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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Social and Emotional Learning Research Review

Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
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Numerous research reports show that social and emotional learning (SEL) can have a positive impact on students' academic performance. Edutopia's SEL research review explores those reports and helps make sense of the results. In this series of four articles, learn how researchers define social and emotional learning, review some of the possible learning outcomes, get our recommendations of evidence-based programs, find tips for avoiding pitfalls when implementing SEL programs, and dig in to a comprehensive annotated bibliography with links to all the studies and reports cited in these pages.

Schools That Work:

Elementary school children in the WINGS for Kids afterschool program in North Charleston, South Carolina, learn social and emotional skills. Learn more about this program.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

How do we define social and emotional learning (SEL)? Researchers generally agree upon five key competencies of SEL (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011). These competencies provide the foundation for maintaining high-quality social relationships and for responding to the challenges of life.

  • What are my thoughts and feelings?
  • What causes those thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I express my thoughts and feelings respectfully?
  • What different responses can I have to an event?
  • How can I respond to an event as constructively as possible?
  • How can I better understand other people's thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I better understand why people feel and think the way they do?
  • How can I adjust my actions so that my interactions with different people turn out well?
  • How can I communicate my expectations to other people?
  • How can I communicate with other people to understand and manage their expectations of me?
  • What consequences will my actions have on myself and others?
  • How do my choices align with my values?
  • How can I solve problems creatively?
Editor's Note: To learn more about the five key competencies, visit the "What is SEL? Skills and Competencies" page from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

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.

Continue to the next section of the SEL research review, Evidence-Based Programs.

Social and Emotional Learning Overview

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Focusing on the general well being of the students helps teachers consider their own well being and stress level. Clearly, as the kids are more content and focused, that relieves loads of teacher stress.

Steve Silvius's picture

Really loving working with Fuel Ed, Los Angeles based non-profit that is trying to help teachers with these issues. Thank you for the research summary and I hope more and more teachers and students can get direct support with social/emotional learning.

StephanieThoma's picture
Social Media Marketing Intern / Edutopia

I began learning SEL in Elementary School with the "I statement" campaign my principal felt extremely strongly about enforcing. As a modern day adult I can say that communication framing skill has been valuable in all of my personal, and professional communications, especially involving conflict. I wholeheartedly believe that increased SEL in schools will help children (the adults of the future) coexist with greater ease and understanding.

Francesca Cavallo's picture

One aspects I consider crucial to SEL is that it needs to be a shared really shared by teachers and children. In the school of my dreams teachers would ask themselves the same questions. What do you think?

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

Yes, I agree that in order to teach social and emotional learning, you have to understand it and model it.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music - Bullyproof Rainbow Resources

From much experience, I absolutely concur. The comments here are also spot on. I just want to add my gratitude to Edutopia for supporting SEL. It will truly take a village to change the world.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

I remember when I first read this. Reviewing it again is a powerful reminder of the good set in motion when Edutopia decided to highlight SEL.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

New research on empathy and preschoolers:

Preschoolers with low empathy at risk for continued problems

"A toddler who doesn't feel guilty after misbehaving or who is less affectionate or less responsive to affection from others might not raise a red flag to parents, but these behaviors may result in later behavior problems in 1st grade."

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