Social and Emotional Capital in Education:Cultures of Support for At Risk Students

by Dennis McGrath & Bill Van Buskirk

Much contemporary research follows Astin (1985) and Tinto (1987) in emphasizing the importance of student involvement on academic persistence and performance. On this line, college students are most likely to be successful if they are well integrated into the academic and social systems of a college campus. Most significant are informal, out of class interactions with peers and faculty, and participation in extra curricular activities.

This has obvious implications for the design of educational environments and support programs. The key to effective student services, according to a major research synthesis, is to "reduce the psychological size of large institutions by affording opportunities for students to become involved with smaller groups (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991:654).

This higher education research converges with current studies of effective secondary schools, particularly work emphasizing what Coleman (Coleman, 1993; Coleman and Hoffer, 1987) and Putnam (1993) term "social capital." The concept of social capital uses the economic metaphor of capital formation to focus on the ways in which social bonds "add value" to individual and organizational functioning. It calls attention to the critical role of social connections in facilitating effective collective effort. Organizations are not purely instrumental, and they don't succeed on the basis of rational incentives alone. Stocks of social capital, such as trust and shared norms are vital in promoting effective collaboration and communication.

Studies of social capital in education find that student success is deeply affected by the social relationships within schools. Successful secondary schools function as "communal organizations." Such schools are characterized by a sense of shared purpose, and have practices that give life to these common beliefs, especially social relations centered around moral norms stressing responsibility and self development (Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993). When these features join together, they promote engagement in students and commitment in teachers (Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993 :275).

However, while the structural features of effective educational settings have begun to be mapped, much remains to be understood about the dynamics of student engagement. Research on student involvement in learning and the role of social capital needs to be complemented with a richer social psychology and cultural understanding of student experience. We need a better picture of how social capital, in the form of strong social bonds, networks of small groups, and norms of reciprocity is translated into what we term "emotional capital," the shared sense of trust, safety, and reciprocity that promotes involvement and commitment.

Understanding the role of emotional capital is especially important for today's increasingly diverse students who are not well served by traditional institutional structures and practices. Research consistently finds that students most at risk are least likely to get involved in the social and academic infrastructures of institutions. Merely offering opportunities for involvement is not adequate. The dynamics of engagement require more than providing programs. What we do with students has much more profound consequences than the resources that we offer. This is especially true with nontraditional students, who perceive involvement as someone taking an active role in assisting them rather than as them taking initiative (Rendon, 1994). Effective intervention programs and educational reforms must be based on a detailed understanding of the microprocesses of schools. We need to understand how educational settings engage students by inducing emotions such as hope for the future, respect for others, enthusiasm about their studies and confidence in their ability to succeed.


This study utilizes a case study methodology, examining two successful educational support programs for women. The case study was conducted over a two year period and involved a series of individual and focus group interviews with students and staff along with observation of program activities. All interview sessions were audio tape recorded and transcribed. Interview data were analyzed using a grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).

The Program

CWEP is a community based program serving low income women in a poor section of Philadelphia, which offers a continuum of programs from basic skills through on site community college courses. The typical student is a mother on public assistance in her mid to late 20's who requires work on basic academic skills.

The program responds to significant challenges that erode positive appraisals of well being and trigger discouragement and disengagement in its students. The population it serves lacks the social and emotional capital to persist in the long years of study necessary to accomplish their goals. CWEP's students have long struggled with the social and educational barriers that have locked them into low paying jobs and feel the growing societal hostility to women on welfare. Many dropped out of high school or graduated many years ago and are apprehensive about returning to school. They have to raise children by themselves and are often deeply in debt. Some have histories of alcohol or drug dependence. Many are discouraged from pursuing school by their families and communities.

