Meet the Expert: David Osher

Illustration of AIR expert David OsherDavid Osher, Ph.D., vice president and Institute Fellow, works across a variety of topic areas—including social and emotional learning, school and community mental health services and interventions, school climate and conditions for learning, and implementation science and data use—both domestically and internationally. His work builds upon the science of learning and development and aligns research, policy, and practice with a focus on equity and quality outcomes. David leads national centers and research projects, including the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, and has written and edited many books and articles, including Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools: A Comprehensive, Evidence-Based Approach to Supporting Students with fellow AIR experts Deborah Moroney and Sandra Williamson.

POSITION: Vice President and Institute Fellow

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Social and Emotional Learning, Youth Development, School Climate and Conditions for Learning, School Discipline and Safety, School and Community Mental Health Services and Interventions, Cultural Competence and Responsiveness, Collaboration, Implementation Science, Data Use, and the Science of Learning and Development


Q: What’s been your favorite project while working at AIR?

David: I’m not sure I could pick just one, but I could choose three. First, the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice, which aimed to improve outcomes for young people with emotional and behavior challenges by bringing together people from intellectually and personally diverse perspectives.

Second is the TA Partnership for Child and Family Mental Health, which I loved because it brought together a wonderfully rich, interdisciplinary team diverse in ethnicity, race, gender, and expertise.

Third on my list is the Science of Learning and Development—still ongoing as opposed to the first two—which is an interdisciplinary project that involves research, policy, and practice. It focuses on whole child equity and addresses the dynamic relationships between and among intrapersonal development (e.g., SEL), interpersonal relationships (e.g., connectedness), social contexts (e.g., schools), culture (e.g., intersectionality), and history (e.g., institutionalized racism) with attention to biology, health, and the built environment.

There’s a common theme to all of these: one of the things that interests me is thinking about solutions in an interdisciplinary way. An example would be drilling down into mental health with people across the fields of biology, genetics, cognitive science, mental health, and human development.

One of the reasons I came to AIR is that I was concerned about a lack of alignment between research, policy, and practice because often people in each space weren’t listening to or learning from the people in the other spaces. They’re better aligned today than they were, but the field isn’t set up to encourage alignment. It takes a great deal of incentives to enable all three to work together well.

Image of quote from David OsherQ: If you didn’t get into this field, what would you have done instead?

David: After college, I was going to go to law school but decided that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to understand things more—to continue reading and researching—and I wanted an opportunity to impact others in a way that creates a different type of social good.

Q: What are your current research interests?

David: Most relate to the ongoing relationship between people and their environments: how individuals are influenced by things happening to them and how they influence others. Specifically, I’m interested in how people make meaning, how they learn and learn deeply, and how they develop social and emotional competencies. How do people support each other or undermine each other in different spaces? How do we create conditions for creativity, where it’s okay to fail? What enables a student to learn? What enables a teacher to be supportive?

Within this context, I’m most powerfully and profoundly interested in equity, including reducing disparities.

Q: What do you think is the future of prevention science, especially related to school violence?

David: If we look worldwide at advances in the field, we know a great amount, but it depends on policy leaders enabling what we know from research to be translated into practice.

The main thing is that we’re generally not following the evidence base. Evidence shows that the D.A.R.E. program did not work, but it’s still ongoing. There’s no strong evidence showing that sworn law enforcement officers in schools (School Resource Officers or SROs) are effective at preventing violence, yet there is evidence showing that counselors are effective. But funding is going to SROs instead of counselors.

Q: What would you say to someone currently considering a career in social science research and consulting?

David: It’s important to be humble. I know I can learn from others, that I don’t know everything, that the frames I’ve learned in are not the only ways to learn. Being humble enables you to collaborate more with others and develop and implement more workable solutions.

Q: What’s your go-to professional resource?

David: I like to keep up with newspapers and journals. My go-to sites are are PubMed, EBSCO, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ScienceDaily, Research Gate, and magazine, journal, and association alerts.

Q: If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?

David: I don’t like all these constraints! It’ll have to be more than three:

  • Paulo Friere, a Brazilian educator and philosopher who was influenced by a lot of different people, including John Dewey;
  • Frederick Douglass;
  • Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven (it’s a tie);
  • Charlie Parker, because BeBop was such a monumental musical advance; and
  • Septima Clark, the South Carolina school principal who was fired for taking a stand against segregation.

Q: What’s the last great book you read?

David: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Q: Where can we find you on a typical Saturday afternoon?

David: Hopefully at home with my wife, Trina.

David Osher
Vice President and Institute Fellow