Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Study: Promoting Students’ Personal and Social Development Boosts Academic Outcomes, a Guest Blog by Joseph Durlak

March 23, 2011

Editor's Note: Today's blogger is Dr Joseph Durlak, lead author of a recent study, "The Impact of Enhancing Students" Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions," published in the January-February 2011 issue of Child Development.

Joe Durlak

At a time when pressures on educators to improve students' academic achievement seem to have reached a boiling point, one program category, social and emotional learning, has produced academic gains that equal the results of many programs focused exclusively on academics.

Important Findings

This is one of the most important findings from a far-reaching review of social and emotional learning programs for which I was the principal investigator. I led the multi-year study, funded primarily by the W.T. Grant Foundation, as a professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Working closely with me were Roger P. Weissberg, professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and graduate students at both Loyola and UIC. Dr. Weissberg is also president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on advancing research, practice, and policy in social and emotional learning. The study was published in the January-February 2011 issue of Child Development.1

Broad and Diverse Group

Our work consisted of a detailed review of the outcomes of 213 social and emotional learning programs involving a broadly representative group of 270,034 students from urban, suburban, and rural elementary and secondary schools. The common thread in all of them was a focus on developing young people's skills that promote social and emotional learning. Social and emotional learning refers to the process students go through in acquiring skills to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations effectively.

Multiple Benefits of Social and Emotional Learning

Our review found that students who participate in school-based social and emotional learning programs benefit in multiple ways. Compared to students who do not experience social and emotional learning programming, they improve significantly with respect to:

1. Achievement test scores and school grades, including an 11-percentile-point gain in academic achievement

2. Social and emotional skills

3. Positive social and classroom behavior

4. Conduct problems such as classroom misbehavior and aggression

5. Attitudes about themselves, others, and school

6. Emotional distress such as stress and depression

Academic Results

Many other highly touted and scientifically evaluated programs are designed to improve students' academic achievement. One of the most positive findings in our review was that the academic results of social and emotional learning programs were comparable to those of many well-known and carefully evaluated educational programs that focus exclusively on academic achievement.


An important caveat is that only 37 of the 213 studies (17%) we analyzed included academic outcomes. Nevertheless, the findings from these studies are consistent with what experienced educators already know: Positive social and emotional outcomes such as improved self-control, respect for others, and increased engagement in the learning process are related to improved academic achievement. Programming in social and emotional learning promotes these aspects of children's personal and social development, and they are worthwhile educational goals. All aspects of children's development are interrelated. Most educators know that and our work presents clear empirical evidence for it.

1Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D. & Schellinger, K.B. (2011) The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 2011; 82 (1): 405-432.

Joseph A. Durlak, a retired professor of clinical psychology at Loyola University Chicago and the author of numerous books and articles on positive youth development research and programming.

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