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Social-emotional learning support with Dr. Robert Balfanz

What is necessary for students to thrive in education?

The idea of what students need to succeed both in the classroom and within their personal capabilities lies in having the necessary resources and support to achieve that success. City Year provides that extra support through our student success coaches, AmeriCorps members, who are able to form positive, consistent and caring bonds with the students they serve every day, becoming both mentors and role models. City Year’s holistic approach offers students the human connections to support them in achieving academically while also nurturing their skills and mindsets necessary for their personal growth.

Studies show that social-emotional learning (SEL) is essential to students’ academic development. City Year’s integrated approach allows for positive relationship building between AmeriCorps members and students, supportive learning environments, and the space for students to realize their full potential.

City Year San José/Silicon Valley had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University, about the importance of social-emotional learning in order for students to thrive. To listen to the podcast, check out

It takes a committed community to provide the resources needed to support students in achieving academically while also nurturing the skills and mindsets necessary for their personal growth.

You can be part of that community by supporting City Year and the work we do!


Transcription of City Year Speaks podcast:

Introduction (00:00):
This is CY Speaks, a podcast exploring trends and topics in our public education system produced by City of San Jose, Silicon Valley. City Year AmeriCorps members partner with teachers in schools to help prepare students to thrive, achieve their goals, and contribute to their community. In this second season, CY Speaks on students transitioning back to school and in person learning experiences. We will engage with speakers on conversations about what this transition will look like, how this change will affect students, and the best ways to make sure students are supported.

José Magana (00:32):
Hello everyone, my name is Jose Magana, today I use he/el pronouns, and I am the proudest managing director of impact at City of San Jose, Silicon Valley. And I am truly honored to host episode two, social-emotional learning and its impact on students transitioning back to school. I have the distinct honor of hosting today, Dr. Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the center for social organization of schools at John Hopkins University of Education, where he is a director of Everyone Graduates Center.

José Magana (01:02):
Quick bio on Dr. Balfanz, as I mentioned he is a director of Everyone Graduates Center, co-founded the diplomas now on evidence-based school transformation model for high needs, middle, and high school students. They combine whole school reform with enhanced student supports guided by an early warning system and winner of a federal investing in innovation I3 validation grant, which was implemented in 40 schools across 20 school districts. He’s published widely on secondary school reform, high school dropouts, early warning systems, chronic absenteeism, school climate, and instructional interventions in high poverty schools.

José Magana (01:38):
He focuses on translating research findings into effective school interventions. He’s also a frequent speaker on dropout prevention, early warning indicators, and has consulted with numerous state and education associations. He was a winner for a champion for change for African American students in education by The White House and holds a BA in history from John’s Hopkins University and a PhD in education from The University of Chicago. Again, truly an honor Dr. Balfanz, thank you and welcome to have you today.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (02:09):
Excited to be here.

José Magana (02:12):
Thanks again. Just to start things off, before we jump into your great research, the amazing work that you’ve done as a researcher and for City Year and other schools, let’s start things off with how are you, how are things going? How is it working in academia during a pandemic and just an ever changing world?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (02:31):
We’re doing well, it actually turned out to be busier than ever, very challenging and a sad time, but still it was a very busy time, so.

José Magana (02:45):
Well, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today. Again, as you said, you have a lot on your plate, lots of busy things that you could do, so we really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us today. To start things off, we’re going to jump into as mentioned social-emotional learning. So can you give our audience just an introduction to what social-emotional learning is or SEL, and can you touch on the research and show just really the importance, or the why SEL is important?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (03:10):
Yeah. So there’s two important components to this, first we’ve come to learn that how we learn is in fact a social-emotional experience. We learn with others, we learn in the social settings, and our emotions have a lot of interface with the cognitive side of our brain enabling or not enabling learning. So for kids to learn their social-emotional development matters, and then more broadly social-emotional development matters just being able for you to be successful in life. It’s often, when we are pressed and we are on a national commission on social-emotional learning, and everyone’s trying to get a common definition, at the end of the day the one that everybody could agree on, came down to what you learned in kindergarten; which was how to take care of yourself and how to get along and work with others and those are really foundational life skills. So social-emotional is important both for school success and for life success.