The Role of Social and Emotional Capital

CWEP develops social and emotional capital in seven ways. First, it transforrns students' images of the future from negative to positive. Second, it builds a transformative culture by organizing its programs, processes and structures to reinforce positive appraisals of well being. Third, CWEP offers multiple pathways for involvement, which promote engagement and stimulate volunteerism. Fourth, it provides support on many levels, including advice, information, emotional support and advocacy. Fifth, it encourages selfmanagement skills that promote effective coping. Six, it provides a balance between support and letting go so that students do not become either alienated from or overly dependent on the program. Finally, CWEP attends to the outside environment which promotes its ability to expand services and advocate for students

The program transmits a powerful image of the future. It is probably true for all students that a positive image of the future is necessary if they are to persist in years of study. However, because of their difficult circumstances, students at CWEP have a special need for an optimistic and believable image of their future. To succeed they must cope with uncertainty and ambiguity for long periods. To remain engaged in their studies, students must successfully manage powerful negative emotions such as anxiety, shame, and self blame.

CWEP promotes successful coping by providing students with "an image of the future" within which they can imagine a credible scenario of hope and success. The program offers a picture of the world these women will someday enter that validates their current efforts. When this image is accepted by a student it makes current day to day troubles less debilitating because they are placed into a context that is broader and more hopeful. With persistent worries put to the side, students can then concentrate on their studies. These images of the future function as shared "appraisal scenarios," helping students sustain positive appraisals by scripting emotional reactions to their situation and encouraging effective coping skills.

Generating an optimistic and believable future is an extremely empowering intervention. Even students in dire immediate circumstances can better cope when sustained by a sense that their future remains promising. However, at CWEP a positive sense of the future can never be taken for granted. CWEP, through its own unique organizational culture, tries to inculcate such images in its students

CWEP articulates a mission which states that the path to self sufficiency for low income, disadvantaged women lies in long term education, rather than short term training. It has an organizational culture that transmits its mission in powerful and sustained ways. Its organizational culture encourages positive appraisals by students and helps manage the anxieties, conflicts, fears and uncertainties that continually threaten to overwhelm them

Story telling is an important vehicle for transmitting organizational culture (Boje, 1991). Narratives shape perceptions of the environment that is experienced as real, as well as one's sense of self. In our interviews we probed for common stocks of stories that circulated throughout the organization. We discovered patterns of story telling that strengthened the supportive function of the program and provided a positive and realizable image of the future for students. At CWEP the story focuses on how the women can break out of poverty through education. In a variety of settings stories are told of "women just like you" who had been stuck in low paying jobs, but came to CWEP and then went on to college or solid technical programs. This narrative is also crystallized in a slogan that students frequently recounted to us. "I don't just want a job, I want a career. I need an education, not just a training program."

These stories perform the classic functions of communal narratives, shaping the felt adequacy and worthiness of one's self, as well as the capacity to cope with what the environment presents. In CWEP story telling is a fundamental force shaping the emotional climate. The stories build emotional capital by helping students reframe their experience in common ways while evoking appropriate coping responses that encourage sustained effort. They promote academic involvement by validating the students as potentially successful and offering them an image of the future that is at least partly manageable.

CWEP also invokes a positive image of the future by engaging students in a dense network of social contacts. This is done in a variety of ways, most formally by making extensive use of mentors, most of whom are former students.

The program creates a transformative culture. The program not only helps manage the negative feelings that further debilitate students, but creates cultural settings that transform those emotions. CWEP performs this transformative function by carefully managing the appraisal process at critical points in students' careers. CWEP carefully manages the students' initial contact with the institution. Further, it identifies the predictable points in the students' careers where they are likely to experience disappointment, discouragement, uncertainty and anxiety. It offers both cognitive and affective support by providing setting and activities designed to help students interpret their experience in positive ways. By doing so it encourages students continued engagement with their studies.

