This Yale Psychiatrist Knows How to Shut Down the School to Prison Pipeline: So Why is He Ignored?

“You know the purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults..” ~Dr. James P. Comer


For children of color living in poverty in the United States, public schools nowadays have become something that sometimes feels like prison, with authoritarian rules, punishments and obsessive concern with obedience. Such an environment does not motivate children to succeed in school, and too often sets them up for future failure.

It’s probably one of the best kept secrets of modern education reform, that innovative whole school interventions designed to help poor and minority children thrive (both socially and academically) were successfully developed decades ago, but have not been widely implemented (or publicized).

One of America’s leading educational pioneers is psychiatrist Dr. James P. Comer. His Child Development Program, started at Yale University in 1968, was one of the first school reform projects to successfully transform the culture and social dynamics of poor inner city public schools, dramatically raising test scores in the process.

For over 40 years, Dr. Comer’s program has shown that in order to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed academically, teachers first have to help students thrive socially and developmentally. High standards are also important, but the process must begin with developing trust and building strong human relationships.

What Dr. Comer has demonstrated, is that the academic success of children (especially those from poor neighborhoods) depends on educators building good relationships with their parents and truly caring about the students. It begins by first focusing on transforming the social environment of a school community.

Successful change does not begin with national standards or standardized testing (though test scores will also rise significantly, as an outcome of the cultural changes). Dr. Comer describes his approach below, and more on the history of his project can be read here.

Many charter schools selectively implement elements of community building programs such as Dr. Comer’s, but do not know how to deal with parents who are not supportive, or with students who do not conform to their rules and regulations.

With the Comer model it is essential that that a social environment of trust and compassion develops in a school, reaching out to all the adults and children. Many public and charter schools go in the opposite direction, requiring stricter rules and punishments for those who do not obey authority.

While most schools will suspend or kick out a child who does not abide by rules, Dr. Comer’s approach is more like a therapeutic intervention, designed to assist every child, care for them, help them to feel safe and supported. When implemented successfully, his approach is able to transform schools. But it requires investment, resources and training for teachers.

Successful school interventions such as Dr. Comer’s address children’s social/emotional needs, transforming school communities and incorporating more effective learner-centered teaching methods. This then leads to test scores rising, but the focus is first on the children’s relationships with each other and adults (including their parents).

A supportive social culture is essential to create a safe environment both at school and at home. When test scores are considered more important than the healthy development (and feelings) of children the culture of a school can quickly become chaotic, authoritarian and hostile for both teachers and students. As Dr. Comer explains, in the video linked above:

“We try to give students the kinds of experiences they need which will stimulate their thinking, help them gain all the social skills they need to be successful. It motivates them to want to be successful and they take responsibility for their own learning.

What we have to do is help the teachers and administrators who work with them think “child development” rather than control and punishment. Because the preparatory programs do not help teachers think child development. So its no fault of the educators themselves, its simply not part of their training and preparation.

So what we do is help them develop the capacity to apply it in school… After teachers understand the principles and what it is we’re trying to do, they’re the ones who make the changes, and develop the program, and carry out the program.

That sense of ownership and the ability to create programs that improve the development of the children, not by controlling and punishing them but by helping them develop skills and capacities necessary to function well. The children then are motivated to succeed, on their own.

This has been much more successful, we have schools that have gone from last to first in their district. We’ve had schools that were so good in their improvement they were accused of cheating, so they took the test over and did better the second time than the first.

There’s dramatic difference, and yet it is very difficult, because as a society we do not really value relationships. We talk about it. But we don’t really value or see or understand the importance of relationships.

If we can get all schools and all preparatory programs to see the centrality of development. And understand how development and learning are inextricably linked. That when you can bring them together you can not only improve academic learning, you can prevent many of the serious behavior problems and social problems in our country.

The school to prison pipeline, the underperformance in school, family problems and a number of other social problems that we are concerned about today- child abuse, family abuse, spousal abuse. Those are the issues, that if we can start early, in helping young people grow and develop in a healthy way, we can prevent many of those problems. The school has a major opportunity to make it better for all children, and the country, by applying the principles of child and adolescent development.”

When implemented properly, Dr. Comer’s developmental approach is superior to the model used by most charter schools, as it encourages teachers to collaborate with parents in order to address the roots of student behavior problems. Unlike charter schools (that typically label certain students as “bad, ” and try to get rid of them) Comer’s model values and cares about every member of the school community. This then has a positive effect on relationships in “troubled” homes and neighborhoods.

The importance of such complex social dynamics (for turning schools around) was explained in a comprehensive research study done in Chicago, “The Essential Supports for School Improvement” released while Arne Duncan was working as head of Chicago Public Schools. Democratic politicians have been aware of Dr. Comer’s work, and similar research, but their actions and policies have not been supportive.

