What I Learned in School: Child Development, Mental Health, and Social Change

James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H.

James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H.

James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H., Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, describes his childhood as “privileged but poor,” even “peculiar.” It’s not a topic he regularly discusses — he’s shy to talk about it, he said — but for the audience at the 13th annual Jerry M. Wiener, M.D., Lecture in Psychiatry Education and Mental Health Policy, held Nov. 19 in honor of the renowned GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) child psychiatrist, he made an exception. It was a decision that James Griffith, M.D., Leon M. Yochelson professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at SMHS, and Wiener’s widow, Louise, commended.

“Dr. Comer is one of the rare individuals whose life has richly touched the lives of friends, colleagues, students,” Griffith said, “but beyond these personal relationships, he’s also shaped systems and policy that has [helped] society as a whole. Dr. Comer’s been such a person of consistency for many decades. For many, he is a beloved figure.”

Comer, a child psychiatrist, concentrated his career on child development as a way of improving schools.  He is best known for the 1968 founding of the Comer School Development Program for promoting collaborations between parents, educators, and communities to improve social and emotional outcomes for children that, in turn, helps them achieve greater academic success.  A prolific author of nine books and consultant to “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” children’s television shows, Comer has improved the educational environment in more than 500 schools in the United States through his concept of teamwork.

In reflecting on his own life, Comer discussed his childhood in East Chicago, Indiana, in a family surrounded with love and intellectual curiosity, if not money. “For me,” Comer said, “school begins at birth. It’s the wisdom, the competence, the mindset that you gain in that family, primary social network, and culture that is so very important.” Comer’s mother, born in rural Mississippi, had only two years of formal education before becoming a domestic worker, and his father, a native of Alabama, had six years of education. Yet, Comer’s mother’s exposure to “mainstream” culture, as he put it, and the respect his father garnered as a deacon and leader in the family church, allowed Comer’s parents to create an environment conducive to critical learning and thought.

“That combination … both the core of the mainstream and the connection to our own racial culture identity was very important,” Comer said. “It gave us the kind of confidence and competence we needed to have an opportunity to participate in the mainstream.”

Central to that environment, Comer explained, were the informal post-family dinner debates, moderated by his father. “You had to learn to think, because we were fierce competitors and we wanted to win,” Comer recalled. “What I gained was the idea that learning was very important, that curiosity was important, that respect for the views of others and needs of others was very important. [So were] personal control — because no matter how heated those debates happened to be, the one rule was ‘you cannot fight’ — and self-expression.” Comer and his four siblings now hold a total of 13 degrees among them, and Comer, in addition to numerous awards, has received 48 honorary college degrees over the course of his career.

In contrast to Comer’s formative years, some of the other children in the neighborhood, who did not have the same kind of supportive, stimulating home environment, followed life on a downward trajectory. Of his three best friends growing up, one landed in jail; the second suffered an alcohol-related death; and the third was committed to a mental institution. It’s a sad story, Comer said, that could’ve been, if not prevented, certainly affected by a positive educational environment.

To that end, Comer focused on turning ineffective school environments into effective ones, particularly for marginalized or anti-social families. With researchers, Comer selected two schools, both ranked last in their area. With guiding principles of no-fault problem solving, a consensus approach to making decisions, and collaboration and support among faculty, leaders, and parents, the schools ascended to much higher ranks.

“In an environment where we had created a good culture … people were beginning to know each other, like each other, trust each other,” Comer said. “We had gone from having 15 parents turn up for the first Christmas party to, three years later, more than 400 parents turning up.”

One particular student, “Johnny, the sixth grade bad boy,” illustrated the cultural shift occurring at the school. Around Christmas time, Johnny began to act out. One of the teachers asked, “I wonder what’s going on with him.” That simple question, Comer said, was indicative of changing attitudes and perceptions. “A few years before, it would’ve been ‘there’s that bad Johnny Jones.’”

The teacher, after kneeling to Johnny’s level and asking what was bothering him, discovered that Johnny’s father would not be released from jail for Christmas. She had Johnny write a letter to his father explaining why it was upsetting. The interaction was a bonding experience for the two, and Johnny began to feel empowered rather than powerless, Comer said.

“That kind of experience is what turned those schools around,” he added. “We shifted from a control-punishment mentality to support-for-development mentality, from an ‘I can’t’ mentality, and ‘the kids can’t’ mentality, and ‘the teachers can’t’ mentality, to the ‘kids can,’ to the ‘teachers can’ mentality.”

Despite the success of the model, Comer said there’s been a downturn in effective schools and childhood development, which he attributes to the “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Race, he added, continues to be a factor; the two successful schools Comer described were predominately black, and a third school of mainly black students that rose in the ranks eventually fell back down when the superintendent moved the principal to another position.

“The problem is deeper and more complex than ‘the kids can’t learn’ or ‘the parents don’t care’ and ‘teachers don’t want them to learn,’” Comer said. “There are problems in our society that have to be addressed, that policymakers have to think [about] differently. We have a system that believes still, whether they say it or not, that some are able and some are not; that academic learning and intelligence is based on your genetics; and that it’s not about environment. Our task is to help people begin to think differently, understand differently, and apply it differently.”