Teaching Essential Learning & Social Skills
Student Success Skills Program Helps Students Identify and Develop Strengths
Associate Professor Matthew Lemberger-Truelove
Larger than others his age, the fifth grader towered over his classmates. He had a reputation for being prone to fighting and was known for his defiant behavior. He refused to pay attention in class. He repeatedly attacked other children on the playground. In private, teachers referred to the boy as “Godzilla.”
When the case was referred to Matthew Lemberger-Truelove, then working on his doctoral degree in counselor education at the University of South Carolina, the boy was about to be expelled for excessive fighting.
Lemberger-Truelove asked the school to give him five days to work with the student. Initially, he spent time observing the boy and noting interactions with other students. Then, meeting with the student for the first time face-to-face, he found the student uncommunicative. “He just sat stone-faced,” remembers Lemberger-Truelove.
The young counselor asked the boy some questions about his interactions with other students on the playground. Sitting silently, the boy would not respond. Lemberger-Truelove offered to demonstrate some “magic.” He surprised the boy by describing how the boy’s size and temperament sometimes unintentionally led to fights. When the boy broke his silence to express amazement at the accuracy of the assessment, Lemberger-Truelove explained that his “magic” came from using empathy to understand others.
For the next several days, he worked with the boy to help him develop the “magic” skill of empathy. By week’s end, the boy’s behavior was so changed that he eagerly ran to greet Lemberger-Truelove with a hug each time he saw him.
Skills for Student Success
Research shows that social and emotional learning supports academic performance.
Learning to feel empathy for others, to regulate one’s own behavior, and to communicate effectively are just some of the vital social skills that Lemberger-Truelove posits as necessary for student success in school—indeed, for success in life.
Lemberger-Truelove, Associate Professor of Counseling in UNM’s College of Education, has spent years studying children of all ages and how their social-emotional learning is linked to behavioral and academic performance. Science-based evidence shows that such learning can help all students but can be especially useful for ameliorating the effects of living in a challenging socio-economic environment.
Working with disadvantaged students, he and his team of doctoral students have researched the Student Success Skills Program. Their research has demonstrated that appropriate school counseling interventions that focus on the development of personal, social, and learning skills result in greater academic growth and student wellbeing than reliance on more intensive academic instruction alone.
Cultivating Positive Change
Lemberger-Truelove has a personal interest in working with children growing up in poverty. Having himself grown up in an economically challenged environment, he is driven to “do something about social inequality.” The best way to do that, he says, it to cultivate those conditions that will bring about improvement.
The school counseling interventions that he teaches are designed to encourage students to develop skills and traits that are neither “esoteric” nor radical. Based on humanistic philosophy, the Student Success Skills Program encourages students to identify capabilities they already possess and then develop and use those skills. These skills include resiliency in the face of difficulty (often referred to as “grit”), self-management of appropriate behavior, communication strategies, the ability to pay attention or shift focus as needed, goal setting, and organization and study skills. Equally important is a student’s sense of accomplishment and feelings of connectedness with the school and other classmates. The research data shows that outcomes are better for children who are more engaged and have a sense of belonging.
Lemberger-Truelove advocates a whole person approach to education, integrating academic, social-emotional, and physical education. The school counselor, he believes, can play a vital role in such a model. “School counselors can deliver essential learning and social skills to the standard school curriculum,” he says.