At CWEP most students begin in the basic skills program, "Workstart." Staff view communicating the agency's mission as a core function of Workstart, but recognize that it is a difficult task that must be carefully managed. Students and faculty typically begin with a very different sense of what they want to accomplish. Given their history, students usually expect another low level training program and, at best, hope to sharpen some basic skills and perhaps get some leads on jobs. However, the program has structured a number of socializing experiences designed to help the students take on the mission of "long term education" for their own. The first day of Workstart involves activities designed to challenge the students' assumptions about what school is like and what will go on in class. As one teacher notes, "we start out at orientation in small groups, talking to one another. It doesn't have to be about jobs, it could be describe your neighborhood."

The initial emphasis on discussion and student involvement is continued in the classes as well. The core courses break from the typical practices of training programs by placing heavy emphasis on reading and group discussion. Students present their own writing and react to the work of others. All the courses are characterized by lively discussion, with the teachers continually scanning the class to see if any of the students are hanging back and need encouragement to join the conversation.

The pedagogical emphasis on small group discussion and active learning promotes the acculturation process, and has a powerful effect on the students. As they become engaged in discussions in class, students learn about the other women, and begin to experience them as sources of support. Many of the negative appraisals that the women bring to the school experience begin to change as they learn of the struggles and successes of others.

The continual transformation of initially negative appraisals that takes place in CWEP has an effect far beyond the benefit to an individual student; individual successes become the stuff of story. As success stories are told throughout the organization they become transformative, and the culture of support gains greater strength and coherence. For example, at CWEP a frequently reported story concerned "the first time I got an A." The story typically details early difficulties and initially low grades, but through the involvement of teachers and the help of other students, efforts end in success. The story is powerful since it embeds many positive appraisals of well being: students can develop competency, the program delivers on its promises, and teachers care for their students. As narratives are repeated they become condensed into evocative symbols, and positive appraisals multiply. As stories and symbol help define the organization in the minds of its members, the program itself becomes a symbol with transformative powers. Graduates of CWEP report that they are reassured by the organization's continued existence. "I never know when I'll need to go back." By creating a strong organizational culture and providing an enhanced resource for the transformation of appraisals, CWEP enhances a sense of well being.

The program provides multiple pathways for involvement. CWEP maximizes the likelihood of student involvement by providing a range of formal programs and informal settings. What is striking about CWEP is how well the program is structured to respond to the wide range of problems that emerge in the life of a student. At CWEP a woman who begins in Workstart may continue in Workstart II in order to continue working on her basic skills. She may make use of the on site daycare or the Parenting Program, while also talking with staff about job possibilities or financial aid to continue in Workstart II in order to continue working on her basic skills. She may make use of the on site daycare or the Parenting Program, while also talking with staff about job possibilities or financial aid to continue her schooling

One result of the remarkable coherence between student needs and organizational structure is that there are multiple pathways through the programs. However a woman begins, she is likely to become involved in additional activities and services. This results in a rich and varied history of involvement with the organization. By providing multiple pathways of involvement, CWEP deepens students' sense of feeling supported as they develop an image of the organization as always "being there for them." The students involved in CWEP have gone through many transformations. They increasingly experience themselves as able and competent. They receive support for who they are and who they are becoming (Kegan, 1982). They have received a benefit far greater than an educational credential, for they have been transformed into the kinds of people who can take advantage of formal education. For many students this experience engenders a deep gratitude and a desire to "give something back" to the organization, and many become active volunteers. This blurs the distinction between clients, volunteers, and staff as many students become deeply involved and committed to doing the work of the organization.

This transformation from client to provider does not happen all at once. Indeed, in many cases it has been happening implicitly all along. However, at some point many students move beyond informal activities to help the organization in a more formal way, taking on roles as volunteers or as part time staff. At CWEP student volunteers help with tutoring as well as communicating the mission of the organization to newcomers. Volunteerism represents another increase in the organization's ability to engender positive appraisals and emotional capital. Significant numbers of students become committed to running the programs. They enhance the capacities of the programs and provide powerful symbols of students who, Ire able to make a difference. Many report that seeing others volunteering save them the idea to contribute their time.

