisor and staff of facilitators—that coordinated all prevention and health-promotion initiatives. The department ensured broad, representative, ongoing involvement by school staff, parents, and community members in establishing coordinated social and emotional education opportunities for all students—in regular, special, and bilingual education.

The goals are to educate knowledgeable, responsible, and caring students who acquire a set of basic skills, values, and work habits for a lifetime of meaningful work and constructive citizenship. Other goals include helping students develop positive self-concepts and helping them learn to live safe, legal, and healthy lives.

Curriculum objectives and content. Curriculum committees at all grade levels developed a K–12 scope and sequence for the Social Development curriculum. The committees established student learning objectives at each grade level and then undertook a comprehensive review process to find and adapt appropriate programs. Throughout the process, the committees considered federal standards, state mandates, and the priorities of local educators, parents, community members, and students; and they obtained the support of university psychologists.

  • Self-monitoring, problem solving, conflict resolution, and communication skills.

  • Values such as personal responsibility and respect for self and others.

  • Content about health, culture, interpersonal relationships, and careers.

Each school's team—as representative as the task force—plans new initiatives and ensures support by all segments of the school community. The department also encourages everyone in the school community to plan extracurricular educational, health-promotion, and recreational activities for students.

Professional development. The Department of Social Development established professional development programs to support and train teachers, administrators, and pupil personnel staff who implement these programs. Master teachers and coaches are the core of this effort, as they help coordinate classroom instruction with school and community programming. In this ongoing program, teachers bring their successes and challenges back to the group (see fig.1).

Figure 1. Stress-Buster Training for Teachers

In the New Haven Social Development Project, teachers work to enhance students' stress-management and problem-solving skills; but students are not the only beneficiaries. Many teachers report improvements in their own skills and in the quality of their communication with students.

One 5th grade teacher finished a lesson on “stress busters.” Students generated more than 20 effective ways to manage stress. During the lesson, two students in the back of the room were fooling around and whispering to each other. The teacher temporarily lost her cool and began to yell at the students to knock it off.

A boy in the front row lowered his head and said—just loud enough for the teacher to hear— “Now we'll see if this junk works! Will she calm down?”

Hearing that, the teacher smiled to herself and recognized her chance for a teachable moment. She stopped, took a deep breath, and said, “I have to figure out a better way to deal with this stress!” She regained her composure—and the students' attention and involvement. Together, they generated new strategies for her to manage stress and to deal effectively with future classroom disruptions.

In a follow-up training meeting, the teacher noted: “This stuff really works! When the kids saw that I used it, they began to tune in and use the skills, too.”

Program evaluation. Finally, the department designed monitoring and evaluation strategies to assess the effectiveness of the program and to identify ways to improve it. Collaborating with university researchers, the department evaluated the process and outcomes, incorporating the perspectives of teachers, students, administrators, and parents.

These evaluations document that the project has been well received and has improved the attitudes and behaviors of students. For example, research has demonstrated positive effects on students' problem-solving skills, attitudes about conflict, impulse control, social behavior, delinquency, and substance use (Weissberg et al. 1997, Caplan et al. 1992, Kasprow et al. 1991).


  • School-based prevention programs should embrace a broad conceptualization of health and positive youth development, addressing children's social, emotional, and physical health through coordinated programming.

  • Programs should offer developmentally appropriate, planned, sequential K–12 classroom instruction, using culturally relevant information and materials.

  • Effective prevention involves teaching methods that ensure active student engagement, emphasize positive behavior change, and improve student-adult communication. Students are more likely to benefit when they are encouraged to apply skills to real-life situations and to learn effective communication skills.

  • Peers, parents, the school, and community members should work together to reinforce classroom instruction.

  • Team members must design programs that are acceptable to and reach students at risk, including students already engaging in risky behaviors. Classroom instruction must be better coordinated with social, mental health, and health services that are provided to high-risk youth.

  • Districts must develop systemwide practices and infrastructures to support social and emotional development programs.

