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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Social and Emotional Learning Research Review: Evidence-Based Programs

Choosing the best program to implement social and emotional learning in your school can be daunting. Edutopia's research analyst recommends these research-proven programs.
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
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Five young girls huddled together cheek-to-cheek smiling
Schools That Work: In North Charleston, South Carolina, elementary school girls build strong relationships as part of the WINGS for Kids afterschool program. Photo credit: Grace Rubenstein

Given the strong evidence that social and emotional learning can contribute to academic success, how do educators choose the right SEL programs? We've compiled a chart with our recommendations for some of the most effective research-proven SEL programs available.

Evidence-Based SEL Programs*
  Practices Outcomes & Evidence
Roots of Empathy
  • Classroom sessions over a twenty-seven-week program involve nine family visits with a baby (ages 6-12 months). The trainer facilitates the curriculum, and can be anyone except the teacher who participates in a training program with Roots of Empathy.
  • Decreased aggression (approximately half as many youth getting into fights each year)
  • Increased prosocial behavior
  • Immediate and long-term effects, lasting up to three years after intervention

(Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman-Zait & Hertzman, 2012; Santos, Chartier, Whalen, Chateau & Boyd, 2011; Cain & Carnellor, 2008)

Positive Action
  • Thinking and doing positive actions
  • Based on the premise that you feel good about yourself when you think and do positive actions, and that there is always a positive way to do things.
  • Academic achievement gains, averaging 14 percentile points
  • Decreased violent behaviors, averaging 19 percentile points

(U.S. Department of Education, 2007)

Responsive Classroom Approach
  • Morning meetings
  • Three to five positively stated school rules (developmentally and individually relevant to the child) for the whole school or classroom
  • Responding to misbehavior with positive redirecting language and logical consequences
  • Problem-solving strategies in class or small-groups; written agreements with individual students
  • Modeling, role-playing and positive teacher language to teach expected behaviors
  • Continuous evaluation of implementation and impact
  • Increased math and reading test scores
  • Improved student attitudes about schools, teachers, and peers
  • Decreased misbehavior and improved social skills
  • Teachers felt more effective and positive about teaching, offered higher-quality instruction, and collaborated more frequently with other teachers

(Brock, Nishida, Chiong, Grimm & Rimm-Kaufman, 2008; Sawyer & Rimm-Kaufman, 2007; Rimm-Kauffman & Chiu, 2007; Rimm-Kaufman, Fan, Chiu & You, 2007)

Second Step
  • Skills in impulse control, (e.g. using self-talk), showing empathy, anger and emotional management, and problem-solving
  • Brain Builder Games to develop self-regulation skills
  • Increased cooperative behavior
  • Reduced aggression in the classroom, lasting up to six months.

(Cooke, Ford, Levin, Bourke, Newell & Lapidus, 2007; Grossman, Neckerman, Koepsell, Liu, Asher, Beland, Frey & Rivara, 1997; Frey, Nolen, Van Schioack, Edstrom & Hirschstein, 2005)

4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution)
Resolving Conflict Creatively Program
  • Continual training of teachers
  • Problem solving by using perspective-taking, decision-making, and negotiation techniques
  • Peer mediation
  • Parent training and coaching
  • Decreased hostility and aggression
  • Increased reading and math test scores among high-risk students

(Jones, Brown & Aber, 2011; Aber, Brown & Jones, 2003; Aber, Jones, Brown, Cahudry & Samples, 1998)

  • Mindfulness, or open-monitoring meditation, involves observing thoughts and emotions without reacting to them.
  • Focused-attention meditation involves focusing on a single object.
  • School-based meditation practices ranged from 10 to 40 minutes, daily to bi-weekly, over three to six months.
  • Decreased aggression and rule infractions
  • Improved academic functioning on attention-skills tests
  • Decreased anxiety

(Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010; Black, Milam & Sussman, 2009; Barnes, Bauza & Treiber, 2003; Napoli, Krech, & Holley, 2005; Zylowska, Auckerman, Yang, Futrell, Horton, Hale, Pataki & Smalley, 2008; Semple, Reid & Miller, 2005)