The program provides a mix of emotional support, advice, information and advocacy

. CWEP offers many insights into how effective support works. It is particularly useful in identifying how support is communicated in emotionally powerful ways so that it is experienced as helpful bv the client.

Perhaps most striking is the richness of he culture of support in these programs. 'WEP offers a sophisticated mix of motional support, pragmatic advice, information, and advocacy tailored to he individual needs of the students. It isable to do this because the program has developed organizational practices that permit staff to continually monitor the needs of students, identifying the times when they experience the greatest stress and most need help. As a result, CWEP's staff has developed a fine grained appreciation of the issues facing women students at all phases of their academic careers. This allows them to respond quickly and effectively to a wide range f specific student problems. Support is effectively communicated because staff make frequent, routine contact with students, and are able to respond to them during critical times when students feel in greatest need.

Such tailored responses are the intentional outcome of carefully designed organizational practices and program structures. Everyone who has contact with students are trainedto maximize their impact. Whatever the service, staff act to make cognitive changes in students by helping them interpret their experience in positive ways, while also offering tangible assistance. CWEP has developed a culture where many types of student contacts and support can flourish. Program staff are continually available to students so that they can identify and help solve problems before they become overwhelming. Counselors "check in" regularly with students, averaging 80 contacts each month.

The collaborative practices of the classroom and the extensive use of former students encourages discussion. This creates an emotional climate conducive to the open sharing of problems and group problem solving of solutions.

The classroom practices of active learning help the faculty come to know the students as individuals, permitting them to tailor their responses to the specific needs of the students.

The classes also helped students form positive appraisals about their situation. Discussions among women help transmit common coping repertoires throughout the student group, as the women learn effective strategies from one another. Positive appraisals of their future are further supported as the ties that are formed among the students begin to extend beyond the classroom. Interviews with students disclose that the energy and good feeling of the classes promote positive relationships the student group. Despite their busy schedules, students stay in touch outside of class. As one student noted, "everybody exchanges phone numbers. You get home from class, you get on the phone and call somebody. The camaraderie is great."

The program encourages self management skills. A key resource in coping is what has been termed "self efficacy," which includes the capacity to differentiate problems, generate plans, and act when confronted with threats (Bandura, 1977). A powerful dimension of the culture of support in CWEP is the array of practices that promote self-efficacy. The program helps students reduce their sense of anxiety and uncertainty by enhancing their ability to manage difficult situations. Students become empowered as they gain coping skills that are effective, and begin to trust their own abilities. As students develop the sense that they have options and a plan of action for coping with events, their perception of threat and uncertainty is reduced.

This program impact is an important dimension of social and emotional capital. Program structures and practices, such as providing opportunities for frequent informal interaction and providing a mix of support, ration, and advocacy create a fund of social capital.

This social capital, in the form of dense networks of relationships, maximizes the types of supportive interactions that promote self management skills among the students. However, what makes this program unusually effective is its ability to translate these supportive interactions into emotional capital which generates feelings of competence and self-control.

One of the major ways this is accomplished is through the positive cognitive impact of self talk. Studies of “learned helplessness” and locus of control find that feelings of incompetence are associated with an individual's attribution of the source of their failure This primarily occurs through the stories that people tell themselves, the internal narratives or "self talk" they engage in. Research in health care finds that encouraging positive self talk is a powerful cognitive coping strategy, effectively preparing patients for stressful medical procedures and encouraging self management and adherence to health related decisions (Holroyd, Andrasik, and Westbrook, 1977). Our interviews suggest that CWEP has developed powerful ways to intervene in this self talk, encouraging new internal narratives that encourage more positive appraisals.

The many settings for informal interaction provide opportunities for new internal narratives to lead to new forms of behavior. A CWEP student who describes herself as having been painfully shy and unable to speak up in class recounts the benefits of the informal support groups. "You can talk about anything...It turned me around." The supportive culture of the program acts is a laboratory for exploring one's self and practicing new behaviors.