José Magana (04:17):
And I can attest as a former kindergarten teacher and first grade teacher, I’d know how important those life skills are because you named it. We need that not just for our academic support, but for our day-to-day life support. So thank you for naming that. And you did touch on the importance and the why behind this work specifically in SEL, can you touch a little bit on what types of distress did our students experience during the pandemic and distance learning, and was it significantly different than prior to the pandemic?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (04:48):
Yeah, absolutely. And unfortunately the answer is yes. And when we think about what we just said, that learning is social and emotional, kids were cut off from the social aspects of learning, they were learning alone. They had Zoom presence, but still largely alone with the support of their family, but still oftentimes by themselves in their bedroom or in their kitchen or wherever they could find the space to do it participating on their own, without the ability to turn to somebody and say, “What did the teacher say? I missed that.” Or go up after class and ask the teacher, “Can you explain that again?” In the Zoom land, that privacy doesn’t exist.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (05:28):
In theory, the kids could raise their hand on Zoom, but they have to ask it in front of everybody. And what kids really want is to be able to have that individual private attention where they can just ask the question of the teacher, or a friend and not feel judged or feel like they have to show they’re smart or not smart. So that whole social part of learning was lost. And then of course COVID really tested everyone’s emotions. Everything from pure grief, many, many kids lost parents or aunts or uncles’ that played major roles in their lives. And then just the pressure and the concern about getting COVID and the impact it had on their family’s employment status, all led to additional stresses and emotional struggles. And again, without the normal release valves of somebody to talk to about it beyond your family.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (06:23):
And then I guess the final thing happened is that with the interrupted learning, the students found that very stressful, because of whatever reason there’s a bad connectivity or because there was not enough bandwidth in their household for every sibling to be on at the same time, or all kinds of reasons they missed a lesson. And then because they missed that lesson, they’re sort of lost in the next lesson. And again, very limited ability to catch up in that environment. And then that leads to stress and to frustration.

José Magana (06:53):
Yeah, we definitely saw that first hand as we serve students in the East Side of San Jose, and specifically on the East Side, that was unfortunately more impacted by COVID. And we saw that our students were reaching out for more support to our corps members and to our staff saying, “Hey, this is what’s going on at home, I’m missing that personal element.” So you named it and hit it on the head. And just to follow up on that, what do you think we’ve really learned since the start of the pandemic on how we can better serve our students specifically with SEL during periods of crisis?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (07:25):
I think though the one thing we learned is it showed everybody… In a way folks knew this, but we tended to compartmentalize, and this really showed parents and students and teachers and everyone that learning is social-emotional. We have this imaginary vision that cognition is this cool process, and it’s all about input in and output out, and there’s like almost a little computer program in your head and it just sort of churns away no matter what’s happening, and we learn if that was the case, folks should do quite well with remote learning. If it’s just mastering the material, there’s fewer distractions, you should be able to sit down at the computer and just absorb all that material and learn twice as good as normal.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (08:08):
But we know that didn’t happen because of that learning is social-emotional, not a computer program. And I think that really just drove home to everybody that that was true before, but it was of more ignorable because people just couldn’t see it in front of their eyes in quite the same way. So I think to me, that’s one of the biggest changes is it really showed for everyone that we have to just have an integrated approach and not see that this is your learning, time computer program, this is your socialization time, different things.

José Magana (08:43):
Yeah. And I can attest too, as a parent, as I’m raising children that we’re trying to integrate that too, because we know academically, of course, as you’re saying we have different structures, different curriculums we can put in place, but at the end of the day, if we’re not able to take care of our basic needs, our emotional health, it makes everything much more difficult as you said. And it’s just that ongoing cycle.

