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Rigor, Relevance, & Reality: Education Collaboratory at Yale Advancing SEL Science & Practice

November 17, 2023
by Linda Torv

In July 2023, YCSC Assistant Professor Christina Cipriano, PhD, together with her colleagues and collaborators, launched a new, independent research lab, the Education Collaboratory at Yale. The lab is committed to advancing the science and practice of social and emotional learning in schools worldwide. In this Q&A, Cipriano shares some insight into her journey and about her team’s work.

What brought you to the field of SEL and education?

Growing up my parents instilled in me and my three siblings a deep commitment to education as a means of opportunity and access. My dad, who went to school through the 8th grade, would always remind us to stay in school, love learning, and when you have a question, ask your teachers! They are the experts and there to help you succeed. It's no surprise that all these years later, I am a champion of educators and their expertise!

Lately, I have been asked a lot how I got into the field of SEL. The truth is, the way I see it, the field found me.

I was fifteen years old and a sophomore in a large public high school in suburban Long Island when the Columbine school shooting happened on April 20, 1999. The first mass school shooting to make national attention, I was struck by how the school and community was responding to it. Our high school and many others nationwide quickly banned the wearing of leather jackets, trench coats, and studded belts, and started profiling students based on what they were wearing while working to install metal detectors. These reactionary behaviors were concurrent with the mass media blasting and damning certain types of rock music.

So, I wrote a letter to my local Congressman and asked why the schools on Long Island were profiling students rather than working to address the actual issues at hand – restoring our safety. The letter, that included a snarky line that the gunmen were wearing underwear too, why aren’t you banning that, and why is it based on what you can see, won me an award, an invitation and the honor to meet then President Clinton, and to be an author of the first national Youth House Resolution Against Violence. I returned from Washington and spent the next two years of high school rolling out peace games, anti-bullying pledges and programming across the district and neighboring communities in the region.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001, I stood in the café on campus at Hofstra University on the first day of my undergraduate education and watched the second plane crash into the tower live on a little square TV on CNN. After two weeks of shut down, as our campus became a hub for first responders going in and out of Manhattan for recovery efforts, I was struck by the racial and ethnic profiling I was witnessing in the media and in our community. I volunteered as a campus ambassador for Facing History and Ourselves and facilitated community building and bias training sessions to support healing and safety for all students and their families.

If space allowed, I could continue to share one experience after another across my life where I intersected with discrimination, bias, and hate and leaned into the discomfort to effect change and promote justice, equity, and inclusion through social and emotional learning. It was not until I was a doc student at Boston College that I had a phrase for the work I was deeply committed to – Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) – and from then on, across my development and life I have been invested in ensuring all students, families, and communities are safe to learn and thrive in school.

There is not a day where I am not grateful for the path I have traveled to the privilege I have today to learn and grow alongside students, teachers, and communities nationwide. The collaborative work of our team to advance the science and practice of SEL is our calling and evidenced by our deep commitment to build the field’s way forward at this critical inflection point.

Tell us about the Education Collaboratory. How did this new lab come to be?

As an applied education scientist, I’ve been learning and leading in the education field for nearly two decades. Most recently, I incubated the foundation for the Education Collaboratory for five years as Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence under the frame of the “Division of Research”. During this transformational time for the field of SEL and our collective research, I supported the expansion and built out our rigorous and relevant research agenda. Now as a fully independent entity housed at Yale, the Education Collaboratory is built upon intentional collaboration with students, educators, leaders, and organizations to investigate, inspire, and address questions in the Who, What, and How of inclusive and equitable SEL.

Our science is leading the national discourse to evolve the definition of SEL alongside a burgeoning field by undertaking critical evidence synthesis, identifying promising practices for inclusive and equitable implementation and evaluation of SEL in school settings, and supporting the next generation of data practices through novel SEL assessments and community-based approaches to intervention science.

Dr. Chris Cipriano

We are a thought leader and catalyst for evolution in the fields of social and emotional learning, educational measurement, and implementation science. Our collaborative science is currently organized in three main areas:

1. We intentionally center the experiences of students, educators, and families that are marginalized in the school community in our collaborative research projects. Marginalized populations are students, educators, and families in the school community with minoritized racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexual, or disability identities and the intersections there within. Our work seeks to support conditions for learning, teaching, and thriving for all marginalized students, educators, and families.

2. We are committed to advancing the science of evidence synthesis for the field of SEL. What counts as evidence? How do we understand and support access to contemporary evidence that is transparent, inclusive, and meaningful for the diversity of SEL stakeholders? What methods can be employed to support translational science for SEL to support the proliferation and evolution of evidence-based practices in SEL implementation and evaluation?

3. We are deeply invested in the co-design, building, and evaluation of meaningful measurements of discrete and necessary SEL assessments that support the SEL field in understanding and connecting the dots in their respective and collective SEL implementation journeys. Our measurement portfolio includes school-based assessments at the student, classroom, teacher, and school level, and utilizes web-based technologies and rigorous, equity forward methodologies that are anchored in feasibility and real-world utility to support classrooms, schools, and communities' data-driven decision making. All our assessments democratize the data collected and reported to ensure participant access, ownership, and application.

Our collaborative inquiries co-construct youth, educator, and family accounts of discriminatory, inequitable, or prejudicial practices, policies, and pedagogies and offers novel opportunities to improve, advance, or optimize accessible, inclusive, and safe experiences for marginalized student, educators, and families.

What line of research do you find the most interesting/intriguing in the field right now?

I think the future of the field rests in our ability to demonstrate our social and emotional skills in action through finding commonalities across different perspectives, increased heterogeneity of SEL as a construct, and the evolution of how we assess and evaluate it. To be more precise, it’s incredibly important that we attend to the evolution of SEL honestly so that it can be a truly inclusive and helpful support for all students, schools, and communities. Continuing to treat SEL as one thing, or as all things, or as all the same thing, will not be helpful to the field and will not support the field’s necessary evolution in support of all students, schools, and communities.

Since January 1st 2020, the Education Collaboratory has produced more than 50 publications, reports, and commentaries, spanning top tier peer reviewed journals and media outlets, and more than 90 presentations at national and international conferences, agencies, and universities. Currently, the Education Collaboratory is learning alongside 64 school partners, in 22 states, and manages an active portfolio of $8 million sponsored project dollars. This work is generously funded by:

Submitted by Linda Torv on November 14, 2023