Important study provides research support for the Nurtured Heart Approach in schools – By Howard Glasser

When teachers, principals and school counselors first show up to learn the Nurtured Heart Approach, they are often focused on a “micro” level of change. They want to help certain at-risk children to follow the rules instead of challenging authority at every turn. They want to increase teaching time and gain tools for interacting with students to promote individual success.

Once they get the wheels under the approach and start working it in the classroom, they are often blindsided by much broader benefits.

(When I use the term “blindsided,” I mean this in the best way. Imagine being blindsided by a finding that you’ve won a large sum of money.)

The main shift these educators experience has to do with a dramatic shift not only in individual students’ abilities to follow rules and achieve joyfully, but in the ‘culture of the entire classroom.’

As teachers master the use of the approach, their students begin to imitate this new way of relating. And as anyone familiar with this approach knows, the sheer pleasure of this new way of interacting makes it self-reinforcing. Positivity and refusal to engage the negative settle into every participant in the classroom, creating an uplifting classroom climate that’s often about calling out greatness.

Considered intuitively, it seems natural that this kind of shift in climate creates fertile ground for better learning and higher achievement: fewer Children Left Behind.

Thus far, a handful of scholarly educational studies have found links between social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and higher achievement.

A recently published study on the subject gives a big boost to the conclusion that SEL programs are needed to help kids achieve academically. More exciting than this is the fact that it appears to have particular impact on the most challenged schools.

The study, “A Climate for Academic Success: How School Climate Distinguishes Schools That Are Beating the Achievement Odds,” was conducted by Adam Voight, Gregory Austin, and Thomas Hanson, with support from, the American Institutes for Research, and the California and U.S. Departments of Education.

In their research, the authors identified schools that were performing better than would be expected – so-called “BTO” (Beating the Odds) schools.

It’s a sad reality that children from poorer homes are much less likely to succeed in school, and that the strongest variable linked to academically successful schools is higher socioeconomic status. This relationship is so tight that it is possible to predict a school’s likely standardized test scores based on the average socioeconomic status of its students. It follows that the schools with the lowest socioeconomic status (and, incidentally, the most English language learners, a variable linked strongly with poverty) can expect to have the lowest standardized test scores.

(No Child Left Behind? More like Every Other Child Left Behind.)

BTO schools were those that consistently performed better than predicted on these tests. Of 1700 middle and high schools in California, Voight, Austin and Hanson were able to identify 40 BTO schools. Then, they went in to figure out what gave these schools a leg up. Guess what it was?

School climate.

The study used a measurement of school climate developed by independent researchers working on the Safe and Supportive Schools Program. It measures things like supports and engagement, high expectations, caring relationships, meaningful participation, perceived school safety, school connectedness (including respect), low violence/victimization/substance use, low harassment and bullying, and low truancy incidents. Then, it plugs all of these variables into a complex formula to yield a climate score.

Overall, average BTO climate scores measured in the 82nd percentile. Other schools where poor outcomes were expected (and achieved) fell in the 49th percentile.

Levels of personnel resources, student-to-staff ratio, levels of education and experience among staff, and percentage of tenured, credentialed teachers played some part, but the most important variable by far was school climate. When these variables were factored into the analysis, the impact of school climate was a little less, but it was still large enough to be highly significant.

An added bonus: other studies, along with this one, show that positive climate → increased academic achievement AND healthier behavioral outcomes.

The authors conclude: “School climate is a malleable factor that schools or districts are able to manipulate. Expansion of programs designed to improve school climate could result in increased success for a broader number of schools. School climate may be part of the solution for helping schools beat the odds.”(Emphasis mine.)

Great teachers alone can’t make the difference for a school that wants to beat the odds. This study showed that effect sizes for school climate were double that of personnel. In other words: school climate scores had twice the impact on the likelihood of a school’s ability to beat the odds, compared with the effect of great teachers.

All too often, teachers with the best skills and intentions find themselves swimming upstream against a school culture that doesn’t allow them to do much more than act as referee, policeperson and force-feeder of curriculum. This study clearly indicates that shifting school climate creates fertile ground for great teaching to catapult students into their own greatness.

Based on their discoveries, the researchers recommend whole-school implementation of prevention approaches that “involve all staff in the installation of a behavior management system and student social-emotional learning approaches that rely on classroom social skills instruction.” This is where the Nurtured Heart Approach comes in.

The Nurtured Heart Approach is, at its core, an SEL program that emphasizes relationship skills. Although it works as a behavior management system too I personally wince at those words because for me it’s actually an Inner Wealth program. Its focus is on creating strongly positive, supportive and uplifting relationships. And so much more comes from that golden point of contact.

Said another way: the Nurtured Heart Approach is the relational approach to experiencing the connectivity that this study suggests is an essential ingredient in successful school cultures. Through relationship, we cultivate the other two important aspects of school climate identified by these researchers: good leadership and good teaching. Nurtured Heart opens students’ minds and hearts to the impact of these other factors.

Even if I’m the only person on the planet to feel this, I believe every child can be an Inner Wealth billionaire.