José Magana (09:05):
Now, we talked a little bit about the pandemic and we’ll shift focus a little bit and talk about how we can come back from the pandemic, talk about prior to now, let’s talk about how we can go forward. What type of support do you think students need returning back to school that will really help them truly thrive?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (09:24):
Yeah. So here we actually have some pretty good insight, and then an irony here is this research was actually supported not almost a decade ago by the CDC. You think that was sort of an odd source for what should schools do, but the quick backstory on that is just that in 2009, they were able to establish the dropping out of high school was a public health issue, because there was the biggest social determinant of health, folks that didn’t earn a high school diploma and general had the worse health because not having a diploma impacted their whole ability to get jobs to pay a certain amount, and access healthcare. So once they could make it a public health issue, they could study it. And what they came up with is this idea of school connectedness.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (10:13):
And you’re talking about kids being disconnected, but really what we need is positive side of that, which is school connection. And it turns out that being connected to school is as close as we have to a universal prevention measure. If you’re connected to school, you do better in school, you’ll attain more schooling, but you’ll also be healthier, your mental health will be better, and you’ll engage in fewer risky behaviors.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (10:38):
And the real power to this thing, is it comes down to four relatively straightforward things, which we’re going to take it on a minute is that few kids have all of these, but you should see they are all attainable, if we organize ourselves further. So first, that a kid has someone that they believe an adult, that they believe no one cares about them as a person, not as a student, not as a fourth grader, not as someone to teach English, but they know Jose, and they know about Jose, and they know what makes Jose happy and sad, and they’re happy to see Jose and they talk. And Jose knows that this person cares about them as a person, doesn’t matter what you doing in your classroom, they care about you as a person.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (11:19):
Second of all, that you have a supportive peer group. Now this could be formal like a theater crew, a sports team, but it could just be a group of close friends that support each other. So, but to have a supportive peer group. And what’s interesting is that we found a fair amount of research. So oftentimes schools will put focus on that adult side, which is one of the four cornerstones, so really important, but ignore the peer side. And so kids will say, “Yeah, there’s an adult that cares about me, but there’s a bunch of students that are mean to me also. And so I don’t want to go to school.” And so the peers and the adults matter.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (11:57):
And then the third thing is that you you’re engaged in a meaningful activity that actually helps others. And this surprises folks sometimes, they think of adolescents as being very self, “It’s about me.” But it turns out the kids are actually more motivated when they think what they’re doing helps somebody else. So that’s a really great thing to hear, but we sometimes forget that, we think that’s sort of an extra, that’s like a few kids will do service learning, or a few kids might do the food drive, or a few kids might do a tutoring program for younger kids, but it really turns out we have to think about getting all kids involved on some sort of fancy term as prosocial activity.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (12:36):
And then the last one, is that you feel the school welcomes you for who you are, that you don’t have to change to be welcomed by the school. It’s a core idea of belonging and identity. And that’s about really having a very strong and welcoming school climate. But as you can see, each of these things are way trackable. If you have a group of adults who knows kids or class, they could say, “Does Jose have an adult that he would say knows and does he have a peer, a squad, or is he always by himself? Is he in any extracurricular or any kind of activities?” And the last one is probably you have to ask or have a survey. But the point is that if you have all of those, you are very well suited to thrive. And the tragedy is that many kids don’t have all of them, and some have none of them.

José Magana (13:31):
And thank you for naming that, because I know I can attest to my personal upbringing too, growing up with a father who was incarcerated, mother who was a teen mom, statistically, I’m not supposed to be where I’m at today based off what data would say, but you name four things that actually I had in my life that many students could have in their life as you said, they could be tracked, they could be worked on and put forward to really support all students and ensure that they’re getting what they need. So it’s exciting to hear that. I think that’s clear and tangible things that I know educators can move forward, which actually leads on to the next piece. I’m curious on the City Year front and what other organizations like us, what can we do to support students as they transition back?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (14:15):
Yeah. So, and as you probably saw in many of those things I named are core things that City Year does, it creates that adult relationship, it works with groups of kids, it involves them pro-social activities, it helps with belonging. But the other thing we found, we actually did some research on with City Year data, is what we found is that kids if they make relatively substantial improvements in their social-emotional development, are linked to relatively large achievement gains. So it’s not this totally linear thing of like a little bit of improvement, a little bit of improvement. It’s like, “You got to have like a good leap forward. And if you have a good leap forward, then you get a nice leap forward here.” And so core thing is for the City Year corps members and others, other sort of person-powered relationship driven supports is really to think about that integration of the academic and the social-emotional skills.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (15:14):
And again, I know that City Year works hard to do this, but this core idea that I’m working with you, either on something social-emotional, I can bring in the academic connection, or if I’m helping you in English or math, I can bring in sort of, “This is due in an hour. Okay, let’s try to get through it, let’s get it ready, but let’s talk about next time being a little more planful in our thing, so we’re not just doing it an hour before and like let’s set a goal, and that sort of goal setting.” And what we know with kids is that it is that authentic integration and a real act that helps them learn as opposed to just, “Let me give you some lessons on this. Let me give you some lessons on this. And it’s up to you to put them together.” So it is that integrating the two in the moment.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (16:00):
And then related to that, I also know City Year tries to work on this, it’s this idea that in the literature on social-emotional, there’s a little bit of a debate going on between like, it’s the best approach, like direct skilled development where we build you a set of skills through experience and exposure and so forth, or is it creating really strong classroom learning environments? And in that environment, it lets this development thrive.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (16:27):
And the truth is both matter, it’s not this thing that, but the interesting thing, when you even put both those together, there’s a lot of unexplained other areas that are impacting social-emotional development that are not explained by just those two. And what the surmise is on this one is it’s really responding to kids in the moment when they’ve had a bad day for some reason, or a good day too it’s positive reinforcement, but it’s more like, “I just got into a fight. I just failed a test. I just got teased.” If you’re able to connect with them in that moment and sort of redirect and build, that’s the third pillar of social-emotional development.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (17:12):
And again, City Year being present with the kids throughout the week in the school year, and others who do that are much better positioned to respond to be in the moment, than say someone, and this is not to put this down this is a positive thing. You know, see somebody in a mentoring relationship once a month, that has a lot of value, but it’s different value than being able respond to in the moment when stuff happens.

