Research evidence is suggesting that early achievement gaps for disadvantaged students are linked to gaps in a set of early foundational skills that are largely learned outside of direct school instruction. According to David Grissmer, research professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, socio-emotional skills (SEL) are part of a base of skills that are foundational for students’ later academic success. Other skills include executive function, visuo-spatial — a child’s ability to perceive and replicate visual information — and curiosity-based acquisition of general knowledge.
“Disadvantaged children have substantial developmental gaps in these skills at kindergarten entrance that makes academic learning more difficult, leading to achievement gaps”, Grissmer said. “However, we are learning that there are ways that these foundational skills can be taught in after-school and summer programs, during the school day and in the home environment. But we need stronger evidence that improving these skills leads to improvement in academic learning.”
Grissmer led teams of researchers that conducted a multi-year evaluation of the effectiveness of an after school program to teach children socio-emotional skills developed by a non-profit organization based in Charleston, South Carolina called WINGS for Kids. Social-emotional learning supports students’ ability to develop self-awareness, relationship skills, social awareness, self-management and responsible decision-making and engage in less impulsive negative behavior in classrooms. Ginny Deerin, the program CEO from 1996-2010 and Bridget Laird (2011-present) developed and improved the program using the best research available to structure a three-hour after-school program for children from K-5 in four inner-city Charleston Schools. The highly regarded program won a competitive grant for $3.6M to expand the program beyond Charleston.
The research team, including Laura Brock, associate professor at the College of Charleston, Andrew Mashburn, professor at Portland State University and Chelsea Duran and others from UVA’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) were funded by grants from the Institute of Education Research and the Social Innovation Fund to evaluate the effectiveness of the WINGS program using a random-control design.
During the six-year study, three cohorts of children entering kindergarten at participating schools were randomly selected to participate in WINGS and were followed for two years through the end of 1st grade. Children’s SEL and academic skills were tested at school entry, the end of kindergarten and the end of first grade. Teachers and parents provided ratings of each child’s skills at each time-point enabling this data collection to support comprehensive studies of developing foundational skills during kindergarten and 1st grade for high-risk urban children.
For students participating in WINGS for two years, the study found significant gains in teacher-rated classroom behavior and social-emotional skills, as well as child-tested executive function and reading measures. Teacher measures that showed significant improvement included self-regulation, decision-making, relationship skills, self-awareness, self-management, less bullying, less externalizing and hyperactivity, and closeness to and less conflict with the teacher. Child tested executive function, as well as two measures of reading (naming vocabulary and letter-word identification) also showed significant effects.
According to Grissmer, the 20 to 35 percentile point skill gains is sufficient to substantially narrow gaps in these important foundational skills for disadvantaged children, and the transfer to reading skills emphasizes the importance of these skills to academic learning.
“We also found that the length of time in this program mattered,” Grissmer said. “We saw small or null effects for students after one year but saw these significant and comprehensive gains after two years of participation.”
According to the researchers, this is significant as the prior research examining SEL programs were most often limited to one year. The study suggested that past research may be underestimating the potential impact of longer term socio-emotional programs.
“Because children have the opportunity to enroll in WINGS as kindergarteners and could participate through 5th grade, it is possible to see an even greater range of growth over six years than what we were able to record in our study,” Grissmer said. “The impact of the program may also extend beyond the student attending since the improved skills and classroom behavior of WINGS children may enable an improved classroom environment for learning by all students.”
The study recommended initiatives that could allow more children to participate for more years leading to even larger effects.
“The high household mobility rate for families living in under-resourced urban communities or neighborhoods often meant changes in schools for children to schools not offering the WINGS program,” Grissmer noted.
The researchers suggest that a school district-wide implementation of WINGS could lead to a substantial increase in children receiving two or more years of WINGS participation.
The parent survey suggests that the skills learned in WINGS transferred more easily to better behavior in the classroom than the home. The researchers’ parent survey recorded the ongoing turbulence and stress present in these inner-city families from more frequent changes in housing, jobs, income, health, and relationships that often made high attendance at WINGS difficult. WINGS emphasized to parents that high levels of weekly attendance was necessary to get the benefits of the program.
While WINGS parents reported high satisfaction levels with the program, they also reported somewhat more stressful lives than the parents of the control group whose children returned home after the normal school day. Researchers attribute this increased stress partly to the long school day attended by WINGS children- particularly for kindergarten children- and associated tiredness at the end of the day which could be challenging for parents.
“While teachers may be able to more objectively and accurately rate children’s skills against their peers for a full school year, parent rating might reflect less transfer and less visibility of these skills in the more challenging home environment,” Grissmer said.
According to Grissmer, after-school and summer programs may have an advantage over in-school programs for building socio-emotional and other foundational skills due to their complete focus on these skills without the demands of the already tightly packed school day. The team’s results would suggest that after school socio-emotional programs that can coherently focus on a set of small and large group activities allowing bonds to be built between teachers and children during 2-3 hours after school over two years can change the learning trajectories for urban at-risk children. “Loosely structured sets of activities without a central focus and small-group bonding opportunities may be less effective,” Grissmer said.
The project was funded by the Institute for Education Science (IES) and the Social Innovation Fund (SIF).
The report can be downloaded at https://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/evidenceexchange/WINGS_FinalReport_updated_May2019_508.pdf