The day I visited Austin, half of the 90-minute MAPS class was devoted to unveiling students’ life maps—art projects that depict a future career goal and the steps necessary to get there. “It seems simple,” Matheny said. “But kids will take these maps home and put them on their bedroom walls. Sometimes they become really important parts of their lives: They’re visual reminders of what they want and how they’re going to get there.” The other half of the class time was devoted to defeating “victim-itis.” The students read “Invictus,” a poem that was significant to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. As they exited the classroom, they high-fived Matheny at the door and recited the last two lines of the poem:
“I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.”
Much of the recent SEL interest can be linked to two seminal studies. In 2011, a meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in a well-implemented SEL program versus students who didn’t. And in 2015, the economist Clive Belfield and colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University published a study in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis that demonstrated a roughly $11 benefit for every $1 spent on a rigorous SEL program. Just about every way to measure student success shows SEL can work. At Austin High, discipline referral rates have been cut in half, and graduation rates are at an all-time high.
Matheny has been at this awhile, long before he even knew the term “SEL.” He developed the initial version of MAPS in 2009. The class was based on a sports-psychology seminar he’d taught to college students for 13 years. That material just happened to dovetail with an interest of Meria Carstarphen, who was the school’s superintendent at the time and the original force behind bringing social-emotional learning to Austin. On Carstarphen’s watch, Austin became one of the first school districts to partner with CASEL. Today, Matheny is the coauthor of a high-school SEL curriculum, and Austin High has become a sort of SEL pilgrimage point. More than 300 educators over the last few years have visited to witness firsthand a model SEL class.
Austin High has two SEL-dedicated teachers, Matheny and his colleague Leslie Oduwole. SEL is delivered as the year-long MAPS course available to freshmen, it’s meted out in smaller doses during “advisory”—a sort of homeroom that all students have—and it’s infused in the culture and climate of the school. So even during a math or science course, students are encouraged to use SEL concepts like goal-setting or perseverance.
Research on SEL says the approach can be effective for kids in urban, suburban, or rural schools, regardless of their academic standing. Matheny said he’s particularly blown away, however, by how effective it is for students who have struggled. For example, Daniel, an 18-year-old Austin High senior, who has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety since the age of 9 said of SEL: “It took me a while to warm up to it. But once I did, I learned how to study, how to stay organized, how to have a planner.” In MAPS, Daniel and the other students learned about goal setting, resilience strategies, and nifty hacks such as the Pomodoro Technique, which Daniel said helped reduce his academic stress and anxiety. Most important perhaps, the coursework included calming and focusing techniques and simple breathing and mindfulness exercises, which Daniel now uses daily. He became so enthusiastic about SEL that he started teaching it (part of Austin’s program involves student-led instruction). He’s now Austin High’s valedictorian, and this fall he will be heading to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to run cross country for his new school: Harvard.