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

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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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Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

I've met some people from Australia. You folks sure like to travel. The feeling I get is that Australians are very hard-working and anything that they do, they do with gusto. It is my feeling that countries that have high education ratings have a population that is hard-working, values education, and they also do things with gusto.

Some of my students do not care if they pass, do not care if they learn. I have no power over the population, except for those in my class. So I strive to have the greatest impact I can on them. I am completely student-centered. I design opportunities to learn and the students who do the projects (classwork, homework etc.) do very well, learn a lot, get great grades and do it at an incredible pace. However, in my system there is no place for the slackers to hide. I get along with them and am very friendly with most of them, but just can't get as many of them to care about learning as I would like to.

There was a long-term study of the children in the ghetto schools of Montreal, Canada. The results were quite dismal. Most children grew up to be criminals, were not able to raise a family, and a long depressing list of terrible outcomes. However, the children who had this one teacher for one year had very different outcomes. They had jobs and families and showed evidence of a happy life that was very different from the others. That is the teacher I am trying to be.

So, I keep looking for ideas. I meet the students way way more than half way. They have almost complete autonomy; I am just trying to influence their choices. I guess it sounds like I'm oversimplifying the problem by calling it 'crappy attitude', but I have two teenagers of my own and the shoe fits.

I've talked to the people at Netflix about the movie August to June. I hope they get it soon. If you feel like me, call them please.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

[quote]As opposed to the 270,034 students that participated in 213 studies, how many students participated in the 37 studies that included academic outcomes, and how diverse was this subset?[/quote]

Dave's picture

Yes, Betty, the absence of a response to my question does not bode well.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

[quote]Yes, Betty, the absence of a response to my question does not bode well.[/quote]

Thanks Dave - I spoke to my colleagues over at CASEL (who provided me with the blog) and they mentioned they'd seen your question and forwarded it on to Dr Durlak. Unfortunately they don't know the answer, so we need to get a hold of Dr. Durlak directly. So don't assume it doesn't bode well just yet!

Liz O'Halloran's picture

Hi Dave,

I work for CASEL and spoke with the lead author, Joseph Durlak about your question. According to him, there were 45,570 students in those 35 studies that had academic performance as an outcome. In other words, although only 35 studies collected academic data, these tended to be from the investigations with larger sample sizes. If you have any other questions feel free to let me know!

Dave's picture

Thanks, Liz. How diverse were the 45,570 students in those 37 studies involving academic performance?

Amy Touassi's picture

As a special education teacher I teach social and emotional learning on a daily basis. My classroom is a socail communication classroom serving students with autism spectrum disorder. I found this study interesting because the outcome of providing students with social and emotional learning is that their grades improve in school. I find that this is frequently the case in many aspects of special education. Teaching students how to handle social situations and their emotions helps to improve their comfort level with situations in the general education classroom, thus improving their academic performance. Instruction providing students with coping skills helps them to deal with situations in the general education classroom and in society which may be unpredictable and make them feel angry, scared, or upset. DIrect instruction and modeling is required to teach these students how to cope with challenging situations and manage their own emotions.

Michael Sigler's picture

I work at a charter school in Detroit teaching 6th grade math and science. One of our practices is to have small class sizes. We are currently at 17 students per class. We also stay with the students through 8th grade. So I will have 2 classes (34 students total) for 3 years. This gives great opportunity to bond with each student, to take the much needed time to create individual educational and social plans for each student.

It's not easy, even with only 17 students. Eleven year olds are challenging even in lower numbers. I currently set time aside to speak with students regarding bullying, character traits, self-improvement, and other important concepts. I also attempt to create as much one-on-one time as possible just to talk to students, through lunches and through after school meetings.

Paul, I still have students who after all of this still do not want to engage in a lesson and put forth the effort. The only answer I have which isn't much of an answer at all is to keep trying. Keep trying as long as you have that student in your life, and never give up. Maybe some after school, concentrated lessons where you really get to know those students who are unmotivated and find out what will change them?

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

[quote] I still have students who after all of this still do not want to engage in a lesson and put forth the effort. The only answer I have which isn't much of an answer at all is to keep trying. Keep trying as long as you have that student in your life, and never give up. Maybe some after school, concentrated lessons where you really get to know those students who are unmotivated and find out what will change them?[/quote]

In homeschooling circles the folk wisdom is that it takes one month of being left alone for each year a child was in the coercive schooling situation. After that lull,many children are ready to regain their natural curiosity...some take longer. So if your kids are 6th graders and have been pushed through curriculum since they were five, six months of time off would be recommended.

Obviously, you can't do that. But you can take into account how long they've been conditioned to think that learning is boring vs. how long they've been exposed to a different approach. In fact, it is stunning when kids who are older CAN adjust to new tactics.

I'm lucky. Most of my students have grown up expecting to be active learners. When I do have a student who has come to us as an older child, it often takes years to regain the love of learning. I've also seen kids come to us as old as 8 and fit in as if they were born to it.

Michael, I think you are on the right track as far as getting to know your kids as well as you can and providing lots of opportunities for connection. Don't give up! One teacher can (as Paul illustrated) make a difference.

As far as tips on engaging the there anything that excites them? Video games? Interactive webstuff? Audio or video production? Brainteasers? Handcrafts? Art projects? Live animals? Sometimes you can find an angle and get your foot in the door.


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