Perhaps the most important form of self talk that CWEP alters is the tendency toward self blame. Mothers on welfare have a strong tendency to blame themselves for what happens to them. Their ability to develop successful coping skills depends on a cognitive reframing so they can develop a more realistic understanding of their difficulties. The staff at CWEP see one of their most important task as helping the students understand why they are on welfare and why they've remained locked into a series of low paying jobs. The director of CWEP describes their work with students:"We try to shape a sense of assertiveness and a person."

The program balances support with letting go. Support at CWEP is much more than a series of discrete interactions. Instead, it serves as a safe place for students to try out new identities and new ways of behaving while structuring out anxiety producing considerations. A critical dimension of emotional capital is the ability of an organization to bind out anxiety and threat so that individuals can focus on their developmental tasks. In doing so, organizations engender strong feelings in their members and shape how they imagine their present and their future.

CWEP functions as a "holding environment" (Kegan, 1982), providing safe places for students to try out new identities and new ways of behaving while structuring out anxiety producing considerations. By helping students reinterpret their experiences in ways that build a sense of competence, CWEIP helps low income women block out the demands of their difficult lives so that they are able to become engrossed in their school work. Students describe this enhanced capacity to concentrate as a critical aspect of the programs

At the same time that CWEP "holds" students in a safe and supportive environment it also recognizes that it must let its students go so that they can move on. As students develop new competencies they must shift their attention to the future and move on to new educational or professional settings. The programs must shift their orientation from immediate support to promoting a sense that the organization will still "be around for them." CWEP does this in a variety of ways, ranging from letting individuals go their own way to providing transitional supports and opportunities for former students to return as volunteers.

This balance of "holding on" and letting go" that Kegan describes as essential to adult development (Kegan, 1982) produces graduates who are neither alienated from the organization nor overly dependent on it. Most students we interviewed stated that they were glad the program was there even if they didn 't rely on it for help any more. All that they felt confident that the program "would be there for them" in future if they ever needed assistance.

The program attends to the external environment. As CWEP creates a strong organizational culture that does much of the work of transforming appraisals of well being, it also frees up the time and energy of some paid staff to look outward. This capacity to focus externally is critical to the effectiveness continued existence of CWEP's relatively small program. During a critical fundraising period the executive director worked with the board chair to attract new board members from the corporate sector which brought critical new skills to the organization. CWEP has also been active in city and state-level discussions of welfare rend the role of education in work to welfare programs.

Conclusion: Emotional Capital and Educational Success

Researchers such as Coleman (1993) and Bryck, Lee and Holland (1993) have demonstrated the efficacy of social capital in improving the effectiveness of schools. However, the way in which social capital has been theoretically formulated leaves difficult but important questions unaddressed.

We have attempted to show that the concept of emotional capital is a useful extension of the literature on social capital. Viewing emotional capital as the capacity of an organizational culture to hold in place positive appraisals of wellbeing directs attention to how programmatic and cultural factors intertwine and mutually strengthen one another. The analysis of emotional culture clarifies how educational settings can respond to the needs of culturally diverse, at risk students whose practical difficulties are aggravated by cultures in which negative and dispiriting interpretations of reality predominate.

It is the achievement of CWEP that with minimal resources, it has solved this subtle and difficult problem for its students. CWEP is emotionally charged and cognitively powerful. It shapes student responses by developing cultural practices and organizational forms that sustain high levels of positive appraisals. CWEP demonstrates that effective social support helps students acquire adequate coping skills. In addition, it enhances the likelihood that those skills will be used by promoting a high degree of hope and self confidence in students about their ability to surmount whatever difficulties they may face. CWEP does this by providing dense networks of support that offer students a mix of information, pragmatic advice, emotional support and advocacy. These networks of support offer numerous settings where students can have close contact with mentors, see effective behavior modeled for them, practice defining problems and generating plans, and try out new behavior and new identities .

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