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Study shows significant relationship between student social-emotional skills and academic outcomes

Students across 20 states see boosts to academic and social-emotional skills from spending time with City Year AmeriCorps members serving as Student Success Coaches

BOSTON—A new national study focused on nearly 40,000 students receiving supports from City Year AmeriCorps members in systemically under-resourced schools found a statistically significant, consistent relationship between student social-emotional skills and academic outcomes. The study found that making gains in social-emotional skills is like gaining an entire school year of achievement growth in math or English for students. Additionally, spending more time with City Year AmeriCorps members was tied to significant academic gains, better attendance and stronger social-emotional skills.

These findings add to a growing evidence base on the interconnection of social, emotional and academic development and advances the argument that social-emotional skill development grounded in strong relationships is essential to student success. This is particularly relevant as millions of students return to schools with learning loss due to the learning disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, 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, by the Everyone Graduates Center (EGC) at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, is one of the first large-scale studies to explore the connection between social-emotional skills and student outcomes, including grades, test scores and attendance. The researchers looked at nearly 40,000 students in 3rd- through 10th-grade in 326 systemically under-resourced schools across 20 states and 28 cities.

“This study shows the importance of close connections between students and near-peer role models during the school day. In fact, the students who were furthest behind saw the biggest gains from the support of City Year AmeriCorps members,” said Jim Balfanz, CEO of City Year. “This should be a signal to schools, districts and states that having AmeriCorps members serve as Student Success Coaches who work alongside teachers to provide students with social, emotional and academic support, whether through City Year or through other programs, can be life changing for students.”

The study found that students who spent the typical amount of time with an AmeriCorps member were 42% less likely to be off track in English, one-third less likely to be behind in math, and 41% less likely to be off track in attendance. The gain is similar to a 2 to 4 month increase in academic growth in terms of grades and test scores. The analysis also found greater impact when social-emotional skills development is woven into academic interventions, such as when an AmeriCorps member demonstrates how to persist through challenges to complete a task while teaching a math lesson.

“The results from this multi-district sample—representative of the types of schools and students that state and federal agencies most typically identify as needing support in order to raise student outcomes—suggest that these findings can be applied at a large scale and are not the result of extraordinary efforts in a unique setting,” said Vaughan Byrnes, co-author of the study and researcher at the Everyone Graduates Center.

The study found that student social-emotional skills account for a substantial amount of the variation in their academic outcomes—an impact comparable to that of student family backgrounds—suggesting that strengthening social-emotional skills is a viable path to improving academic outcomes among all students.

City Year is releasing a new guide for practitioners and policymakers with additional tools, practices and recommendations for integrating social, emotional and academic approaches to support improved student and school outcomes.

Students who attend City Year partner schools featured in the EGC study are 50% Black and 38% Hispanic, and nearly 90% qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The EGC study is one of the first to explore the relationship between social-emotional development and academic outcomes in schools that predominantly serve students of color and students from low-income families. City Year strives to advance educational equity by recruiting teams of diverse young adults to serve full time as AmeriCorps members in systemically under-resourced public schools across the country.

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. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center and a co-author of the study, and City Year CEO Jim Balfanz are brothers.

About City Year

City Year helps students and schools succeed. Diverse teams of City Year AmeriCorps members provide support to students, classrooms and the whole school, helping to ensure that students in systemically under-resourced schools receive a high-quality education that prepares them with the skills and mindsets to thrive and contribute to their community. A proud member of the AmeriCorps national service network, City Year is supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, local school districts and private philanthropy. City Year partners with public schools in 29 communities across the U.S. and through international affiliates in the U.K. and South Africa. Learn more at or on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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