Empathy and Optimism Research

At Momentous Institute, we talk all the time about social emotional health. We say, “This stuff matters” and “This stuff works!” As a researcher, I wanted to substantiate these claims with data. So I began a research study about the effects of our social emotional curriculum on academic outcomes.

By Karen Thierry, Ph.D. Director of Research | Sep 21, 2014
Empathy Optimism

At Momentous Institute, we talk all the time about social emotional health. We say, “This stuff matters” and “This stuff works!” As a researcher, I wanted to substantiate these claims with data. So I began a research study about the effects of our social emotional curriculum on academic outcomes. I wanted to see the difference between kids who had experienced four full years of mindfulness and social emotional curriculum vs. those who had only had one or two years. I tested skills including empathy, optimism, perspective taking, emotional control, and mindfulness. The students completed a survey every year with questions such as, “I often feel sorry for other kids who are sad or in trouble,” “It’s easy for me to understand why other people do the things they do,” and “There are different ways to think about a problem and I try to look at all of them.” Students rated their answers on a scale from  1-5. I then compared these results with the students’ state standardized test scores in reading and math.
 
Here’s what the data showed:
 
Empathy and optimism predicted academic success in students. That is, as a student’s empathy scores increased over time, so did his/her reading and math test scores. Even when we ran a control for other variables, such as demographics, family income, etc. empathy and optimism remained significant predictors. This tells us that empathy and optimism, that is, a child’s ability to take someone’s perspective and to feel hopeful in the face of defeat, are  important predictors of his/her academic success.
 
I had another valuable finding in this study. The results were only significant for students with three or four full years of the social emotional curriculum, not for those with one or two years of the curriculum. What does this mean? It means that repeated, long-term exposure to social emotional health is important. It won’t work if we pop in a lesson here or there on a few grade levels in a school. It works when the entire school is working together and building off each other’s work.
 
And as a researcher, I believe that assessing social emotional health is important. As we add social emotional programs to schools, we need a method to assess the effects that this has on students. We have assessments for a variety of subjects, and I think it is equally important to understand the social-emotional data as it is the academic data. In fact, we might find (as I did) that the two are related.