Did You Know that SEL Emerged Because of A Black Man? The True History of SEL

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

This is part one of a two part series. Dr. James Comer, graciously obliged to the writing of this article and will share his story in part two. Thank you Dr. Comer for paving the way for a Black man like me to follow in your footsteps. To the youth who march onward and upward, this is respectfully dedicated to you, my dear fraternal brother.

Dr. James Comer - a name you should know. You might have heard his name in passing. You might have even read an article mentioning his name and quickly glanced over it. But why should you know about Dr. James Comer? For starters, some people consider him the godfather of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)... Oh yeah, and he’s a Black man! That’s right; the godfather of Social Emotional Learning is a Black man.

Dr. James Comer was the first African-American to become a full professor at the Yale School of Medicine. He currently serves as the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and the Associate Dean at the Yale School of Medicine.

His pivotal research project paved the way for the eventual emergence of Social Emotional Learning... and again - he’s a Black man.

Yup, the person responsible for the emergence of Social Emotional Learning, is a Black man! Why does this matter? Because most of the literature and history as it relates to SEL leave out Black voices and their contributions. Much of the available SEL history might include a short sentence, perhaps even a paragraph, acknowledging the work of Dr. Comer. However, the SEL literature rarely, if at all, explicitly gives attention to Dr. Comer being a Black man who was raised and worked during one of the most racially hostile eras (spanning the 1930s - 1980s) in American history. Yet, out of this era, Dr. Comer’s work centered on uplifting Black people out of poverty through social and emotional development.

As stated, most of the available SEL literature provides minimal historical context of why Comer's contributions, especially during the 1960s, were meaningful. I will give some historical context of what was happening during the 1960s. Then, I will provide a brief overview and introduction to Dr. Comer’s landmark research. By doing so, I hope that you will develop an understanding of how his work inspired other prominent researchers, ultimately leading to the development and movement known today as SEL. Perhaps, even more importantly, I simply hope to show how the field of SEL emerged from the work of a Black man with intentions to improve outcomes for Black students. Here are the origins and real history of SEL...

Who is James Comer?

James Comer was born in Indiana, September 25, 1934. He was raised by both parents and had a host of brothers and sisters. He attended Indiana University in 1952. Fun fact, he pledged the oldest Black Fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Fraternity, Incorporated. He even served as the chapter president!

Dr. James Comer featured in The Sphinx, a publication of Alpha Phi Alpha, Fraternity, Inc in 1973

After graduating from Indiana University, he decided to attend the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Howard University School of Medicine. He went on to earn his M.D, and instead of practicing medicine, he wanted to address the social conditions which were plaguing Black people during the 1960s. Consequently, he attended the University of Michigan, where he got his degree in public health, which he intended to use to address those social conditions plaguing Black people directly.

He then went on to train at the Yale School of Medicine and was eventually invited in 1968 to lead the New Haven Intervention Project. Let’s take some time to look at the historical context of what was happening in Connecticut during the 1960s.

Racial Tension in Connecticut During the 1960s

Beginning in the late 1960s, researchers in the fields of education, child development, and public health began focusing on ways to improve outcomes for children. The focus was on increasing attendance rates, reducing behavior problems, and improving academic performance. Researchers, educators, and professors worked collaboratively to find the most effective means to improve student outcomes for Black students. But why? Why was there even a need for researchers, public health officials, and policy-makers to focus on improving outcomes for Black students? I argue that there was a need to focus on improving outcomes for Black students as a result of hundreds of years of systemic oppression, racism, and discrimination towards Black people. During the 60s, the good Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., frequently talked about a pathology Black people developed as a result of enduring hundreds of years of slavery. More explicitly, this pathology systemically orchestrated perpetual and relentless racism, racist policies and ideals, denial of economic power, denial of opportunity, housing discrimination, and racial segregation.

As a consequence, the historical pathologizing of Black people since the inception of slavery, the denial of economic justice post-slavery in conjunction with racial segregation, housing discrimination, racist policies, and persistent violence on Black bodies, led to a definite psychological toll on the psyche of Black people. The historical pathologizing of Black people resulted in poor outcomes, increases in conduct disorder, increases in emotional distress, and ultimately poor academic achievement for Black students.

