Developing Care and Socio-Emotional Learning in First Year Doctoral Students: Building Capacity for Success

Carol A Rogers-Shaw, Davin J Carr-Chellman
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 13  •  2018  •  pp. 233-253

The purpose of this research is to explore and describe the role of care and socio-emotional learning in the first year of doctoral study. In particular, understanding the nature of the caring relationships doctoral students experience and their development of effective socio-emotional capacity are the primary foci of this study. It may provide institutions with data necessary to add specific supports to graduate orientation programs and/or introductory doctoral courses that will mitigate problems these beginning students face and lead to greater success and quality of life.

This study examines the caring relationships of students in two education doctoral programs using the features of socio-emotional learning (SEL), the ethics of care, and learning care to understand the effects of caring relationships on first year doctoral students and to explore how their subsequent use of socio-emotional skills impacts success and quality of life.

The study used a phenomenological methodology focusing on the initial experiences of returning adult doctoral students in the field of education during the first semester of their studies. A total of seven students from two different cohorts of Ph. D. and Ed. D. programs were interviewed. A deductive process was subsequently pursued, applying the central concepts of care and socio-emotional learning to the data as categories, resulting in the findings of this study.

As the importance of care is often trivialized, particularly in the most advanced levels of education, it is important for doctoral programs to examine what can be done to enhance relationship-building in order to increase student success and quality of life. This study calls for more attention to care in doctoral study.

Participant responses identified self-awareness as key to how they managed stress, maintained motivation and academic discipline, organized their time in order to accomplish tasks and meet responsibilities, and set goals. Participants attributed their academic discipline and ability to handle stress to perseverance, drive, and work ethic. These doctoral students were very conscious of the decisions they made and the reasons behind these decisions. In their discussion of the relationships that supported them throughout their study, they clearly identified emotions triggered by these relationships, and they discussed how those who cared for them helped them to recognize their own strengths and gain more self-confidence. The presence of caring was clear as participants’ reasons for engaging in doctoral study were often rooted in their care for others in their family and their caring about marginalized populations in society.

Examining the nature of the care doctoral students receive and their development of effective socio-emotional abilities may provide institutions with data necessary to add specific supports to graduate orientation programs and/or introductory doctoral courses that will mitigate problems these beginning students face, leading to future success.

While most research and instruction involving socio-emotional learning has focused on K-12 learners, this study investigates how the experiences of doctoral students reflect the importance of addressing the emotional side of learning at all levels of education. Despite the plethora of extant literature concerning doctoral student experiences related to socialization, the significance of socio-emotional learning, and the importance of care as a facilitator of learning, there are gaps in the literature connecting doctoral students in the first stages of their studies to affective learning. This study will fill that gap and opens the door to future qualitative studies, elaborating the lived experiences of caring relationships and socio-emotional learning. Additionally, these initial qualitative studies provide direction to quantitative researchers looking for ways to measure these concepts.

Elements of care, especially as they relate to socio-emotional learning correlate strongly with successful outcomes in educational contexts. To the extent that doctoral students and doctoral programs experience greater success and increased satisfaction and quality of life, this research will have significant societal impact.

As a qualitative study using inductive and deductive approaches, it is important for future research to translate the themes and concepts of this study into measurable, quantifiable, and replicable units. This translation will facilitate the generalizability of our findings. The application of the concepts of care and socio-emotional learning to first year doctoral students opens the door to additional qualitative approaches as well, which will greatly increase our understanding of what these concepts mean as they are lived-out.

doctoral study, socio-emotional learning, ethics of care, learning care
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