Skip to main content

Gunning for Grades

There's more to education than academic success. In a tough inner-city district in the US, a radical experiment is putting students' emotional and social development first - and improving their grades in the process. Reva Klein reports

A class of African-American seven-year-olds at Martin Luther King Elementary School are discussing anger. "What makes you angry?" asks the teacher. Voices burst out.

"I get angry when people take me away from my family."

"I get angry when people steal things from my house."

"You can get angry when someone in your family dies."

"I got angry when someone killed my brother," says one boy, to gasps from the other children.

The school is in New Haven, Connecticut, the fourth poorest city in the United States. It is a place where infants run a gauntlet of drug dealers on their way to and from school, where HIV is widespread, where many children live with their grandparents because their parents are either bombed-out on drugs or dead, where gangs, guns and violence are a way of life - and death.

New Haven is a city of glaring social inequality, whose wealthy suburbs are home to Yale university, and whose urban decay is surrounded by the affluence of Connecticut, one of the most prosperous states in the US.

But New Haven is taking radical steps to arrest its decline.

Back at the lesson at Martin Luther King School, the teacher remains unfazed. She calmly goes through the children's contributions, discussing their feelings and reasons for being angry. Then she asks for "things you could do to cool down when you're mad". Together, they go over the stoplight model. The red light is stop and cool down. The yellow light is wait and think about the problem. The green light is go - talk about it. Observing the stoplight code is essential for surviving a normal day at school, at home, and out on the streets.

"You see that pair of shoes hanging from the telegraph wires outside that house?" asks Nancy Charest, pointing to a ramshackle wooden building on an eerily deserted street. "That means there's drugs for sale inside. It's like gold balls displayed outside a pawnbroker's."

Nancy Charest is an adviser on New Haven's social development programme. She trained the teacher at Martin Luther King in the social and emotional curriculum which is mandatory in the 27 elementary and middle schools of the New Haven district.

New Haven is the only district in the US with a department dedicated to social and emotional development. Its innovative social development programme has brought together the two halves of the city - the leafy suburbs of prestigious academia and the mean downtown streets.

It was a professor of psychology at Yale, Dr Roger Weissberg, who developed the social and emotional curriculum used in New Haven. The Yale Child Studies Centre carries out the assessments, the programme development, the counselling for pupils, and the training for police officers who work in schools with children who have been exposed to violence.

The programme dovetails with the ideas of cutting-edge theorists such as Professor Howard Gardner (Multiple Intelligence) and Dr Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) in recognising that a purely academic curriculum addresses only one part of a child's intelligence, and that children cannot fulfil their potential in school or as adults unless they feel good about themselves and can get on with other people.

The programme teaches children skills such as decision-making; peer relationships; problem-solving; resisting drugs and alcohol; stress management; self-control; preventing violence; and sexuality.

"The programme started in 1990 because we saw that kids weren't doing as well as they could academically because of social issues," explains Karol De Falco, head of the social development programme in middle schools. "At that time, 50 per cent of eighth graders (14-year-olds) weren't graduating from high school. We had the fourth highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country, and drug abuse was high."

The then superintendent of schools called together Yale academics, teachers, parents and religious and community leaders to isolate the problems and reverse the downward spiral. "They were able to identify eight common denominators, " says De Falco, "including the lack of impulse control, low self-esteem, difficulty in understanding people different from themselves, and a poor grasp of values like friendship and justice." From this analysis sprang the social development programme.

Research indicates that the programme has helped to bring about significant improvement in students' behaviour and academic results. The Social and Health Assessment report, carried out every two years by the school district, reveals particular success between 1992 and 1996. Among New Haven's 2,370 sixth, eighth and tenth graders (aged 12, 14 and 16 respectively) the survey found that:

* Numbers saying they "felt safe at school" rose from 49 per cent in 1992 to 67 per cent in 1996.

* In 1992, 41 per cent of sixth-graders said they would fight if they were put down verbally in front of friends; in 1996 the figure was down to 31 per cent.

* In 1992, 22 per cent of 16-year-olds said they had carried a gun outside school; in 1996 the number had fallen to 9 per cent.

* In 1992, 28 per cent of sixth-graders reported having had sex; in 1996, it was only 20 per cent.

Similar reductions were reported in the numbers of children in gang fights and carrying knives to school.

Academic performance has also improved. The number of 12-year-olds having to repeat a grade fell by 10 per cent between 1992 and 1996, and there were marked improvements in writing skills. All the other verbal and non-verbal subjects tested also showed gains.

But, for teachers in New Haven, academic success is just part of the story. As Gina Wells, headteacher of Welch Annex Elementary School, says: "My main focus isn't on raising achievement. We've got 15 five-to-seven-year olds here on Prozac, Ritalin (for attention deficit disorder) and anti-psychotic drugs. I've got one seven-year-old who has been sexually abused half a dozen times and others whose fathers are in jail. What we're doing is empowering children to make the right decisions.

"The kind of achievement I'm proud of is, for example, when one of the six-year-olds stopped his little brother from picking up a loaded 78 that was lying around at home. It happened the day after a lesson on gun safety. "


Although there is nothing in this country as comprehensive and embedded in the education system as the New Haven programme, there are many innovative schemes for the emotional and social education needs of British children.

BT Forum disseminates information and runs seminars, conducts research and produces documentation.

Antidoteis another prominent organisation in the field.

Jenny Mosley and her team of consultants work with the entire staff of a school to raise their morale, using a highly-structured circle-time model that is followed, in separate sessions, by children, teachers and lunchtime supervisors.

The Place to Be is a charity that works with primary children in three London education authorities and in one school in Kent. Volunteers trained in art therapy, psychotherapy, play, drama and movement therapy are supervised by project managers.

BTForum, Holborn Centre, 120 Holborn, London EC1 2TE. Tel: 0171 492 8787 Quality Circle Time, Jenny Mosley Associates, 8 Westbourne Rd, Trowbridge, Wiltshire BA14 0AJ. Tel: 01225 767 157 The Place to Be, Room 3034, Edinburgh House,154-182 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5DP. Tel: 0171 820 6487 Antidote, Upper Floor, 99 Shirland Road, London W9. Tel: 0171 266 4548 HOW HAVEN HELPS THEM

A typical class among nine-year-olds at Martin Luther King School includes a session on empathy. The teacher asks two boys to come to the front of the class, and the others have to identify the situation they are enacting. They are not allowed to speak, so have to rely on facial expressions and body language. As an elaborate charade is played out by the two "actors", their classmates offer interpretations. Stress? The boys shake their heads. Sadness? Wrong again. Give up? The answer is "relief".

Next, the teacher shows the class a series of photographs documenting the feelings experienced by a girl starting at a new school. She asks the children for their interpretations. (Everyone in the class makes a contribution, and no wonder: the Martin Luther King School has a 30 per cent pupil turnover each year.) The teacher then asks children who have themselves moved schools to talk about what it felt like to be a new kid at school. "You feel like everyone's staring at you all the time," says one. Another says: "I was too shy to talk to anyone for weeks, and it became like a kind of habit." A third child says he found friends quickly because "it's easy when you play basketball".

The other children are asked to say what it's like having a new classmate. A couple talk about how they felt too awkward to make the first approach.

As a lesson in empathy - in putting yourself in another person's shoes - it is dynamic. It makes the children look at things from someone else's perspective. And, most importantly, it is designed to encourage them to reconsider their own behaviour the next time they are in a similar situation.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you