The bedrock of this research to improve outcomes for school-aged youth was taking place in Connecticut, during a time when racial tension was rampantly high. Unsurprisingly, this elevated racial tension reflected what was happening on the national landscape. This era was one of the most divisive, tumultuous, and significant decades in American history. This decade consisted of political assassinations (MLK, Robert, and John F. Kennedy), the Vietnam war, the brutal mistreatment of Black people, protests, and riots. Many white residents in Connecticut migrated towards the suburbs. Housing discrimination prevented Blacks from shifting to the suburbs, along with the white folks. As a result, Blacks became racially segregated and restricted to cities like New Haven and Hartford.

This racial imbalance led to higher concentrations of Blacks living in poverty. Consequently, Black people experienced discrimination in employment, were restricted to unsafe living conditions, had less access to healthcare, experienced higher rates of crime, more violence, and attended racially segregated schools. This racial segregation eventually manifested as a problem within and across Connecticut public schools. This issue was so pressing that the State Board of Education had no choice but to take action. The state and its officials called on help from Harvard University and none other than Dr. James Comer - A Black man.

A Black man with a Plan to support the “Whole Child”

In 1968, Dr. Comer and his colleagues at Yale University’s Child Study Center designed an intervention project for poor Black students attending two elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut. At each elementary school, the students were ninety-nine percent Black, and almost all were poor. Each school ranked near the bottom in achievement and attendance within the district. In addition to poor performance and low attendance, each school also had severe problems with discipline and behavior concerns. Consequently, the staff was unhappy evident by a 25% turnover rate. Dr. Comer described the parents of students as being dejected, distrustful, angry, and alienated.

He planned to examine ways to improve outcomes for poor Black students at each of the elementary schools. He hypothesized that merely focusing on improving test scores alone would not result in a better school or increased academic achievement. Instead, he emphasized a focus on the “whole child,” an approach centered on addressing the unmet needs of students, which would lead to improved academic achievement.

This intervention project spanned from 1968 to 1980. Dr. Comer worked with a social worker, psychologist, and special education teacher to examine the relationship between a student’s experiences at home and school. At the core of this project, his team investigated how the relationship between a students’ home and school impacts their academic achievement. It’s important to note that this project derived from Dr. Comer’s belief that a child’s home life directly affected his or her development, which, in turn, impacted their education. In his seminal 1988 article, Educating Poor Minority Students, Comer stated...

“I began to speculate that the contrast between a child’s experiences at home and those in school deeply affects the child’s psychosocial development and that this, in turn, shapes academic achievement. The contrast would be particularly sharp for poor minority children from families outside the mainstream”.

He held the belief that the failure to bridge the social and cultural gap between home and school may lie at the root of poor academic performance for minority students from high-poverty communities. Dr. Comer recognized that as long as developmental and social issues were left unaddressed, that any educational reform would have, at best, only limited benefits for poor minority youth. This context is essential, especially when you take into consideration the racism, violence, segregation, and discrimination occurring during the 1960s.

Dr. Comer recognized the racial trauma experienced by Black youth and that they don’t have the same educational, economic, and political opportunities. Moreover, Dr. Comer noticed and considered the harmful impact discrimination and segregation had on Black students. He believed addressing developmental issues of poor Black youth as well as acknowledging the detrimental effects of racism and bigotry inflicted upon Black people, would lead to a systemic way to improve outcomes for Black youth. This belief was the basis of his School Development Program. Dr. Comer founded the School Development Program based on the core belief that social development and learning (sounds close to social-emotional learning, right?) were inextricably linked. Moreover, when you bring the two together, you can prevent, address, and resolve any concerns.

