Comer School Development Program (SDP)

Used in more than 400 schools and 35 districts across the country, the Comer School Development Program (SDP) is a comprehensive education reform process that integrates the latest and best learning in child psychiatry and education to meet students' everyday needs.

SDP's founding principle is that healthy child development is the cornerstone of future success - in the classroom and beyond.

In addition to its impact on organizational structure and curriculum development, SDP is designed to influence and guide the daily personal interactions and relationships among teachers, students, support staff, parents, district leaders, and community stakeholders.

"All the recent neuroscience research tells us that 'nature versus nurture' is not an either-or proposition," explains Dr. Christine Emmons, SDP's Director of Research and Evaluation. "To help children, schools need to address both learning and development."

Renowned physician and educator Dr. James P. Comer developed SDP --also known as "The Comer Process" - when he and his colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center began work with several of New Haven's lowest-achieving schools more than three decades ago.

Due to a lack of developmental support at home and in the community, Dr. Comer found that many children came to school with significant developmental gaps that impaired their ability to learn. To address these deficits, SDP is designed to mobilize teachers, administrators, parents, and other concerned adults to support students' personal, academic and social growth.

"We use child and adolescent development as the foundation for designing all aspects of a school, from organizational structure and classroom management to curriculum development and teaching," says Emmons.

In sharp contrast to the pervasive "academic deficit theory" that has led to "tracking" and other lowered expectations for minority and lower-income students in some school districts, The Comer Process grounds academic success in several different areas of child development: physical, psychological, language, social, ethical and cognitive.

Because these "Six Developmental Pathways" impact every aspect of a child's life experience, SDP encourages schools to incorporate them into every decision making process and teacher-student interaction.

SDP is reflected in every aspect of the student experience - especially their interaction with one another. Children are taught how to use the six developmental pathways to try to figure out what they need most from teachers and from other children in their class.

Explains one teacher, "Kids really talk about how they are developing certain pathways. We heard a third-grader talking about her language pathway and her journal this morning."

Says another Comer teacher, "Kids in the classroom are definitely more aware of their behavior with Comer, and it's helping in the classroom. A student will actually say 'I need to work on my ethical pathway this week.' They are really starting to grasp it."

As with any effective reform strategy, SDP depends on strong relationships among all education stakeholders -- from school leaders to the students - broken down into three main groups.

The "school planning and management team" is responsible for developing a comprehensive school plan that outlines every academic, social, and community goal and coordinates all school activities, including staff development programs.

Composed of a diverse group of school administrators, teachers, support staff, and parents, the planning and management team is also in charge of monitoring student progress and recommending mid-course adjustments and modifications in curriculum and teaching based on children's changing needs. In this way, everyone is given a role in children's success.

Explains a Comer principal, "Support staff like custodians and secretaries are not necessarily in the classroom, but they've become more involved in the life of the school because they understand what's going on and they know what part they have in the school improvement plan."

A second key stakeholder group, the "student and staff support team" connects all of the school's student services, encourages information sharing, helps to address the specific needs of individual students, and reaches out to the larger community for additional support and resources.

This team includes the principal and other staff members with specific expertise in child development and mental health issues, such as the school counselor, social worker, psychologist, or nurse.

A third but equally important "parent team" is also established to encourage parents to become actively involved in the school's social and academic programs and to communicate regularly with their children's teachers and school's leaders.

The Comer Process sets out three guiding principles to govern the interactions and work of these teams and the students.

First, "no-fault decision-making" helps teams focus on creating workable, effective solutions that serve the best interests of the children they serve. "Instead of creating winners and losers, the idea is to encourage people to come together to find a common solution that everyone is willing to support and carry out," says Emmons.

The teams also use consensus decision-making, based on the philosophy that participants can agree on an effective strategy for children, but only if they first have the chance to talk through their concerns and understand everyone else's needs and positions.

Because collaboration is also a key component of all stakeholder interactions, The Comer Process encourages all its teams to work together in making, implementing and evaluating how all its decisions will impact students' developmental needs.

No-fault decision-making is a key part of guiding effective student interactions as well. Using simple language to explain the three guiding principles, teachers are able to help students learn an alternative way to solve problems. While they are taught that "no-fault" does not mean "no consequences," students learn to handle conflict in a much more reasonable and straightforward way.

Explains one teacher, "For nine and ten-year-olds, it's a very grown up process that they handle very well."

No-fault decision making is also effective for younger children. One kindergarten teacher notes that "there tends to be less negative interaction when children are fussing with each other. Comer allows us to put a better focus on positive language."

To assess SDP's effectiveness, both the Yale Child Study Center and independent researchers have conducted extensive evaluations on variety of levels. In particular, research has shown that SDP has significantly improved schools' overall climate, student attendance, and student achievement.

Based on an analysis of 29 comprehensive school reform programs, SDP was recently singled out as one of three school reform models that have actually been proven to increase student achievement and improve the relationship between school stakeholders.

SDP has been successful in reducing the achievement gap for minority children at the same time it improves the educational outcomes of all students.

The Comer Process also encourages school leaders and parents not only to reach out to each other, but to the school district as a whole, including key players such as the board of education, the superintendent, SDP implementation coordinators, and others.

According to Emmons, "Although you can have school-by school-improvement, the real change only happens when there is district-wide coordination so there is a common language and understanding of what needs to be done."

While Emmons stresses that school reform requires strong leadership and cooperation at all levels, The Comer Process is a promising reform strategy that helps all children, even the most challenged, to reach their full educational and personal potential.

"It's not just about academic success--our vision is to allow all students to become successful participants in all parts of family and civic life," says Emmons.