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National study finds significant relationship between social-emotional learning and academic outcomes

City Year AmeriCorps Washington DC Morning greeting

City Year believes in the power of young people to create lasting change and build a more just, inclusive and equitable society. Over three decades, City Year and our partners have learned that honoring and developing the skills and talents of young people enables them to contribute to their communities and succeed as professionals, neighbors and leaders—outcomes that benefit all of us.

These lessons apply to both City Year’s 3,000 currently serving AmeriCorps members and to the nearly quarter-million students they serve in public schools across the country each year.

Now we have new evidence that validates Whole School, Whole Child, our holistic approach to supporting students, specifically students of color and students growing up in low-income households, and that celebrates the service, teamwork and development of City Year AmeriCorps members.

A new national study released this month by the Everyone Graduates Center (EGC) at Johns Hopkins University School of Education underscores the intertwined nature of social-emotional learning and academic growth. This research contributes to a growing evidence base on the interconnection between social, emotional and academic skill development, which includes efforts by the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development and the SoLD Alliance.

The findings advance the argument that high-quality social-emotional supports should be a fundamental part of education in the United States and that all students should have access to them—an essential step to improve educational equity.

Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, families and schools, the report and a related practitioner guide offer helpful insights and data for educators and policymakers who are preparing to meet increased student needs when our schools reopen.

City Year’s holistic social-emotional approach

The report from Everyone Graduates Center, Connecting Social-Emotional Development, Academic Achievement, and On-Track Outcomes: A multi-district study of grade 3 to 10 students supported by City Year AmeriCorps members, is among the first large-scale studies to explore the relationship between social-emotional development and student outcomes for students attending systemically under-resourced public schools.

The findings show that a holistic approach is successful in advancing student social-emotional and academic outcomes, such as grades, test scores and attendance—key indicators tied to high school graduation.

The researchers looked at data on nearly 40,000 students in 326 public schools across 20 states and 28 U.S. cities served by City Year in 2017-2018.

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Read a concise overview of the Everyone Graduates Center (EGC) findings.

The study found a significant relationship between student social-emotional skills and academic outcomes—making gains in social-emotional skills is like gaining an entire school year of achievement growth in math or English for students in grades three to 10.

Additionally, spending more time with City Year AmeriCorps members was tied to student academic gains, better attendance and stronger social-emotional skills.

“I’m thinking about all the hard work my teammates and I have done, and I’m glad that the research is backing up what my personal experiences have been this year,” says City Year Jacksonville AmeriCorps member Milena Gil.

We know from our deep partnerships and our work in schools that children benefit from positive learning environments that encourage them to flourish both in and out of school. Our students remind us every day of their talent, potential and dreams—and the important role that caring adults such as teachers, guidance counselors and AmeriCorps members play in supporting them along the way, by helping to ensure that schools are places of learning where every student feels connected and supported in their growth.

Investing in social-emotional supports helps to advance educational equity

When City Year AmeriCorps members sit alongside students to help them master fractions or advance a reading level, they are also helping students learn how to problem solve, work in teams, build positive relationships and bounce back after setbacks. These are the skills that are essential to success in school and in life—and they will be even more relevant for our students as they navigate our new “normal” caused by COVID-19.

“The findings show the importance of integrating social, emotional and academic development and advance the argument that social-emotional learning should be a fundamental part of public education in the U.S.—and is essential to advancing educational equity,” says City Year CEO Jim Balfanz. “The report offers relevant and timely information for schools and education leaders as they consider how to best serve students during and after COVID-19, when we know many students will need additional supports to recover after learning loss, reconnect to their school community and heal from loss and trauma.”

The EGC study contributes to a growing evidence base and confirms what we see every day when our City Year AmeriCorps members partner with educators: Learning happens through relationships and academic, social and emotional learning are intertwined, like strands of fiber woven together to create an even stronger rope.

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New practitioner guide offers tips to schools and educators
For helpful tools and recommendations to begin or strengthen holistic practices for student success, download our newest practitioner and policymaker guide which serves as a companion piece to the new EGC study: What City Year is learning about the power of integrating academic, social and emotional development in public schools.

Key findings

Social-emotional development has a significant impact on student academic outcomes

EGC found that a student moving up one level in social-emotional skills is similar to, or can be the same as, gaining an entire school year of achievement growth in math or English language arts.

For example, a student might move from “need for instruction” to “typical level” in decision-making or move from “typical level” to “area of strength” in goal-directed behavior. The EGC study indicated that growth in social-emotional skills has an impact comparable to that of a students’ family background, a factor that has historically been used to predict student academic outcomes.

“The EGC study further validates City Year’s Whole School, Whole Child approach and shows that human-centered, relationship-driven approaches to social-emotional development may be as impactful as curricular or programmatic approaches,” says City Year Chief Impact Officer Stephanie Wu.

Students who spend time with City Year see boosts to social-emotional and academic outcomes

City Year AmeriCorps members play a critical and unique role as Student Success Coaches (SSCs), supporting teachers, adding classroom capacity and serving as near-peer tutors, mentors and role models to students. Across the hundreds of schools studied, researchers at EGC found that students who received the typical number of hours of support from an AmeriCorps member saw positive gains that are similar to a two-to-four month increase in academic growth.

Students who worked with an AmeriCorps member were:

  • 42% less likely to be off track in English language arts
  • 33% less likely to be behind in math
  • 41% less likely to be off track in attendance
  • more likely to have improved their social-emotional competencies by the end of the school year

Importantly, the students who were struggling the most made the most progress.

Students who started the school year the furthest behind in either attendance rates, grades, test scores or social-emotional skills benefitted the most from one-on-one support with an AmeriCorps member and made the biggest gains.

The impact on student growth was even greater when an AmeriCorps member intentionally integrated social-emotional skills development into their academic interventions with students. For example, an AmeriCorps member might demonstrate how to persist through challenges to complete a task while teaching a math lesson.

“City Year AmeriCorps members work long, sometimes challenging days in schools in support of their students. It’s difficult to measure their success in just 10 short months, and they may wonder whether their service or daily interactions with students—each relationship developed, every morning greeting, all the time spent in afterschool programs—have an impact,” says Alexandra Allen, City Year’s senior vice president of AmeriCorps member experience. “We’re inspired and gratified to have additional evidence that every single one of these actions matter.”

Learn more about the EGC report and other evidence of City Year’s impact:

Learn more

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