Social and emotional learning programs that work

Hundreds of controlled research studies conducted during the past few decades indicate that social and emotional learning programs can improve students’ academic performance and emotional development. Joseph Durlak and Roger Weissberg explore the evidence  

EDUCATORS, POLICY MAKERS, and the public agree that young people should leave school proficient in academic subjects, but should also be responsible, respectful, and able to work well with others. Schools play a critical role in working with families and communities to raise knowledgeable, happy, caring, contributing children when they successfully foster students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. Because schools have limited resources and are experiencing intense pressure to promote academic performance, educators must identify and effectively implement research-based approaches that produce multiple benefits.

What we know
● Well-designed SEL programs offered during and after school can significantly improve children’s attitudes, behaviors, and academic performance.
● Programs benefit K to 12 students from different ethnic groups, and those with or without behavioral and emotional problems.
● Programs following recommended practices in developing skills (SAFE programs) are more effective.
● Careful program implementation increases the chances of success.

A growing body of research has examined the impact on behavior and school performance of educational, youth-development, preventive, and clinical interventions that promote social and emotional learning (SEL). Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and young people (as well as adults) acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to:

  • Recognize and manage emotions;
  • Set and achieve positive goals;
  • Demonstrate care and concern for others;
  • Establish and maintain positive relationships;
  • Make responsible decisions; and
  • Handle interpersonal situations effectively.

There are a variety of ways to promote students’ social-emotional competence. SEL skills may be taught, modeled, and practiced so that children and young people use them as part of their behavioral repertoire in dealing with daily life challenges. Some programs teach students to apply SEL skills to prevent risky behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, violence, and bullying) or to contribute to their class, school, and community (e.g., service learning). Other approaches foster social-emotional development through establishing safe, caring learning environments involving peer and family initiatives, improving classroom management and teaching practices, and whole school community-building activities. The focus of many SEL programs involves school-wide and classroom-based promotion and prevention activities for all students. Some small-group SEL programs address the social-emotional skills of children experiencing behavioral and emotional difficulties.

This article summarizes the key findings and implications of three large-scale systematic reviews of outcome research on the impact of SEL programs for school-age children and young people (ages 5–18).

The Universal Review examined the impact of universal school-based SEL interventions, that is, classroom-based or school-wide interventions that are appropriate for all students.

The Indicated Review focused on school-based early intervention or indicated programs, meaning interventions that identify and work with students who are displaying early signs of behavioral or emotional problems.

The After-School Review evaluated SEL interventions conducted in after-school programs, which primarily involved students without identified problems.

In other words, we evaluated SEL programs across two different time periods and settings (during the school day and after school) and for two different types of student populations (those without any identified problems in the Universal and After-School Reviews and those with early identified problems in the Indicated Review).

Each review addressed the following research questions:

  • Do SEL programs significantly improve participants’ skills, attitudes, behaviors, and academic performance?
  • Are SEL programs effective in school and after school and for students with problems (Indicated Review) and without problems (Universal and After-School Reviews)?
  • What features are associated with more effective SEL programs?

Methods and results from the three scientific reviews

Each review evaluated published and unpublished studies in which children or adolescents receiving an SEL intervention were compared to a control group and there was at least one quantitative outcome assessing youths’ adjustment. Studies conducted around the world were included (the majority were done in the U.S.) if they appeared in English by the end of 2008 and involved students between kindergarten and high school. Collectively, the three reviews included 368 studies involving 322,245 children and young people.

Results of each review supported the value of SEL programs in significantly enhancing multiple aspects of students’ adjustment. For example, compared to controls at post-test, students in SEL programs demonstrated superior SEL skills and prosocial attitudes, higher levels of prosocial behavior, reduced levels of conduct problems and emotional distress, and enhanced academic performance including up to an 11 percentile gain in school achievement. In each review, SEL programs were effective for students of all ages and from different ethnic groups, and in the Indicated Review were successful for those beginning to show behavioral or emotional problems. In other words, findings provided positive answers to our first two research questions.

To answer our third research question, we carefully examined which of several possible methodological and procedural features were associated with better outcomes, although some variables could not be evaluated in each review because of the way the studies were conducted and reported. Nevertheless, data indicated that two factors increased the effectiveness of SEL programs. Programs that followed four evidence-based practices related to skill development (in the Universal and After-School Reviews) and those free of major implementation problems (in the Universal Review) were more effective than programs not having these features. For example, programs were more successful if they offered a sequential and integrated skills curriculum or program, used active forms of learning to promote skills, focused sufficient attention on skill development, and established explicit learning goals. These practices form the acronym SAFE, for sequential, active, focused, and explicit. Results were also better when interventions were monitored and appeared to be free of major problems while they were being conducted.

Conclusion

Youths’ social, emotional, and academic development are related, and promoting social and emotional development can lead to several desirable outcomes. Well-designed and carefully executed universal and indicated programs – administered during school or after school – can increase positive student behavior and academic performance, and also reduce disruptive behavior and emotional distress. It is critical to offer professional development to school and after-school personnel to deliver programs that follow recommended practices for promoting skills and to monitor program implementation.

Policy makers, educators, and the public should support the incorporation of evidence-based SEL programming into school and after-school settings. One important question for future research and practice is to determine the extent to which coordinated programming efforts (e.g., Universal plus Indicated or During-School plus After-School) produce more powerful effects than when programs are offered separately. We expect that combined programs would have even more potential to promote positive school and life success for more students, and believe that such programs should be delivered and carefully evaluated.

About the authors

Joseph A. Durlak is a Professor of Psychology at Loyola University Chicago and his major interests are in mental health promotion and prevention programs for children and adolescents (email: jdurlak@luc.edu).

Roger P. Weissberg is Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the President of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (email: rpw@uic.edu).

Author note. This article is based on research funded by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Further reading

Durlak JA, Weissberg RP, Dymnicki AB, Taylor RD, & Schellinger KB (in press), The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-analysis of School-based Universal Interventions. Child Development.

Durlak JA, Weissberg RP, & Pachan M (in press), A Meta-analysis of After-school Programs that Seek to Promote Personal and Social Skills in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Community Psychology.

Payton J, Weissberg RP, Durlak JA, Dymnicki AB, Taylor RD, Schellinger KB, & Pachan M (2008), The Positive Impact of Social and Emotional Learning for Kindergarten to Eighth-grade Students. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) www.casel.org.

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Published

February 2010