Service Learning
  • Involving students in designing, implementing, and evaluating service projects
  • Community partnerships that provide real-world context for service, communication, and interaction
  • Projects have clear educational goals and meet genuine community needs
  • Can protect from negative life stresses
  • Can improve relationships with peers and adults
  • Can increase civic engagement

(Hamilton & Fenzel, 1988; Yates & Youniss, 1996; Markus et al, 1993; cited in Stukas, Clary & Snyder, 1999; Scales et al., 2000; Billig, 2002)

Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support
  • Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), also known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS or PBS), is an approach to preventing problem behaviors and promoting positive behaviors.
  • Three to five positive expectations are chosen and reinforced for the entire school.
  • Moderately effective in reducing misbehavior, particularly in urban settings

(Solomon, Klein, Hintze, et al., 2012)

(*) Programs and practices listed here received support from at least three studies by independent evaluators and/or peer-reviewed publications, using controlled experimental designs and independent outcome measures. Please leave a comment to alert us to additional programs that have strong evidence of success.

Continue to the next section of the SEL research review, Avoiding Pitfalls.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Vanessa Vega's picture
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

Katy, Thanks for the suggestion. When this review was originally published, we were not aware of the 2012 meta-analysis that summarizes peer-reviewed studies in support of PBIS. Thanks for helping us to keep our recommendations current! We always love to hear about your experiences with SEL programs as well. Cheers, Vanessa

Katy Kramer Lee's picture

Hello Vanessa! I hope the following link will assist you in updating the site.
There is so much more to PBIS than what is in the description. Here is a link to research regarding PBIS. It includes references to research evidence for practices at all three levels of support including core, supplemental and intensive levels of support:

All the best,

Vanessa Vega's picture
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

Hi Katy, Thanks for the link, which will certainly be useful to educators seeking to learn more about PBIS. I agree that there is much more to SWPBS than what we can hilight in this abbreviated context, which is intended to direct educators who are short on time to the most vetted practices. An interesting point made by Solomon et al. (2012), in their careful, independent analysis of 20 studies over the past 16 years is that there is not enough peer-reviewed research on the secondary and tertiary interventions of SWPBS (i.e. in the context of Response to Intervention) to say whether or not these practices are effective, even though SWPBS is often used with RTI. According to their analysis, at this time, there is only enough evidence to support the school-wide, or "tier-1," intervention that affects all students. This does not mean that secondary, and/or tertiary-level applications of SWPBS don't work, it just means that we don't know yet because there hasn't been enough research to provide a fair test of the question. Hope this helps to clarify, and thank you for your followup! Vanessa

Jamie's picture
Elementary Art teacher from Edgewater, Marylaned

PBIS is listed

Vanessa Vega's picture
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

Hi Michael, Thank you so much for sharing your own positive experiences with the program! We did review the PATHS program and while the research support is promising, much of the research on PATHS is done by the developers of the program. This particular set of recommendations is limited to programs that have received support from at least three studies by independent evaluators and/or peer-reviewed publications, using controlled experimental designs and independent outcome measures. PATHS is on our radar, so we'll check on it regularly if any new research emerges.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

@Rachel, thanks for catching that. I'll let our editorial team know about the bad link.

Kari Kovick's picture

Do you know of any arts-based SEL curricula? I am a music educator, and feel that combining SEL education in schools with opportunities for the children to express themselves freely through art, music, movement and play could allow some of those messier energies to find acceptance. It is really hard to give kids permission to be themselves while at the same time socializing them to be part of a community. They need freedom and acceptance as well as knowing when to express and when to inhibit certain impulses. Such a tall order for a teacher, parent, and for the child. What do you know about SEL Arts programs?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Kari! I'm not sure that it's really a "curriculum" per se, but the teachers at Creative City Charter School (http://creativecityschool.org) in Baltimore are doing some really great stuff with this. You should check them out! The art teacher there, Morag Bradford, is doing some really great work. I'm sure she'd be happy to talk to you about your questions.

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