Social and Emotional Learning, School Climate, and School Safety

A Randomized Controlled Trial Evaluation of Tools for Life® in Elementary and Middle Schools

by Gabriella C. Gonzalez, Jennifer L. Cerully, Elaine Lin Wang, Jonathan Schweig, Ivy Todd, William R. Johnston, Jessica Schnittka

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Research Questions

  1. In what ways did the implementation of TFL vary across schools?
  2. What hindered or facilitated implementation?
  3. Was TFL associated with improved school climate?
  4. Was TFL associated with improved student social and emotional competencies and positive pro-social behavior?
  5. To what extent did program impacts differ across grade, gender, and income subgroups?
  6. To what extent was program exposure associated with improvement?
  7. What were the costs associated with implementing TFL in JPSD?

Tools for Life®: Relationship-Building Solutions (TFL) is a program designed to improve school climate and safety through the proactive development of elementary and middle school students' interpersonal skills (relationship-building and communication) and intrapersonal skills (self-regulation and resiliency). In the 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 school years, the Jackson (Mississippi) Public School District (JPSD) implemented TFL in grades 1 through 8. RAND researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine whether TFL, integrated into existing school practices, positively affected school climate and safety in the district. In this report, they describe the implementation of TFL in JPSD, calculate its costs, and evaluate the program's effectiveness.

TFL is designed to improve whole-school change in relationships among staff and students, but the authors found that implementation of TFL in JPSD schools was generally shallow, and the program was rarely, if at all, implemented across a whole school as it was designed. TFL had little impact: After one year of implementation, there were no practically or statistically significant differences between schools that implemented TFL and those that did not in measures of students' social and emotional, school climate, behavioral, or achievement outcomes. In addition to the uneven implementation of the program, the authors discuss how methodological limitations of the study and contextual factors in JPSD may have contributed to these findings.

Key Findings

Tools for Life had little impact

  • After one year of implementation of TFL, there were no practically or statistically significant differences between schools that implemented TFL and those that did not in measures of students' social and emotional, school climate, behavioral, or achievement outcomes.

Implementation of TFL was uneven across schools and, in many cases, reportedly shallow

  • School administrators and staff adopted some aspects of the program, but ongoing instruction about TFL concepts was left to guidance counselors (in elementary schools) and to social studies teachers (in middle schools).
  • TFL lessons were reportedly not clear; many staff said that they had little idea about how exactly to implement the lessons.
  • Student surveys indicate that exposure to various TFL materials and lessons varied widely across treatment schools, and also between treatment and control schools.
  • Interviews and focus group discussions with school staff and leaders indicate that TFL was rarely, if at all, implemented across a whole school as it was designed.

TFL was relatively expensive to implement

  • TFL cost approximately $174.31 per year, per student, which is relatively expensive compared with similar programs studied in other cost analyses.

Several situational factors may have limited TFL's potential

  • Differences in outcomes between treatment and control schools might be limited because both groups were receiving other programs designed to improve student SEL and school climate.
  • JPSD experienced several stressors during the TFL implementation, including superintendent and principal turnover, the dissolution of its school board, and the Mississippi department of Education's audit of the district's performance.
  • A large number of parents and guardians in JPSD did not consent to have their children participate in the study, and it is possible that the program would be more effective for these students.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The Design of Tools for Life Implementation in the Jackson Public School District

  • Chapter Three

    Implementation of Tools for Life: Perspectives of Key Stakeholders

  • Chapter Four

    The Impact of Tools for Life on School Climate and School Safety

  • Chapter Five

    The Cost to Implement Tools for Life in the Jackson Public School District

  • Chapter Six

    Key Findings and Implications

  • Appendix A

    Randomization Process to Select Treatment and Control Schools

  • Appendix B

    Student Survey Items

  • Appendix C

    Technical Appendix for Implementation Study of Six Focal Schools

  • Appendix D

    Data Collection Protocols for Implementation Analysis

  • Appendix E

    Auxiliary Tables

  • Appendix F

    Interview Protocols for Cost Analysis

This research was funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by RAND Education and Labor and RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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