One of the great failures of high schools, my favorite subject, is the lack of effective training in productive behaviors and attitudes, such as cooperating, being on time, making eye contact, speaking persuasively, offering suggestions and focusing on tasks.

Many educators are trying to develop programs that teach these traits. Some call this character education, which has been around for decades. A few schools and school systems have made progress. Most have not.

Now a study offers renewed hope. An approach called social and emotional learning (SEL), which trains students to think and act in positive ways, can make a significance difference in school achievement, according to this research. The next step will be to see if it has the same effect on life and work after graduation.

I saw a piece by Sarah D. Sparks in Education Week and looked up the report, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions,” by Joseph A. Durlak and Kriston B. Schellinger of Loyola University Chicago and Roger P. Weissberg, Allison B. Dymnicki and Rebecca D. Taylor of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It is in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development.

Meta-analysis means research that examines many small studies and tries to see they point in the direction of a larger point if taken together. The researchers found that students in social and emotional learning classes improved by 11 percentile points in classroom grade and test scores compared to similar students not in such programs.

That was a statistically significant gain, the study said. It concluded that students in the courses also did better than similar students on important measures of personal traits. These included greater social skills, less emotional distress and better attitudes, less misbehavior indicated by suspensions and bullying and more frequent positive behavior such as cooperation and helping other students. The effects continued at least six months after the programs ended, according to the studies.

The study said “SEL programs are successful at all educational levels (elementary, middle and high school) and in urban, suburban, and rural schools, although they have been studied least often in high schools and in rural areas.”

Why should training in behavior and attitudes affect academic achievement? The authors offered several explanations. “Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges,” they said. “Students who set high academic goals, have self-discipline, motivate themselves, manage their stress and organize their approach to work learn more and get better grades.”

There was something noteworthy in the later pages of the report about the programs with the best results. Prominent advocates of this kind of training were startled last fall when the Institute of Education Sciences reported that seven of the most popular character education programs did not produce significant social or academic gains. The Child Development report found similarly disappointing results from the broad-ranged programs that tried to encourage better behavior and attitudes through participation by all school staffers and parents.

Results were better from smaller programs conducted by just classroom teachers. Those simpler programs produced improvements in academics and all five social measures. The more comprehensive programs showed no significant gains in social-emotional skills and positive social behavior. “More complicated and extensive programs are likely to encounter problems in implementation,” the study said.

So the message is: If you are an energetic teacher who wants to encourage better behavior using the SEL model, go for it. You can get good results during the months or years that your school or district tries to launch something grander.

The research team, led by Durlak, looked at 213 school-based studies. The schools involved had 270,034 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About half of the studies had random selection of students for the study group and the control group, making their results less likely to be the result of different characteristics of the two groups.

The authors reported initial positive findings in 2007 but then reanalyzed their work after removing data from studies of bullying behavior---a hot topic these days. They confined the results in this report to programs that were focused only on behavior, not academics, and took place during the school day. The most effective programs in that smaller group were those that had a carefully designed step-by-step sequence, included active learning like role-playing, sufficient time to focus on each lesson and explicit learning goals, the authors said.

Just because SEL approach works does not mean many school districts are using it, the authors conclude. In my experience schools adopt, or fail to adopt, programs for many reasons—finances, politics, personalities, whim---that have little to do with how much they help children.

That suggests it might be time to require that policymakers themselves undergo SEL training. With more positive attitudes at the top, we might get somewhere.