Social Emotional Learning Research Summary

  • Learning Outcomes

    A meta-analysis of 213 programs, primarily covering three decades of research, found that social and emotional learning interventions that address the competencies listed above increased students' academic performance by 11 percentile points, as compared to students who did not participate in such SEL programs (Durlak et al., 2011). The social and emotional learning programs also reduced aggression and emotional distress among students, increased helping behaviors in school, and improved positive attitudes toward self and others (Durlak et al., 2011). Effective SEL programs addressed the five key competencies listed above, explicitly and sequentially, and used active-learning techniques to engage youth in developing understanding of them. Specific practices and programs shown by multiple, rigorous, peer-reviewed studies to benefit K-12 youth are described on the Evidence-Based Programs page of the SEL research review.

    SEL Skills and Academic Success

    Relationships and emotional processes affect how and what we learn. By reducing misbehavior and the amount of time spent on classroom management, SEL programs create more time for teaching and learning. SEL also strengthens students' relationships with their peers, families, and teachers, who are mediators, collaborators, and encouragers of academic achievement.

    Researchers have documented the importance of caring teacher-student and student-student relationships in fostering students' commitment to school and in promoting academic success (e.g. Blum & Libby, 2004; Hamre & Pianta, 2006; Hawkins, Smith, & Catalano, 2004; Jennings & Greenberg 2009; cited in Durlak, et al., 2011). Safe and orderly environments that encourage and reinforce positive classroom behavior have been identified by research as one of the necessary conditions for academic achievement (Marzano, 2003).

    There are also several person-centered reasons SEL can promote academic success. Self-regulation, the ability to control and manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, has been linked to academic achievement in numerous studies. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002; cited in Durlak et al., 2011). Students who set high academic goals, have self-discipline, motivate themselves, manage stress, and organize their approach to work learn more and get better grades (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Elliot & Dweck, 2005; cited in Durlak et al., 2011). Finally, students who use problem-solving skills to overcome obstacles and make responsible decisions about studying and completing homework do better academically (Zins & Elias, 2006; cited in Durlak et al., 2011).

    According to a national survey of middle and high school students, less than one third indicated that their school provided a caring, encouraging environment, and less than half reported that they had competencies such as empathy, conflict resolution and decision-making skills (Benson, 2006; cited in Durlak et al., 2011). By strengthening students' social support networks and their skills in self-management, SEL can help to unleash the potential within academic environments to support students' well-being and success.

    Several studies explore the long-term benefits of social and emotional learning programs. In one, researchers examined how SEL intervention programs (such as social skills training, parent training with home visits, peer coaching, reading tutoring, and classroom social-emotional curricula) for kindergarten students impacted their adult lives, and found that these programs led to 10% (59% vs. 69% for the control group) fewer psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse problems at the age of 25 (Dodge et al., 2014). Another study examined kindergarten teachers’ ratings of their student’s prosocial skills (e.g. kindness, sharing, and empathy) and discovered a strong correlation to adult outcomes such as higher educational attainment, stronger employment, and better mental health, in addition to reduced criminal activity and substance use (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). Finally, researchers analyzed the economic impact of six widely-used SEL programs and found that on average, every dollar invested yields $11 in long-term benefits, ranging from reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health (Belfield et al., 2015).

    A 2017 research review found that SEL programs can promote academic success and increase positive behavior, while reducing misconduct, substance abuse, and emotional distress for elementary school students. In addition, effective SEL programs are enhanced when schools partner with families and when they are culturally and linguistically sensitive (Dusenbury & Weissberg, 2017).