The broader picture

SEL and the Comer Process – Fay Brown, Christine Emmons, and James Comer explain how six key areas, including social and emotional development, are vital to academic success and healthy development

A CENTRAL THESIS of the School Development Program (SDP), or Comer Process, is that children and adolescents grow and develop along six critical pathways: physical, cognitive, social, language, ethical, and psychological; and that because development and academic learning are inextricably linked, improved learning follows improved development.

What we know
● Social and emotional development is inextricably interconnected to development along other critical pathways.
● Through planned mediated activities such as morning meetings, students’ problem solving skills, their learning, and their development can be greatly enhanced.
● In schools where a developmental understanding permeates the culture, there is a greater likelihood for student success.

The SDP’s structures and processes, particularly a School Planning and Management Team (SPMT), enable schools to cultivate conditions that promote the development of students along these pathways. The Student and Staff Support Team (SSST) has particular responsibility for helping the school address students’ needs along these pathways; but it is the responsibility of all the adults, including parents, to provide the support to mediate students’ growth and development along all the pathways.

Pathway goals

  • In addressing the physical pathway, the goal is to help children and adolescents acquire and use knowledge that will promote their physical health.
  • In addressing the cognitive pathway, the goal is for children and adolescents to increase their capacity to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information; and to use information to effectively solve problems.
  • In addressing the social pathway, the goal is to help children and adolescents to increase their capacity to build and maintain healthy relationships.
  • In addressing the language pathway, the goal is to help children and adolescents to increase their capacity to understand and effectively communicate in a variety of contexts.
  • In addressing the ethical pathway, the goal is to help children and adolescents to increase their capacity for behaving with justice and fairness, and to make decisions that promote their well-being and the collective good.
  • In addressing the psychological pathway, the goals are to help children and adolescents develop a strong, positive sense of self and to increase their capacity to manage their emotions well.

The psycho-emotional and social pathways are closely interconnected in that an individual’s feelings of worth and competence, as well as the ability to manage emotions, are developed in large part through interactions with others. Conversely, self-confidence and self-control make for more rewarding social encounters. Every encounter is a potential growth experience. The social pathway makes engagement possible, and the psychological makes connections meaningful. But engagement and meaning would not truly be achieved without the language and the cognitive. Nijae, a 10-year-old from one of our network of schools in the U.S., perhaps expressed this point best: “Social is a lot of things: it is some of the ethical, some of the psychological, and some of the language. Social is like all the pathways.” In other words, to be socially competent, one needs a healthy dose of each of the other pathways. Nijae went on to say: “I like the language because if you don’t watch how you talk to people, then they are going to react in a bad way; and you won’t want to get into any fights with them or anything. But the ethical pathway is my favorite because I don’t like when some people are rude or mean to others and disrespect them. You wouldn’t like if someone does that to you, because I wouldn’t.”

Mediating development through morning meetings

Teachers use several approaches to help their students improve along the pathways. In some of the elementary and middle schools in our network, several teachers report finding morning meetings to be a most useful strategy for building community, resolving conflicts, establishing class norms and procedures, and teaching citizenship. The origin of the concept of class meeting is credited to John Wesley (1703–91), the founder of Methodism, and the goals remain similar. Through class meetings, teachers encourage students to share their problems, challenges and successes, seek help with finding solutions, and celebrate successes.

Regarding her use of morning meetings, Mrs. Gail DeBlasio, Nijae’s teacher, comments: “The opportunity to share frees the students up to be able to learn. I think there are fewer students out there who are upset, who are angry, and who are otherwise occupied because they can get things off their minds in morning meetings. And that is not to say that we can solve all the problems in morning meetings; but, it is to say that someone is listening. And just knowing that someone is listening is somewhat cathartic and they are able to concentrate better. So really for me, the benefit [of morning meetings] is that I have fewer behavioral issues because kids aren’t acting out because they are upset; and I have more kids on task and paying attention because they are not otherwise occupied with problems and concerns that nobody is listening to.”

These comments are supported by responses of students from her class regarding the impact of the morning meetings and the focus on the developmental pathways. Several of the students reported their improved ability to solve problems effectively. Micha notes, “Morning meeting helps me to face up to bullies and to speak to them, because when we talk about our problems instead of getting into physical contact with that person, we can solve the problem by speaking instead of fighting.” Shemar states, “Last year I used to get into a lot of trouble, but when I learned about the Comer pathways, I changed.” He noted that the pathways that helped him were “the cognitive, the language, and the social” [because] “I learned how to think before I act.”

Another student, Mehkai, noted, “At the beginning of the year, I had a lot of problems with other people to control myself. So because of morning meetings, after a while I got better in controlling myself and solving my problems.” Brianna adds that she learned about the importance of tone of voice, “It’s not what you say to a person, it’s how you say it to a person. If you say something to a person in a mean way, they are not going to listen to you, but if you say it in the correct tone of voice, in a nice way, it will make them want to help you and be your friend.”

Assessing the impact

Survey results support information from interviews that teachers’ focus on the pathways is related to students’ development along them. In the fall of 2007, teachers in eight schools (four high, three middle, and one intermediate) across three districts completed the Teacher Development and Instructional Strategies Survey (TDISS). Students completed the Student Development Survey (SDS). The schools’ scores on the TDISS variables were correlated with their scores on the SDS variables to examine the relationship between teachers’ emphasis on the pathways and student behavior. We found that:

  • In schools where teachers put greater focus on the psychological and cognitive development of the students, both male and female students are more likely to report greater focus on their language, psychological, and cognitive development.
  • Students reported feeling more confident, believing they can do things well, taking pride in themselves, interacting more easily with their peers, and knowing how to problem-solve effectively.

About the authors

Fay E. Brown is an Associate Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Child and Adolescent Development for the Comer Process.

Christine Emmons is an Associate Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Program Evaluation for the Comer Process.

James P. Comer is the Maurice Faulk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and Founder of the Comer Process/School Development Program.

Further reading

Yale School Development Program Staff (2004), Essential Understandings of the Yale School Development Program. In Comer JP, Joyner ET, & Ben-Avie M, Transforming School Leadership and Management to Support Student Learning and Development: The Field Guide to Comer Schools in Action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Brown FE, & Corbin JN (2004), Child Development: The Foundation of Education. In Comer JP, Joyner ET, & Ben-Avie M, Six Pathways to Healthy Child Development and Academic Success: The Field Guide to Comer Schools in Action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.


February 2010