In a kindergarten classroom at Wade Park Elementary School this spring, students huddled around their teacher in a tight circle while she held up cards that said "proud" and "ashamed" and explained to them what it's like to feel those emotions.
"I felt proud when I graduated from college," she said.
The children had started the day by writing one-word descriptions of their emotions on the classroom's whiteboard, completing the prompt, "Today I feel," with words like "happy," "love," and "tired" in shaky penmanship.
The simple morning classroom exercises are a small part of a data-driven, districtwide social-emotional learning plan in Cleveland that aims to boost students' ability to make responsible decisions, regulate their own emotions and behavior, and build healthy relationships with their peers.
As a growing body of research links such competencies to higher academic achievement, school systems such as the 40,000-student Cleveland district have started to take notice.
It is one of eight large, predominantly urban districts that have committed to a multiyear initiative that is allowing researchers to study their systemwide social-emotional learning programs. Such programs blend evidence-based classroom curriculum with school climate improvements and efforts to infuse social and emotional concepts into the teaching of traditional subjects like history.
In Cleveland, for example, posters illustrated with colorful stoplights hang on the walls of elementary classrooms, advising students how to talk through problems.
Social-emotional lessons are taught in a district-prescribed sequence, similar to traditional learning objectives. Elementary teachers use a curriculum called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. High schools have adopted varied approaches, including using history and writing assignments to help students share what they value and care about.
Each school has designated teams of staff members to lead social-emotional-learning efforts, work with families, and coordinate student supports.
Throughout the district, rooms previously used for in-school suspensions have been converted into "planning centers," where teachers refer misbehaving students to talk through problematic or disruptive actions as an alternative to traditional discipline.
Every district brings a unique approach to the multidistrict initiative, which is led by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. What sets Cleveland apart is its use of data.
Teachers and principals at the district's 96 schools rely on students' responses on "conditions for learning" surveys, administered online three times a year to grades 3-12, to guide their work. The surveys are akin to formative assessments, but instead of gauging student progress in math and reading, responses help educators size up whether students feel safe, supported, and challenged, and how students think their peers stack up socially and emotionally.
"We are constantly looking at the data," Wade Park Principal Janet McDowell told leaders from other CASEL districts who came to observe her classrooms in the spring. "I meet with the teachers weekly."
Cleveland school leaders developed their social-emotional-learning strategy after a 2007 school shooting. In that incident, a 14-year-old gunman shot two students and two teachers at one of the district's alternative high schools before killing himself.
Afterward, the district built up its safety hardware, installing more equipment like metal detectors to make buildings safer, said Eric Gordon, the district's chief executive officer. But leaders also recognized a need to build emotional safety and supports for students, a strategy they refer to as "humanware."
The district began using the conditions for learning survey in 2008 after it worked with the Washington based research and evaluation organization American Institutes for Research to identify its strengths and weaknesses in supporting students.
The AIR initially proposed using the survey—which was first developed for the Chicago school district—just once to gauge students' perceptions, said David Osher, an AIR vice president and the co-director of its health and social-development program. But leaders instead opted to administer the survey repeatedly to track the district's work. Some other districts take annual surveys on issues such as school climate, but few are as extensive or administered as regularly as they are in Cleveland.
The plan has buy-in from the district's teachers' union, which agreed to include the survey results in its differentiated-pay plan. If a school shows agreed-upon amounts of growth in several areas of the survey's results, every union member in the building gets a small stipend.
"I imagine over time, people will be doing this more," the AIR's Mr. Osher said of Cleveland's data-driven approach. The U.S. Department of Education will soon release a free survey that districts can use to measure factors like student safety, support, and comfort at school, he said.
Teachers and principals said that building supportive school environments and nurturing so-called "soft skills" can be challenging in high-poverty districts like Cleveland, where all students receive free and reduced-price lunches.
Situations outside of school—often related to poverty, crime, or community conflicts—can make it difficult for students to focus in the classroom, teachers said.
The city's police department has been singled out by the U.S. Department of Justice for using overly aggressive tactics, leading to a sense of distrust in low-income and predominantly African-American communities. Last November, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been a student in the district. That shooting, along with events in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have sparked national conversations about race and the limits of police power.
In advisory sessions with teachers held as part of the district's social-emotional-learning program, high school students, many of whom know the Rice family, talked about their own experiences with police and the family problems they carry with them into the classroom, principals said.
As the district prepared for a potentially controversial verdict in another police-shooting case in May, administrators worked with teachers to hold classroom conversations to discuss students' feelings about the case, as well as larger race and justice issues.
"In an urban district, we cannot control what happens outside of school," Christopher Broughton, the district's director of research and evaluation, told school district leaders from across the country who observed Cleveland's programs in May. "But, if inside school, students feel this is a safe haven, this is a place where they can grow and be challenged, we've done our job."
Cleveland's leaders describe the development of the district's social-emotional learning strategies as an ongoing process. They've learned a few things along the way.
For example, high school students score their schools much lower on conditions for learning surveys than their younger peers. That may be because they have higher expectations or because such strategies are harder to implement in secondary schools, high school principals said.
But Mr. Osher believes data collected between 2008 and 2013 indicate the strategy is proving its merit. Those data show a strong correlation between growth in students' responses on the conditions for learning survey and performance on state-administered tests, he said.
AIR researchers are also working to analyze the work of the other districts participating in CASEL's initiative: Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Oakland, Calif.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Washoe County, Nev.
As part of the initiative, those districts will each receive a total of $1.6 million from the NoVo Foundation over six years to plan and help implement their social-emotional-learning strategies, said Melissa Schlinger, CASEL's vice president of programs and practice. (Funding from the NoVo Foundation helps support Education Week's coverage of social-emotional learning.)
The initiative's immediate goal was to determine if it's possible to implement social-emotional learning districtwide in a large school system, Ms. Schlinger said. Preliminary research shows that it is. Using staff and student surveys, interviews, and observations, researchers found high levels of fidelity in program implementation in participating districts, despite such challenges as changes in superintendents since the initiative began.
They also found drops in discipline rates, improved attendance, and, in many cases, improved academic performance in schools with higher levels of implementation.
The broader discussion about social-emotional and noncognitive skills has accelerated among both policymakers and educators since the initiative launched in 2011, Ms. Schlinger noted.
That new focus has led to state laws focusing on "whole child" issues, improved school climate, and social-emotional-learning programs. On the federal level, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would allow federal professional-development funds for teachers to be spent on training for social-emotional-learning programs.
In Cleveland, Mr. Gordon, the CEO, said he's made it a habit to call newly appointed superintendents in districts with social-emotional learning programs to say "you have important work that you need to know about on day one of your new job."
And leaders of the CASEL districts hope others can learn from their successes and struggles if they decide to adopt similar approaches.
"I don't know that there's any one right starting point from our experience," Mr. Gordon said. "It is about an intentionality, and it's about just starting."