As educators, we have the determination and knowledge to address the urgent needs of our young people. Unfortunately, many widely used and heavily marketed programs have poor or inconsistent evaluation results and only emphasize single issues (Dusenbury and Falco 1997). Preventive efforts work when comprehensive, systemic supports exist (Dryfoos 1997).

Healthy social and emotional learning goes beyond the prevention of specific negative outcomes. We need to abandon piecemeal approaches to prevention; we must provide supportive, creative, and caring learning environments to nurture the healthy development of children.


Caplan, M., R.P. Weissberg, J.S. Grober, P.J. Sivo, D. Grady, and C. Jacoby. (1992). "Social Competence Promotion with Inner-City and Suburban Young Adolescents: Effects on Social Adjustment and Alcohol Use." Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology 60, 1: 56-63.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 24, 1995). "CDC Surveillance Summaries." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review 44 (SS-1): 1-56.

Dryfoos, J.G. (1997). "The Prevalence of Problem Behaviors: Implications for Programs." In Healthy Children 2010: Enhancing Children's Wellness, edited by R.P. Weissberg, T.P. Gullotta, R.L. Hampton, B.A. Ryan, and G.R. Adams. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Dusenbury, L.A., and M. Falco. (1997). "School-Based Drug Abuse Prevention Strategies: From Research to Policy and Practice." In Healthy Children 2010: Enhancing Children's Wellness, edited by R.P. Weissberg, T.P. Gullotta, R.L. Hampton, B.A. Ryan, and G.R. Adams. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Elias, M.J., J.E. Zins, R.P. Weissberg, K.S. Frey, M.T. Greenberg, N.M. Haynes, R. Kessler, M.E. Schwab-Stone, and T.P. Shriver. (in press). Fostering Knowledgeable, Responsible, and Caring Students: Social and Emotional Education Strategies. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Kasprow, W.J., R.P. Weissberg, C.K. Voyce, A.S. Jackson, T. Fontana, M.W. Arthur, E. Borman, N. Mormorstein, J. Zeisz, T.P. Shriver, K. DeFalco, W. Elder, and M. Kavanaugh. (1991). New Haven Public Schools Social Development Project: 1990-91 Evaluation Report. New Haven: New Haven Public Schools.

Shriver, T.P., and R.P. Weissberg. (May 15, 1996). "No New Wars!" Education Week 15, 34: 33, 37.

Weissberg, R.P., H.A. Barton, and T.P. Shriver. (1997). "The Social-Competence Promotion Program for Young Adolescents." In Primary Prevention Exemplars: The Lela Rowland Awards, edited by G.W. Albee and T.P. Gullotta. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Roger P. Weissberg, Ph.D., is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He is Executive Director of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). He directs an NIMH-funded Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Prevention Research Training Program in Urban Children's Mental Health and AIDS Prevention at UIC, and also holds an appointment with the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education. Professor Weissberg has published about one hundred articles and chapters focusing on preventive interventions with children and adolescents, and has coauthored nine curriculums on school-based programs to promote social competence and prevent problem behaviors including drug use, high-risk sexual behaviors, and aggression. Three recent books that he coedited are Healthy Children 2010: Enhancing Children's Wellness, Healthy Children 2010: Establishing Preventive Services, and Children and Youth: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Sage 1997). Professor Weissberg was the Research Director for the Primary Mental Health Project from 1980 to 1982. He was a Professor in the Psychology Department at Yale University between 1982 and 1992, where he collaborated with the New Haven Public School System to establish the New Haven's Kindergarten through grade 12 Social Development Project. He has been the President of the American Psychological Association's Society for Community Research and Action. He is a recipient of the William T. Grant Foundation's five-year Faculty Scholars Award in Children's Mental Health, the Connecticut Psychological Association's 1992 Award for Distinguished Psychological Contribution in the Public Interest, and the National Mental Health Association's 1992 Lela Rowland Prevention Award. He may be contacted at Department of Psychology (M/C 285), The University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607-7137. Phone: (312) 355-0640; fax: (312) 355-0559; e-mail:

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