SEAL: The big experiment

Jean Gross explores whether social and emotional learning programmes can be implemented on a national scale

RECENT VISITORS to St George’s Primary School in Bristol would have seen children learning to take another’s perspective by discussing the classic Three Little Pigs story written from the wolf’s point of view. They would have watched children in another class work in fours then complete a checklist to evaluate their groupwork skills. They would also have seen an assembly in which one class performed a dance showing what anger looks like, described the things that made them angry and demonstrated relaxation techniques that helped them calm down.

What we know
● SEAL is a comprehensive approach to promoting social and emotional skills.
● It was devised in England, drawing on international evidence of what works in SEL programmes.
● Evaluation has shown a major impact on teacher-reported children’s well being, confidence, communication skills and relationships.
● ‘Gold standard’ evidence in the form of randomised controlled trials is not yet available.

This school was implementing England’s SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) programme, defined by government as “a comprehensive approach to promoting the social and emotional skills that underpin effective learning, positive behaviour, regular attendance, staff effectiveness and the emotional health and well being of all who learn and work in schools”.

A little history

SEAL was developed by psychologists and teachers in response to growing evidence from across the world, particularly but not exclusively the US, on the positive impact of social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes on a range of areas including mental health, behaviour and school achievement. It represents an ambitious attempt to develop a universal entitlement for all pupils to SEL. The intention was to provide a programme that was system-ready – that is, a programme which would fit the English educational system and mesh with other educational priorities so as to achieve good take-up.

SEAL was devised on the basis of best evidence on “what works”, including influential US reviews from CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) which synthesise research on existing programmes and draw out key principles of effective and sustainable practice. These include:

  • Clarity about learning goals. SEAL uses an overall five-fold taxonomy of social and emotional skills (empathy, self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation and social skills), with 50 generic learning outcomes clustered within this;
  • A holistic approach which recognises the importance of the school environment for developing social and emotional competencies;
  • A focus on staff development;
  • Quality teaching and learning for all pupils;
  • Linked more intensive/extensive additional work for children with particular difficulties;
  • Explicit teaching of skills, using teaching methods that are participative and experiential rather than didactic;
  • Practice and generalisation throughout the school day;
  • Involvement of parents and community;
  • Starting early and taking a long-term developmental approach through a spiral curriculum in which key learning is constantly re-visited.

There are also some distinct differences between the UK SEAL programme and most of those available elsewhere (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Key differences between SEAL and existing programmes.
ContentDesign features
A focus on managing uncomfortable emotions other than just anger – eg anxiety, responses to bereavement and loss, coping with change.

An explicit focus on skills children need to be effective learners – teamwork, managing attention and concentration, persisting in the face of difficulty, bouncing back after setbacks, setting goals and working towards them.

An explicit focus on valuing others, responding to diversity, and reducing bullying.
A less prescriptive stance than many US programmes.

An enquiry-led approach which helps children to explore and develop their own understandings.

A cross-curricular approach that involves detailed exemplification of work in all subject areas.

The use of ICT as a learning medium.

A shared whole-school focus on a theme defined in assembly and followed up in class.

Evidence-based or evidence-informed practice?

The international evidence of impact from SEL programmes in general is strong. A recent meta-analysis by Durlak, Weissberg and colleagues summarised results from 207 programmes and found an 11% improvement in achievement tests, 25% improvement in social and emotional skills, and 10% decrease in classroom misbehaviour, anxiety and depression.

But what about SEAL itself? The programme has never been the subject of “gold standard” evaluation using randomised controlled trials, as have many US initiatives, and so is better described as evidence-informed rather than evidence-based. There has been evaluation, however. Susan Hallam and a team at the London Institute of Education evaluated the 2003–5 pilot of primary SEAL in 25 local authorities. Questionnaires administered to 5,000+ children before and after the intervention revealed clear positive age-related improvements in social skills and relationships, which the evaluators attribute to the programme rather than age-related change. Head teachers also completed questionnaires, with 100% indicating that the programme had a positive impact on children’s well-being and attitudes towards school, 83% saying that staff–pupil relationships had improved and 77% indicating that behaviour had improved in classrooms.

Nationally available attainment data for the years 2002/3 and 2003/4 were analysed for all of the schools involved. Improvements in literacy and numeracy standards in schools using the resources exceeded those of schools nationally.

A team at Manchester University evaluated the additional small group work for children with particular difficulties. 624 pupils in 37 primary schools were involved. Although this group work element of SEAL is relatively light-touch (around six one-hour sessions), the researchers concluded that that “there is statistically significant evidence that primary SEAL small group work has a positive impact”, with effect sizes for each intervention typically around 0.4 on at least one of several measures used. The measured impact of the interventions was sustained over a seven week period following the end of the intervention.

Local small-scale evaluations have also consistently shown a positive impact of SEAL at whole school level. For example, in Leeds a cross-over design has compared schools coming into the SEAL programme with schools in the next cohort to join. This has shown an impact on attainment, attendance and a rating scale of emotional and behavioural development. Interestingly, the more use of the materials there has been (the more half-termly “themes” covered), the greater the gains.

Lacking control groups, but still of interest, are the growing number of local evaluations of family learning workshops in which children and their parents come together for SEAL activities. In Swindon, for example, pre- and post-questionnaire data from 90 families have shown a 43% improvement in the quality of relationships in the home, and evaluations from Dorset have shown large and statistically significant improvements in teacher-rated pupil behaviour following the workshops.

Where next?

Schools value SEAL highly. Take-up has been good, with most primary schools and an increasing number of secondary schools now saying they use the materials “to some extent”. But the intensity and rigour with which they are used (and particularly the amount of time committed to staff training) varies enormously. There is, as ever, an inherent tension between scale and fidelity – scale being achieved here through a non-prescriptive approach which schools can adapt to their needs and context, but at the potential expense of reliably “doing what works”. More needs to be done to provide gold-standard evidence of the differential impact of SEAL implemented with fidelity, substantial training and expert support, and SEAL implemented in the more hit-and-miss manner that is probably closer to the norm. This kind of evidence might move us a step further in achieving the elusive goal of a SEL scheme that is both implemented system-wide, and implemented in the manner in which it was first designed and trialled – or alternatively, tell us to look elsewhere for our future programmes.

About the author

Jean Gross was formerly a director in the government’s National Strategies, responsible for work on social and emotional learning. By background an educational psychologist, she is a Visiting Fellow at London University’s Institute of Education and currently the government’s Communication Champion for children.

Further reading

Hallam S, Rhamie J, & Shaw J (2006), Evaluation of the Primary Behaviour and Attendance pilot. London: DCSF

Humphrey N, Kalambouka A, Bolton J, Lendrum A, Wigelsworth M, Lennie C, & Farrell P (2008), Primary Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) Evaluation of Small Group Work. London: DCSF

CASEL (2006), Sustainable Schoolwide Social and Emotional Learning: Implementation Guide.


February 2010