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Evidence for Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

By Mark T. Greenberg
Teacher sitting with young students on lawn by a bench

There is a consensus among educators, parents, and policymakers that education should focus on supporting essential capacities to help children navigate the world successfully. This broad notion of educating the “whole child” generally includes at least the the abilities to: (1) develop healthy personal relationships, (2) treat others with respect and dignity, (3) develop the cognitive capacity to solve problems and think creatively, (4) succeed in postsecondary education and the labor market, and (5) be a contributing citizen in a democracy. To nurture these capacities, schools should be healthy, caring spaces that create a climate of support for equitable pathways for children to reach these goals while also creating a challenging and dynamic learning environment. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical for the development of these capacities.

Over the past 20 years, many evidence-based approaches and strategies have been created to promote SEL in educational settings. More than half of U.S. states have now articulated learning standards (sometimes called “competencies” or “benchmarks”) for SEL. The most influential framework, which was developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), is organized around five competence clusters that include thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors related to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

In 2017, a 28-member Council of Distinguished Scientists examined the relevant evidence regarding SEL across a range of disciplines and concluded that social and emotional competencies are essential to learning; positive development; and success in school, careers, and life. A Learning Policy Institute report provides further support for the evidence base for SEL. The report reviews the findings from 12 independent meta-analyses covering hundreds of studies of school-based SEL programs, presents the evidence on the effects of social and emotional learning programs in PreK–12 schools, and considers the next steps for research in SEL.

The Evidence Base for Social and Emotional Learning

Much of the current body of research on social and emotional learning (SEL) is summarized in 12 meta-analyses of SEL-based research outcomes, conducted by a variety of independent researchers around the world. Each meta-analysis empirically synthesized a set of high-quality studies, most of which used rigorous research methods that meet the Tier 1 and 2 criteria for evidence-based interventions under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

These meta-analyses provide evidence of SEL program effectiveness for students in every grade level (PreK–12) and have shown medium to large effect sizes on the following outcomes:

  • SEL programs, usually taught by classroom teachers, promote the development of social and emotional competencies.
  • Fostering these competencies facilitates positive, prosocial behaviors and positive relationships with others.
  • SEL programs reduce disruptive behavior problems and emotional distress.
  • Fostering these competencies increases students’ engagement in learning and subsequently improves students’ cognitive and academic performance.

Two of these meta-analyses have examined longer-term effects and found sustained positive impacts. These findings hold across all grade levels and across gender, ethnicity and race, income, and other demographic variables.

Implementing SEL Effectively

Research also supports the importance of effective ongoing professional development for teachers and principals to successfully implement SEL in schools. Teachers need training to understand how to effectively implement SEL programs for children but focusing on teachers’ own SEL is also beneficial for their own well-being, teaching quality, and for improving outcomes for students. Like teachers, principals rarely received the training or mentoring needed to prepare them for effective SEL implementation and to create caring, supportive school environments infused with SEL.

It has long been noted by scholars and practitioners that SEL programs will be more effective and sustained in school ecologies that adopt a broad vision and series of policies and practices that support whole child development and that complement and reinforce SEL programs. Full implementation of SEL calls for a systemic approach that uses continuous improvement practices.

Considerations for Future SEL Research

Although there have been many high-quality studies of SEL programs and the current body of evidence is strong and promising, not all of the SEL programs currently available have developed a strong evidence base.

The following suggestions are recommended for the next generation of SEL research:

  1. Studies of SEL programs should be designed, wherever possible, to meet Tier 1 or Tier 2 ESSA criteria for comparison group designs or statistical controls.
  2. Universal SEL studies should seek large enough samples to detect critically important but low-rate events.
  3. Studies of SEL programs should examine impacts on development over time.
  4. Universal intervention trials should look beyond main effects to understand the effects for different groups of students, for example, by cultural content, race and ethnicity, sexual identity, and disability status.
  5. Research needs to identify the best ways for programs to promote equity and cultural competence.
  6. Studies that involve program developers should be replicated by independent researchers.
  7. Researchers should utilize reliable and valid assessments that measure multiple outcomes that fully test the logic model of the intervention.
  8. Researchers should consider additional benchmarks of impact—beyond the conventional effect size benchmarks—to more appropriately quantify and present the range of impacts for distinctive audiences.

Implementing and Sustaining SEL as a Public Health Approach

Successful and sustainable SEL requires supportive infrastructures and processes. Practice-based research demonstrates that systemic efforts to promote SEL include the following core features:

  • developing a shared vision that prioritizes fully integrating SEL with academic learning for all students;
  • identifying and building on existing strengths and supports for SEL at all levels;
  • establishing infrastructure and resources for professional development—both in the central office and at the school level—that can build SEL awareness, enhance adults’ own social and emotional competence, and cultivate effective SEL instructional practices;
  • establishing student learning standards for SEL that guide the scope and sequence of SEL programming;
  • adopting and aligning evidence-based programs to develop social and emotional skills in classrooms and throughout the school;
  • integrating SEL and the development of a supportive climate into all school goals, priorities, initiatives, programs, and strategies;
  • creating effective strategies to communicate frequently with parents to establish partnerships to enhance children’s social and emotional competence and positive behavior;
  • coordinating with specialized mental health services to create aligned approaches for building children’s skills and managing their behavior in different contexts; and
  • establishing a learning community among school staff to encourage reflection and the use of data to improve SEL practice and student outcomes.

Finally, to improve SEL programs and make informed decisions about their effectiveness in a particular school context, leaders should continuously assess stakeholder perspectives, program implementation, children’s outcomes, school and district resources, new state and federal policies, and scientific advances.

Evidence for Social and Emotional Learning in Schools by Mark T. Greenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Funding for this project was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Harmony SEL and Inspire: Leading In Learning at National University; William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Pure Edge, Inc.; and The Wallace Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the author and not those of our funders.