Focus on Social Development

Dr. Comer and his team began conducting observations at the New Haven elementary schools. Based on these observations, he concluded a student's experiences at home and in school would profoundly affect their psychosocial development. Dr. Comer believed a student's experiences across home and school would, in turn, shape their academic achievement. He also thought that a child had to develop a strong emotional bond with a competent caretaker (in most instances, a parent) to thrive. Importantly, if students did not form a healthy, loving relationship with a responsible caretaker, then this would disrupt the child's development. As a result, students with unaddressed developmental needs, especially poor Black youth, would almost always end up with poor academic achievement, less favorable outcomes, and fewer economic opportunities.

A key component of Dr. Comer’s intervention project was promoting prosocial development and learning through building supportive bonds between children, parents, and school. Moreover, Dr. Comer believed the key to academic achievement was to promote psychological development in students and that students' social development was as important to society as their academic ability.

The Success of the School Development Program

As previously discussed, Comer and his team intentionally focused on the integration of social development and learning as well as intentionally preparing students for life. The focus and approach of the School Development Program produced remarkable results. The two schools, which initially ranked lowest in academic achievement across 33 elementary schools, rose to the top (ranked third and fourth) within five years. Also, students' attendance rates improved to first and second across the district. The school also saw a significant reduction in behavior problems across both schools.

By 1980, academic achievement at each of the schools had passed the national average. Truancy and disciplinary problems had significantly declined. Dr. Comer was able to replicate the success he found in the two schools in more than 50 schools. According to Comer, the critical elements of success in the New Haven schools included staff, parents, and the community coming together, collaborating, and figuring out the needs of the students. More specifically, some critical components of the program included a focus and creation of a governance and management team within the school, a robust parents’ program, and a mental health team charged with addressing the unmet needs of the students as well as their families.

Dr. Comer, a Black man, member of the oldest Black Fraternity, graduate of Howard University, had established a way to develop the social-emotional needs of Black, low-income students. His approach helped staff to be sensitive to the developmental needs of children. Staff in the New Haven schools also gained an understanding that behavior problems resulted primarily from unmet needs as opposed to intentional bad behaviors.

Based on his work at the two New Haven schools, Dr. Comer showed that appropriate action could be taken by educators to meet the needs of Black students from low-income areas. Dr. Comer and his team of researchers developed a systematic way to improve outcomes for Black youth and students living in poverty.

Comer's research paved the way for researchers such as Roger Weissberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, and Timothy Shriver, a graduate from Yale who was also an educator in the New Haven school system. Shoutout to Dr. Weissberg and Dr. Shriver, who both have done essential work to advance SEL. It’s important to note that Dr. Comer paved the way for the likes of Shriver and Weissberg. Shriver went on to coordinate the district-wide SEL program in New Haven, Connecticut. Shriver and Weissberg worked closely together between 1987-1992.

Within this span, researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers came together and eventually created the Collaborative to Advance Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) founded at Yale in 1994. Then, Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence in 1995, which took SEL mainstream. Shortly after that, Weissberg, Shriver, and seven other researchers went on to co-author a pivotal book, Promoting Social Emotional Learning, which dropped in 1997, and ultimately popularized the field of SEL as we know it.

Dr. Marc Brackett, Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has even acknowledged the importance of Dr. Comer’s early work within the field. Dr. Brackett proclaimed

“the movement to educate the whole child began 50 years ago here in our state, launched by Dr. James Comer at the Yale Child Study Center. From the seeds Dr. Comer planted, myriad approaches to SEL have sprouted across Connecticut ''.

Without a doubt, Comer's approach to developing the whole child has sprouted not only in Connecticut but across the nation.

In 1996, CASEL moved from Connecticut to Chicago and officially changed its name from the Collaborative to Advance Social Emotional Learning to the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning. To this day, CASEL is the gold standard of SEL. CASEL recently released an SEL roadmap to support schools across the country safely reopening as a result of COVID-19. They’re a great resource. But never forget, the work of CASEL and other such organizations would never have happened without the pivotal work of Dr. James Comer.

Never forget the original name… a Black man by the name of James Comer. When people tell the history of SEL, when people write their history books, be sure to say this Black pioneers name - Dr. James Comer.

Be sure to follow @lessonsforsel across all social media platforms as well as Dr. Byron McClure on Twitter - @Schoolpsychlife

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