Does Supporting Teachers' Well-Being Improve Student Outcomes?

By Rachel Chapdelaine

Cultivating children’s social-emotional learning (SEL), such as self-awareness and decision-making skills, can lead to higher levels of achievement and more positive relationships, research shows. But how successful are teachers at promoting SEL in students if they lack strong skills themselves? A new study at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development will evaluate whether improving teachers’ SEL skills makes a student-focused SEL curriculum more effective.

The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded a $4.4 million Education Innovation and Research grant to the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). The grant will fund Project CATALYZE: The Impact of CARE + PATHS on Students’ Success, a five-year study that will examine whether the well-tested PATHS Curriculum is more effective at improving student outcomes when teachers receive the professional development program Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE). 

Project Catalyze takes an unprecedented approach to improve children’s SEL skills. “As far as we are aware, this is the first attempt to evaluate whether supporting the SEL skill development of the education workforce provides additional benefit beyond that of using a student-focused SEL curriculum alone,” said Patricia Jennings, a professor of education at CASTL and the lead investigator of Project Catalyze.

For the study, CASTL researchers will select 40 low-performing elementary schools from a pool of 250 schools. All first- through third-grade teachers will deliver the PATHS program to their students, but only half of the schools will receive both the CARE and PATHS program. 

According to Jennings, stress can interfere with the effective use of social, emotional and cognitive skills for both teachers and students. In low-performing schools, the stressors associated with low-resourced neighborhoods often translate to high levels of stress in the classroom, which in turn can impair children’s learning readiness and make it challenging to successfully implement SEL programs.

“Unfortunately, the professional capacity among teachers in most low-performing schools is often not sufficient to support high-quality implementation of SEL programs. Teachers’ own social-emotional competence is required to not only deliver the SEL curriculum but to model such skills and engage in classroom processes that support quality instruction, effective pedagogy and SEL,” said Jennings.

Jennings hypothesizes that the CARE program will enhance teachers’ SEL skills and well-being, improve the quality of curriculum implementation and classroom interactions, and as a result, improve students’ SEL skills, engagement, motivation and academic achievement.

“When teachers have strong social-emotional skills and can build supportive relationships in addition to delivering an evidence-based curriculum, the SEL program may be more effective in supporting student outcomes, especially in low performing schools,” said Jennings. “This is incredibly important, because students with strong SEL skills and feelings of connection with their teachers and peers are more likely to manage their stress effectively, engage in instruction and learn successfully.”