Celebrating Black History Month: Dr. James Comer

This month, we’re celebrating influential Black leaders who have improved social emotional learning opportunities for all students. 

“He’s one of the most influential educators in the history of the United States.”

Social emotional learning has grown in popularity and relevance over the past decade – especially as our schools and communities face the pressures and challenges of a global pandemic and social unrest. But any educator will tell you that SEL isn’t new! Supporting the social emotional development of students has been a focus of classroom for decades, and the work of Dr. James Comer has had a profound influence on that focus. 

Shared on Twitter by @caselorg on Feb 12, 2021

Who is Dr. James Comer? 

Dr. Comer has been studying the impact of social emotional development on students and schools since the 1960’s. As the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, his work focuses on child development in inner-city schools and the idea of educating the whole child. The Comer School Development Program was founded in 1968 and continues to support schools, promoting collaboration amongst community stakeholders and clearing pathways to higher education. 

Dr. Comer explained to the New Haven Register that the Comer School Development Program is based on three guiding ideas, “No-fault problem-solving, consensus decision-making and collaboration.”

His research explored the impact of bringing families and schools together to strengthen community and promote child development has become the basis for our modern-day understanding of the role of SEL in schools. Relationships are key to learning and are the foundation of strong school communities. Dr. Comer explained to the New Haven Register, ​​“Good relationships are promoted through all the activities you carry out in your school. Once you have good relationships, you can do everything else.”

In addition to the three guiding ideas, the School Development Program includes three main components: 

  1. A comprehensive school plan with both academic and social components
  2. Staff development – including for parents when appropriate
  3. Ongoing assessment and modification 

Dr. Comer helped introduce educators to the idea of focusing on all aspects of a child’s development in order to improve their lives in the long-term, with an understanding that child development and psychology is critical in the educational process within schools. He influenced the way education leaders think about child development long before we had scientific explanations for how the brain develops. He explains the importance of child development to the New Haven Register as a way to “help [educators] on the job apply knowledge of children to the behavior. It helps them understand how attachment, engagement are so very important and … how social, emotional learning are all integrated, and we now know through knowledge of the brain that that’s the case.”

Dr. Comer’s Lasting Impact on SEL

The Comer School Development Program started in 1968 at two low-performing schools and has grown to be used by more than 1,000 schools worldwide. The contributions Dr. Comer made to The Yale University Child Study Center and within the New Haven Public School system where he implemented the Comer School Development Program influenced the pioneers of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), now revered as the leading authority on SEL. In collaboration with SEL originators like Tim Schriver, Dr. Roger Weissberg and Dr. Maurice Elias, the familiar social emotional learning framework and understanding that we know today was born. 

Schriver spoke about the impact of Dr. Comer’s work to the New Haven Register, sharing “His impact, not just through me but through many others, has been to reshape schools into places that not only teach head but teach heart …. that teach inspiration as well as inspiration .… He’s one of the most influential educators in the history of the United States.”

As we celebrate the impact of influential Black leaders in education this month, we give gratitude for Dr. James Comer. Join our friend Lauren for a deep breath of gratitude for his work, impact, and ever-growing legacy.


How are you celebrating Black History Month? Share this article on social media to celebrate Dr. James Comer, and let us know who else you are learning about this month! 



Comer began movement to educate whole child in 1968, New Haven Register (2018)

Social and Emo​​tional Learning: A Short History, Edutopia (2011) 

Dr. James Comer, The History Makers

Building Schools as Communities: A Conversation with James Comer, ASCD (1997)

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