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Kernels of Learning

A new approach to social-emotional skills: bite-sized strategies and flexible resources
Two boys doing school work

What are the best ways for schools to help children develop strong social-emotional skills, the key building blocks for a successful, productive life? To investigate, researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education are taking a novel approach — providing elementary schools with a range of free, flexible strategies for social-emotional learning (SEL), letting schools choose which strategies they want to use, and then testing their effectiveness, alone and in combination.

Over the last 30 years, a large body of work has shown that children who are skilled at recognizing feelings, dealing with conflict, and exercising self-control are more likely than peers to succeed in school and to do well in life. And educators are paying increasing attention to social-emotional skill building.

The problem they face is a lack of convincing guidance or feasible options when it comes to finding SEL interventions that work. Even in cases where interventions have shown promise, there is no conclusive evidence about how they work, or which program will work in which setting and with which students. HGSE Associate Professor Stephanie Jones wants to fill this gap by exploring the mechanisms through which high-quality SEL programs exert their influence and foster new skills. 

To do it, Jones and colleague Richard Weissbourd, an HGSE senior lecturer, are taking what she calls a “kernels” approach. They will curate a set of 12 to 15 of the most promising SEL strategies currently being used in evidence-based programs and offer them to schools. The schools will choose from among these kernel-sized strategies, based on their needs, and Jones and her team will provide training and technical assistance to launch the strategies into practice and then evaluate the outcome.

The Kernels Approach

Kernels are specific activities that have been shown to bring about specific behavior changes. Here are three examples focused primarily on elementary school, taken from earlier published research by Dennis Embry and Anthony Biglan.

  • Turtle technique for calming down
    Using a turtle metaphor, child holds self, breathes through nose, and engages in verbal or sub-verbal self-coaching to calm down
    SEL Domain:
    Managing emotions and behavior
    Behaviors affected:
    Reduces arousal and aggression against peers or adults
  • Non-verbal transition cues
    Visual, kinesthetic, and/or auditory cues to signal a need to shift attention or tasks in a specific, patterned way
    SEL Domain:
    Cognitive flexibility, attention, understanding social cues
    Behaviors affected:
    Reduces dawdling, increases time on task and engaged learning, gives more time for instruction
  • Peer-to-peer written praise
    Children write praise for peers on a pad, wall display, or photo album (and/or read them aloud)
    SEL Domain:
    Prosocial behavior, conflict resolution
    Behaviors affected:
    Social competence, academic achievement, violence, aggression, physical health, vandalism

Why Kernels?

Jones, who directs the Ecological Approach to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory at HGSE, says she’s motivated in part by the paucity of free, adaptable interventions for schools to access and employ. The evidence-based programs currently available are mostly large and prepackaged, and they come at a cost that is sometimes prohibitive, especially for low-income schools and communities.

What’s more, the needs of individual schools vary, so social-emotional programs should be adaptable to each school’s context, demands, capacities, and goals. And schools, organizations, and funders who want to invest in improving children’s SEL skills have few means of easily browsing the available options or comparing different SEL programs.

A kernels approach can address all that. It can also shed light on which individual components are the key ingredients that contribute to a program’s effectiveness — or whether it’s the combination of ingredients that makes the difference.

Kernels in Action

Jones and her team are working with HopeLab and four public elementary schools in South Carolina to implement and refine a set of “Brain Games.” These games, originally developed by Jones and her colleagues as part of a preK–3 SEL intervention called SECURe, give students opportunities to build their executive function and self-regulation skills in a fun, engaging, and consistent way. Brain Games also give teachers specific language to use when talking with students about these skills (referred to as “Brain Powers”), including questions that will encourage metacognition and improve children’s internalization and transfer of skills.

Jones’s team will also provide ongoing support to educators — offering training, helping them identify data collection tools, and monitoring the implementation of Brain Games to track quality. 

What This Means for You and Your School

Over the next five years, Jones hopes to build a series of partnerships to design and test SEL kernels that meet the needs of specific schools and other community organizations working with young children. To partner with Jones and her team, contact Rebecca Bailey at the EASEL Lab.

Additional Resources

Austin Matte, Ed.M.’15, is a researcher in the EASEL lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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