School Development Program

Dr. James P. Comer and his colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center began to create the School Development Program (SDP) in 1968. The SDP is the first reported school intervention program in which the test scores, behavior, and attendance of poor and/or socially marginalized students improved dramatically. Also, it was the first intervention in which the application of child and adolescent development principles was used school-wide to create interactions and/or relationships that prepared students to learn, and to begin to take responsibility for their own learning; and enabled teachers, school staff and administrators to support student personal development and learning.

This work began at a time when many scientists, educators, and lay-persons alike believed that schools could not help low-income, and/or socially marginalized students because they lacked the social capital necessary to be successful in school. Comer, a child psychiatrist, and his team, in collaboration with the New Haven Public Schools, disproved this viewpoint. The Comer team assumed that the students were able in all ways needed to be successful, but that that they had not had the pre- and out-of-school experiences needed to be successful in school; thus, they were differently or underdeveloped. They helped school staff and parents identify multiple and changing building-level challenges to supporting development; then put in place a framework that allowed the school stakeholders to address the challenges in an organic, orderly, collaborative fashion.

They created relationship experiences and a culture in school that helped students grow along six developmental pathways needed for school success—social-interactive, psycho-emotional, ethical, cognitive, linguistic and physical—thereby providing them with the kind of social capital most mainstream students receive before and outside of school. An innovative strategy, called The Social Skills Curriculum for Inner-City Children, was used to integrate child development and academic content. These teacher led curriculum units, that involved students and often parents in the planning, engaged our low-income, socially marginalized students with the kind of experiences that promote executive function and social skills that many mainstream children acquire in their families.

The school staff was then able to integrate development and learning and to help students begin to take responsibility for their own learning and behavior. The outcome was that relationship and behavior problems were sharply decreased and academic achievement was greatly increased. And simultaneously the adult stakeholders promoted their own growth and development. 

The SDP approach was and is sharply different from most other approaches where developmental issues are largely ignored and resultant behavioral problems—still largely expected behavior for children still undergoing brain maturation—are judged as intentional and “bad” and managed largely with punishment, counseling or treatment; and under development and/or little motivation for learning is viewed as a lack of ability. Behavior that interferes with useful performance is not responded to in a way that aids brain maturation and promotes student grow.

The transformation process has been codified so that it can be taught to new participants, used to keep participating programs on track, and disseminated to other places; and used at all levels of educational systems.

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