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Connecting Social-Emotional Development, Academic Achievement, and On-Track Outcomes

Connecting Social-Emotional Development, Academic Achievement, and On-Track Outcomes

Connecting Social-Emotional Development, Academic Achievement, and On-Track Outcomes: A Multi-District Study of Grades 3 to 10 Students Supported by City Year AmeriCorps Members

May 20, 2020
By Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes

There is a growing understanding that an integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development provides the best path toward ensuring all students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary and adult success.  In the time of COVID-19 there is a recognition that as students return to school in the fall, there will be a need to address both their social-emotional development and accelerate their learning. 

Research being released today shows that supporting the development of social-emotional skills and outlooks, is associated with greater academic success, in particular among students who show signs of being disconnected from school. Thus, schools’ that engage in efforts to strengthen students’ connection to schooling in the fall, especially after the spring disruption, by addressing their social-emotional needs, can have academic benefits.

This report is one of the first studies to examine the connections between social-emotional skills and multiple measures of education outcomes (attendance, course grades, and achievement tests) on a large scale. The dataset includes 38,131 students in grades 3 through 10, attending 326 high poverty schools in 28 cities across 20 different states, focusing on students identified as needing additional academic support.

The study finds that large differences in social-emotional skills were consistently related to large differences in academic outcomes.  Moving from a low-to-medium or medium-to-high level of social-emotional skills equates to achievement gains equivalent to a year of schooling, and this relationship is largely stable and consistent across grades and locales. This means that the connection between social-emotional development and academic outcomes are not the result of extraordinary efforts happening in a unique setting, rather they occur in a diverse range of high-needs schools within high-needs school districts located across the country.

The research also found that when City Year AmeriCorps members actively worked to build student’s social emotional skills while engaging in academic tutoring of students struggling in math and English, the students benefited in multiple ways.

  • Their academic achievement improved. This was a result of both the tutoring itself, and from increased social-emotional skills, which had additional positive impacts on academic gains above and beyond those related to the tutoring. In addition, student’s attendance also improved.
  • More time with students resulted in greater gains. The more time students spent working with an AmeriCorps member the greater the students’ academic and attendance outcomes. Fundamental to this improvement is the strong relationships City Year AmeriCorps members established with students.  This indicates that a key strategy to recover COVID-19 learning loss could be relationship-based, social-emotional learning-infused academic tutoring.

“This has significant implications for how districts and schools can respond to COVID-19 when students return,” states Balfanz, “it further verifies recommendations from the Aspen Commission on Social, Emotional and academic development on the importance of taking an integrated SEAD approach to schooling. It also indicates that an evidence-based strategic response to COVID-19 is to expand AmeriCorps to serve more students in need, allowing them to receive relationship driven, integrated social-emotional and academic supports to accelerate their learning and deepen their ability to manage the impacts of COVID-19.”

Policy and Practice Recommendations. These results intensify the call to action for educators and policymakers to support the expansion and integration of social-emotional development in schools across the nation.

To read the full report, follow this link.

Follow this link for the Appendix Tables.

The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and was accepted after a peer review process for presentation at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) spring 2020 conference, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 restrictions.


Vaughan Byrnes, has worked at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, at Johns Hopkins University, since 2001 where his work has focused on the evaluation of education policy and intervention programs. His main area of interest and expertise is in research methodology, including the selection and implementation of appropriate research designs and statistical analyses for studies, as well as the supervision of data collection and processing, and the development of evaluation tools and instruments. He received his MSc in Research Methodology and Statistics, with Merit, from the London School of Economics after having first completed an Honors B.A. in Sociology with a Minor in Economics at McGill University.

Robert Balfanz is a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he is the director of the Everyone Graduates Center. He is widely published on secondary school reform, high school dropouts, early warning systems, chronic absenteeism, school climate, and instructional interventions in high-poverty schools. He focuses on translating research findings into effective school interventions. His work was featured in PBS Frontline’s “The Education of Omarina. Dr. Balfanz is the first recipient of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Everyone a Graduate Award and the National Forum’s to Accelerate Middle Grade Reform Joan Lipsitzs Lifetime Achievement award. In 2013 he was named a Champion for Change for African American Education by President Obama and he is also an education fellow for the Middle School Matters program at the George W. Bush Institute.

The Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education seeks to identify the barriers to high school graduation, develop strategic solutions to overcoming these barriers and build local capacity to implement and sustain the solutions so that all students graduate prepared for adult success.

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