Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Long-Term Economic Benefits of Social and Emotional Learning

Evidence suggests that universal SEL programs for children and adolescents can offer tremendous return on investment in reducing problems, promoting competence, and improving school success.

August 18, 2016
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Editor's note: This piece by Damon Jones, Mark T. Greenberg, and Max Crowley is adapted from the Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning, now available from Guilford Press.

What Is the Current Evidence for the Effectiveness of School-Based Prevention?

The past two decades have brought clear progress and a stronger empirical understanding to the fields of school-based prevention and the broader field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) (Greenberg et al., 2003). There are now a considerable number of evidence-based classroom and family-based curricula that have been shown to reduce adverse mental health symptoms, substance use, and associated risk factors. Reviews and meta-analyses of the prevention of substance abuse (Gottfredson & Wilson, 2003; Lochman & van den Steenhoven, 2002), violence and antisocial behavior (Fagan & Catalano, 2013; Wilson, Lipsey, & Derzon, 2003), poor mental health (Greenberg et al., 2001; Hoagwood et al., 2007), and positive youth development (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2004) have shown that both universal and targeted prevention programs can substantially reduce the rate of problem behaviors and symptoms, as well as build protective factors that reduce further risk in child and adolescent populations. A meta-analysis examined the effectiveness of universal school-based SEL interventions on a variety of outcomes (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). This review indicated that interventions have a substantial impact on a variety of outcomes, including aggression and disruption, social and emotional competence, school bonding, prosocial norms, disciplinary referrals, emotional distress, and academic achievement.

Schools are a primary setting in which children first learn to negotiate complex social relations with peers and have the opportunity to build the essential skills that will allow them to be productive members of society. Because of their central role, schools not only focus on traditional core subjects, but also support children's development into contributing citizens. In our global, competitive society, schools play an important role in attempting to ensure that all students learn how to interact with others from diverse backgrounds in socially and emotionally skilled ways, practice healthy behaviors, and behave responsibly and respectfully (Greenberg et al., 2003).

The potential benefits of improved behavior and well-being of school-age children are both direct and long-term. Improved behavior leads to a healthier classroom atmosphere and reduced interruptions, and supports effective instruction that influences academic achievement. Broader and longer-term benefits also accrue from improvements in social relations with others and reductions in delinquency, antisocial behavior, school dropout, academic failure, and mental health problems. Building protective factors to promote mental health can in turn reduce the likelihood of future health problems and poor adult outcomes (Greenberg, Domitrovich, & Bumbarger, 2001; Weissberg, Kumpfer, & Seligman, 2003).

The Need for Economic Evaluation

Universal social and emotional learning programs can be effective in reducing problems, promoting competence, and improving school success. Yet, in spite of this evidence, SEL is marginalized in educational decision making by most educators and policymakers. We believe that one missing component in the analysis of social and emotional education is high-quality evaluation that will provide evidence of the potential economic benefit from implementing SEL models in schools. It is quite clear that policymakers, as well as educators, place considerable value on economic evaluation in their decisions about educational decision making (Greenstone, Harris, Li, Looney, & Patashnik, 2012). In addition to information on the potential cost savings of SEL programs, budget administrators require clear information on the immediate and longer-term costs of effectively implementing new programs.

Do Universal SEL Programs Lead to Economic Gains?

While research on SEL programs generally focuses on behavioral, social-emotional, cognitive, and academic outcomes, a few studies demonstrate promising economic benefits. The Seattle Social Development Project -- a program directed toward improving child social and emotional functioning across elementary school into early middle school -- was found to have an effect on outcomes extending into young adulthood, covering areas of mental and emotional health, as well as reduced crime and substance use. Economic evaluation estimated a return on investment that exceeded $2,500 per participant on outcomes such as increased likelihood to graduate from high school, lower rates of K-12 grade retention, lower rates of initiating sexual activity, and less criminal activity among group participants (Lee et al., 2012).

The Life Skills Project provides another example of the potential for economic benefit from a school-based universal program. This low-cost intervention (roughly $34 per participant) delivered by teachers in middle school classroom settings addresses risks for substance use in adolescence, with components that teach students self-management skills, social skills, and information regarding the dangers of substance abuse. The most recent assessment of this program estimated a return on investment of almost $1,300 per participant, representing over $37 returned (to participants and society) per dollar invested. These results were based on program effects on substance misuse (including tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs) and associated criminal activity (Lee et al., 2012).

A broad examination of the projected economic return from six effective SEL programs found that all provided a return on investment, in some cases far exceeding the initial costs of the program; on average, the return on investment was $11 for every dollar toward intervention (Belfield et al., 2015). The potential for good programs to provide an economic benefit is sensible, given evidence showing the link between early SEL skills and costly long-term outcomes in domains of crime, education, employment, and other markers of well-being (Jones et al., 2015).

Other studies have provided examples of the economic returns that may be expected from universal programs. For instance, a 2008 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (SAMHSA) summarized the economic benefits of effective programs targeting substance use and misuse (which teach numerous SEL skills), noting that a large-scale, cross-program investment in school-based prevention would produce an $18 return per dollar invested and save state and local governments an estimated $1.3 billion (Miller & Hendrie, 2009). This report emphasized the relevance of substance use outcomes to societal costs, including the associated increased criminal activity, need for health services, and future loss of productivity. Although these studies demonstrate how universal programs that teach SEL skills can have an economic impact, it must be noted that estimates are largely based on program effects for more readily monetized outcomes. As discussed, an obstacle in determining the economic value of SEL is the lack of such monetizable measures for many SEL programs, especially for younger children. Because of this, an increased focus on the economic value of social-emotional competence and SEL at early ages is needed (e.g., understanding the role that improved social-emotional skills play in increasing the likelihood for attaining a degree).

Why SEL Is a Public Health Issue

When it comes to general health, the value of prevention is usually unquestioned. SEL researchers and educators could frame effective prevention programs in the same light, as necessary on a large scale for the sake of public budgets, as well as both personal and societal well-being. We see substantial benefits in the economic value of SEL. Hundreds of billions of dollars in public money are required each year to address societal problems associated with crime, substance abuse, and poor physical and mental health in general (e.g., Insel, 2008; McCollister, French, & Fang, 2010; Rehm et al., 2009). The vast funds necessary for addressing such problems once they become entrenched greatly exceed the resources directed toward preventive efforts whose short- and long-term benefits could improve lives and avoid large public and personal costs. Increasing the quality and volume of economic evaluations of evidence-based SEL programs is a necessary step in convincing policymakers and the public to support more broadly children's social and emotional development toward improving our public health.


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  • Catalano, R.F., Berglund, M.L., Ryan, J.A.M., Lonczak, H.S., & Hawkins, J.D. (2004). “Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591(1), pp.98-124.
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  • Weissberg, R.P., Kumpfer, K.L., & Seligman, M.E. (2003). “Prevention that works for children and youth: An introduction.” American Psychologist, 58(6-7), pp.425-432.
  • Wilson, S.J., Lipsey, M.W., & Derzon, J.H. (2003). “The effects of school-based intervention programs on aggressive behavior: A meta-analysis.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71(1), pp.136-149.

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