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New Research Shows Why Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Education Are Not Enough


With my two books and constant blogging about Social Emotional Learning/Character Education, it’s obvious that I’m a big believer on its importance for our students. It’s critical for our students to strengthen their appetite for learning, their self-control, their perseverance, etc.

At the same time, as Mike Rose writes in the Christian Science Monitor, Character education is not enough to help poor kids :

…it is difficult for enrichment programs alone to lead to educational mobility. Children from poor communities need social policy that involves schools and enrichment programs, but also need programs to address the conditions that devastate students’ lives: poor nutrition and healthcare, inadequate housing, parental unemployment, violent streets, and a dysfunctional immigration system. When we ignore these broader conditions, we turn an ungenerous scrutiny on the children themselves.

Coincidentally, new research has just been published that backs up this position.

The research paper, Poverty and Self Control, takes issue with a common belief that many low-income people are poor because they don’t have traits like self-control. Instead, it finds that that poverty causes a loss of self control:

…the chain of causality is circular, and poverty is itself responsible for the low self-control that perpetuates poverty….policies that help the poor begin to accumulate assets may be highly effective…

Even though a large portion of the paper is highly technical, and not particularly accessible to a layperson like myself (and its PowerPoint presentation is not that much better), here’s my understanding of what they found….

If you don’t have many assets, and you’re used to the environment of living on the edge, then self-control really doesn’t offer that many benefits — as Janis Joplin sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” — you might as well give in to your whims because not giving into them doesn’t really pay off based on your experience (instead of Joplin, the researchers quote Bob Dylan, ” When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”)

On the other hand, if you have some economic (or, I’d suggest, non-economic assets, too) assets, and you’ve experienced the benefits of them, you want to work to keep them.

It makes sense to me, but certainly doesn’t negate the importance of doing whatever we can to support our students to develop these traits (though let’s not grade them, please).

But it does reemphasize the value of teachers, schools and families working together to push for the types of changes Mike Rose suggests in his piece, and I suggest in my book on family engagement, to attack the root causes of the challenges faced by our students….

I’ll add this post to The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry, Chuckling due to your humbleness. Your students are fortunate to have a teacher who is a lifelong learner and contributor. I too would describe myself as both and working on my first “adjunct” to the curriculum – a writing guide for creating stupendous sentences. (BrainGarden Word Book) Because one good sentence and another good sentence then becomes a paragraph! Invite me to your school for a workshop – and be wowed!

  2. Perhaps progressives should push for new money, not for direct welfare, but for a modest nest egg of cash that people could access when they are 25.

  3. Larry–I GREATLY appreciate the thread and commentary you have created here about the relationship of poverty, trauma, and cognitive behavioral learning. However, a partial quote jumped out at me, because it may be wrong-headed. it was the one that said that poverty causes lack of self control and that in itself re-creates poverty (words to that effect). What causes poverty is greed and predation by the rich–impossibly low wages, marginal healthcare, substandard housing, etc. The OWNING class causes poverty, not the lack of self control of the poor–whatever that is. [BTW-it takes a lot of self control to go to work at McDonald’s every day, or to work at a call center where you get abused by customers all day…] We need to stop seeking the causes of poverty in the individual personality traits of the poor–and look at the personality traits of the rich, such as greed, racism, ignorance.

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