Q&A: At 79, Comer still emphasizes development of the whole child

For more than a half century, James P. Comer has argued success in academics is tied to a child’s emotional, psychological, and social development. The Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, Comer met with YaleNews to discuss his efforts to incorporate those principles in educational settings and his recent appointment to the U.S. President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

You developed the School Development Program in 1968, a model based on the premise that academic learning is inextricably linked to development of the whole child, emotionally, psychologically, and ethically. How would you judge its success?

I would say I am both pleased that the reforms we advocated have been incorporated into many school programs but frustrated that the model has not been implemented as fully as it could have been. There is still a deep resistance to change; the centrality of a child’s development in education just is not fully accepted.

Why do you think that is?

I think there are still political, economic, and social explanations. Some teachers and some parents of children in the mainstream intuitively understand children’s success depends upon whether they develop socially, emotionally, and ethically as well as linguistically, cognitively, and physically; and these teachers and parents engage in interactions that promote development in these areas. These interactions don’t take place as frequently in economically stressed and marginalized families.  You can’t help children learn well if you don’t understand these fundamentals.

You recently were appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. What do you hope to accomplish there?

I think they understand my emphasis on development. I would like to implement ongoing professional development programs that put children’s development in the forefront of training.

You are 79. Are you considering retiring?

I have no plans to retire. I may try to get to see more basketball games and go to the ballet more often. I like movement: my own and that of performers.

You know, a lot of the principles you incorporated in the School Development Model seem to be self-evident today.

My mother, who had less than two years of formal education, once asked me what I do for a living. I told her I try to incorporate a rich diversity of experiences for kids into educational settings. She said, “Why that’s just common sense! They pay you for that?” Common sense, and still it’s an uncommon practice among many.