In 2014, President Obama appointed Dr. Comer to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Hillary Clinton has met with him (and shared related ideas in her 1996 book It Takes a Village), but like the President, has not promoted Comer’s approach as part of a coherent learner-centered education reform policy. They both speak of accountability as measured by test scores, and place much of the blame for education problems on teachers, ignoring the essential role of positive social relationships in schools (and families) as providing the foundation for academic success.

Equally concerning (as Dr. Comer explains in this video below), his program has not been doing very well in recent years. There has been a lack of funding from the government (and philanthropic foundations), as well as difficulties with administrators who have dismantled successful schools because they are hyper-focused on test scores and don’t understand how (and why) Comer’s developmental approach works so well.

What politicians do not seem to grasp (or care about), yet, is that Comer’s approach could help end the school to prison pipeline and reduce many social problems in American society, but that it requires extra attention (and financial support) to be implemented widely.

Problems such as we recently saw in South Carolina, where a police officer was called in to deal with a “disobedient” student in the class room, would never happen in schools such as Dr. Comer’s, because the social relationships and communication between adults and students are primary. Students learn self-restraint and respond positively to adults, because adults have gained their trust, not because they will be punished for disobeying rules.


Photo on the left: In 2004, Sen. Hilary Clinton presented Dr. Comer with the 7th Annual John P. McGovern Behavioral Science Award from the Smithsonian.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Comer for the PBS Making Schools Work program, by journalist Hendrick Smith:

Smith: You write about educating children holistically, educating the whole child. Help me to understand, what does it mean to educate the whole child?

Comer: “You know the purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.

Our program focuses on the socially interactive aspects of development so that children learn how to manage themselves in a whole variety of situations, and become responsible for managing themselves in a constructive respectful way.

There is the psycho-emotional development: learning to handle their impulses, and to control your own behavior. To handle yourself, your emotions, your feelings. There is the ethical: learning what’s right, what’s wrong. And living by that.

There is the linguistic: to be able to express yourself in a whole variety of settings and to know what’s appropriate and to be able to receive and listen to others, and to be able to express yourself.

And then there is the intellectual cognitive. That’s the part that the traditional school focuses on primarily – the intellectual cognitive and the linguistic – and it ignores everything else. All of those other things, they are ignored.

That’s what people call bad. That’s what they experience as bad behavior because nobody pays attention to helping the children learn how to handle themselves appropriately. If a child does something that’s unacceptable in school, instead of screaming, yelling, scolding, punishing, you talk to the child about what’s going on and how to manage that. That is social interactive, psycho-emotional. Sometimes it’s ethical. All those pathways in the development of the child are being addressed.”

Smith: You’re saying essentially that if you focus on curriculum and you focus on tests and performance you are missing a big chunk of the kid’s development.

Comer: “Absolutely. You are missing a big chunk of the development if you focus only on curriculum, instruction, and assessment because there is much, much more to being successful in this world.

Think of it as an adult. What do we do every day. We have to go out in the world, interact with people, get along well with people. We have to elicit a positive response from the people around us in a whole variety of situations. Where do you learn to do that?

Some children if they’re lucky learn to do it at home, but you should learn to do it at school as well. But the school ignores that part of their growth and development. By focusing on social interactive, psycho-emotional, and moral-ethical you get improved linguistic expression and reception. And you get improved academic achievement. So you get to the whole spectrum of needs and demands that children will need to be able to function in society.”

collaborative learning

Related Reading:

Schools for Democracy – Deborah Meier * Towards a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * How Bill Gates Can Be an Education Hero * Neuroplasticity: How Learning Physically Changes the Brain * Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing * Schools That Learn – Peter Senge * Standardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Real Learning is a Creative Process  * Why Corporate School Reform Will Eventually Fail *


About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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3 Responses to This Yale Psychiatrist Knows How to Shut Down the School to Prison Pipeline: So Why is He Ignored?

  1. This quote at the end is a wonderful summary: “By focusing on social interactive, psycho-emotional, and moral-ethical you get improved linguistic expression and reception. And you get improved academic achievement. So you get to the whole spectrum of needs and demands that children will need to be able to function in society.”

  2. M R says:

    Uhm…why would they WANT to end the school-to-prison pipeline? Inexhaustible free labor, and profit for the prison companies to boot!

  3. Franklin says:

    Another suggestion for future reference is Intellectual warfare, Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers. Perhaps the most exciting of Professor Cheik Anta Diop’s analytical concepts understanding the historical abandoned and the attempts to destroy Afrikans minds in the diaspora.

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