José Magana (17:39):
So I’m hearing consistency, immediacy, and differentiation. So meeting the needs of our students immediately and being consistent about it.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (17:49):

José Magana (17:50):
Awesome. Now, I know we’re going to have some parents tuning in, some teachers tuning in. For those folks, what sign should parents or teachers be on the lookout for with students returning to in person learning?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (18:04):
Again, I think some of these are pretty clear, but it’s good to remind you all, if a kid is priorly like schooling and doesn’t like it anymore, that’s a pretty good thing. If a student had done well in school before and is not doing well, if students were gregarious and are now quiet, these are all the signals. On the school side, this is an important thing, which is that we know that everybody experienced the pandemic, but everybody experienced it differently. Even kids in the same household, even neighbors on the same street. So we can’t tell just by looking at a kid or knowing like, “Oh, you live in this part of town.” What their actual needs are going to be.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (18:51):
So we really have to use like the early warning or on track indicators like of attendance and engagement and course success to sort of progress monitor everybody, because it’s going to show itself in different ways and kids are going to have different needs at different times. And it may manifest itself in initially in missing school, or coming to school, but not getting work done, or coming to school and putting your head down. And we need to be aware of those signals because then we know it’s time to talk to the kid and figure out what’s going on and then we can get the supports they need.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (19:25):
As opposed to saying, “Well, everybody’s going to need tutoring, and we’re going to have a three day orientation about social-emotional development, and that will take care of everybody.” And those are both good things to have, but we really know, and this comes from our prior learnings on poverty, but it’s a not similar thing, which is that kids in those situations are going to have good days and bad days and good weeks and bad weeks, and it’s not going to be linear. And so just because they’re okay now doesn’t mean they’re okay two weeks from now. And just because they’re struggling now, doesn’t mean they won’t be okay in two weeks. And so it has to be this much more constant progress monitoring on some key indicators to be able to know when kids are raising their hand and saying, “I need some help here.”

José Magana (20:11):
Thank you for are naming some of those key indicators, because I know as a parent too, granted my little ones are very, very little, but I want to make sure I’m prepped for when the time comes. We’ve talked about key indicators that teachers and parents could pick up. I’m thinking now for our principals, our district administrators, maybe even school board members, how can we redesign our schools to really meet the 21st century needs that are at play? And how do you think schools can implement SEL practices on their campus to really make it normalized? Because as we know-

Dr. Robert Balfanz (20:43):
Yeah, so three things count, one is this, I think the lived experience for everybody under the pandemic that learning is social-emotional. So we have to really see that each helps the other. They’re not like, “I could do this or I could do that.” And that’s what we found in that data on all the City Year sites is that social-emotional developments lead to academic developments. And the more time kids spend with a corps member, the more time their social-emotional development. And you could actually see from that, multiple pathways to academic improvement, there was like a direct pathway from like, “I’m working with you on math,” that was one pathway. Another pathway is, “I’m working on you on social-emotional skills,” that was another pathway.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (21:28):
And then a third was because I’m doing those two things you’re coming more often. And that was the third pathway into achievement. So this idea that they’re not an either, or they’re not like, “To do one, you have to take away from the other.” It’s really, “If you do them well, each supports the other and you do better overall.” So that’s I think the first takeaway why to do it.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (21:50):
To get to it, I think it’s sort of being strategic in two ways. One is that we have to have time for adults in schools who know kids in common to collaborate and share their wisdom about those kids, because every adult knows a different part of that kid’s story. Just the way we organize schools with teachers with 120, 130 kids in short periods, it’s not conducive to one person learning 130 kids stories well.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (22:17):
But within that building, people have different pieces of the puzzle that you could know the 130 kids well, if there’s a space for the teachers to come together and share that knowledge and that’s sort of to be built into the schedule, it’s got to be seen as part of school work, not something that happens in the hallways or after school, it has to be seen in… And that’s when you could also do a lot of your early warning and intervention work also in that time.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (22:41):
And then the third one is really where City Year and others like it come in is really recognizing that in your most impacted schools, the most where serving communities that have been historically underserved, serving communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic, that’s almost unfortunately always one and the same; is that they need additional person power to make the human connections, the human relationships that drive all of this, that enable the kids to feel known, that enable them to do prosocial activities, that enable them to feel that they belong and they’re welcome, to enable people to build social-emotional skills and support in the moment.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (23:24):
There just are not enough adults in the building to meet the level of need that exist in that space. And schools weren’t designed to have 200 kids and this can happen easily in schools that serve these neighborhoods that need a good lesson every day and a great teacher and something else. And so to do that, we have to use organizations like City Year or AmeriCorps to bring additional person power and embed them in the school in an integrated way, not just on the side, not just after school, not just once a week just to have the person power so we can reach all those kids, and not say, “We’re going to reach as many as we can and hope for the best for the others.” We have to redesign away from that, which is sort of where we are now, if we’re honest.

José Magana (24:13):
So again, being intentional is key and making sure we’re reaching the needs of our students is what I’m hearing you say, and the integration-

Dr. Robert Balfanz (24:21):
Have enough people to do it.

José Magana (24:23):
Yeah. To truly integrate it. I can tell you too, as a teacher, too, how challenging it was to say, “Do I teach ELA today or am I doing SEL?” But you named it, you can do both and you need to do both, because that’s ultimately what is best for our students, that’s phenomenal. And any other tips that you have maybe for any teachers or any folks when it comes to implementing some of these practices in their classroom, or even sharing tips with families?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (24:55):
It all begins with a relationship, that really is the superpower. And sometimes you have to just find the simple way and like share your hobby, or just some common thing to begin with and then build from. And we’re all human, and we all like it when somebody we think knows and cares about us as a person, but we need to create structures that enable that. So in some cases that can be a well run advisory. In other cases, there’s various tools out there for like relationship mapping, where you just try to figure out who are the kids that know no one quite touches. And then can we find a group of adults to go and start building that relationship with them.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (25:35):
I think the other thing to say that that helps too, is that you had mentioned this, is that, and this is especially true in stressful times, is kids also create consistency. So it’s really establishing some solid routines and rituals that are supportive of like academic and social-emotional and a sense of belonging. And I think one of the things, I believe this came from a City Year corps member telling what a teacher was doing, which was that they found that in the Zoom environment that many kids had their screens off and it was all dark, until they would start and just ask a more general question to start of the day, everybody felt they could talk about, but not like in you’re not being judged on your answer.

Dr. Robert Balfanz (26:20):
So again, just finding ways to start a conversation and participation has value, even if it might seem like, “Oh, that’s not part of the lesson.” But getting people engaged and feeling comfortable talking at the start of the lesson, builds a lot of energy to build upon for the whole day. Whereas everybody’s being quiet and reserved and like, “I don’t want to be called on because I don’t know it.” Creates a different type of energy.

José Magana (26:46):
That’s amazing. I know that can go for anyone who’s tuning in whether it’s a classroom teacher, whether it’s a parent, it’s a sibling, whoever it is, you named it. Human connection is key and that relationship of just feeling good of, “Hey, you know something about my personal life does go long way.” So thank you for sharing that. And thanks again, Dr. Balfanz I know your expertise has just not only helped shape City Year, but other educational institutions and schools throughout the country, and your support has really helped us serve the students that we serve today. And we appreciate everything that you’ve done and continue to do. And just want to give any space. Is there anything else you want to close us out on, or anything else you’d like to share to our listeners?

Dr. Robert Balfanz (27:31):
If the risk of repeating myself, or repetition is good is that just to remember that learning is social-emotional, and this idea of school connection that someone knows and cares about you as a person, supportive peer group involved in helping others, and you feel welcome for who you are. If we put that together, our students will thrive through the pandemic and beyond.

José Magana (27:56):
That is an awesome way to summarize everything Dr. Balfanz, I really appreciate it. Thank you again for everyone who has tuned in today to CY Speaks. Please be on the lookout for our next episode and tune into our previous ones. Also friendly reminder, please remember to wear a mask, wash your hands, and if you are able to, we really encourage you to please get vaccinated. Thank you again, and tune into our next episode. This is CY Speaks.



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