Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social and Emotional Learning Research Review: Avoiding Pitfalls

Based on the social and emotional learning research review, we’ve highlighted some best practices to follow when implementing SEL programs, along with some tips on how to address common challenges.

November 7, 2012 Updated December 1, 2015
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Schools That Work: Students at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, California, practice meditation daily with a program called Quiet Time. Photo credit: Daniel Jarvis

The most common problem when implementing SEL programs is a lack of teacher and administrator support for the program (Durlak, et al., 2011). Most teachers are concerned about their students doing well academically, and if teachers do not see the benefits of SEL programs for academic achievement, they are more likely to implement SEL lessons poorly or haphazardly, which results in the curriculum having less impact. The best way to address this problem is for a principal, champion of the program in the school or district, or one of the support staff to help teachers understand the research behind the program. Once they understand that SEL programs have positive impacts for students both socially and academically, teachers are more likely to implement the program with fidelity.

Provide Adequate Professional Training and Support

Teachers and administrators must practice SEL competencies in order to teach them. Generally, a dedicated curriculum specialist is needed to help ensure that SEL programs are delivered as intended. Teachers and socioemotional learning specialists at Anchorage School District and Cleveland Metropolitan School District have years of experience implementing social and emotional learning curriculum, and Cleveland educators highly recommend the Pre-Referral Intervention Manual (McCarney & Wunderlich, 2006) as an ongoing invaluable resource. Teachers can refer to a creative list of evidence-based responses to behavior problems, which also can be used in consultation with a student to discuss best courses of action.

Engage the Community in Collectively Defining SEL Standards

The process of collectively defining standards provides a great way to address the first two pitfalls. Developing collective standards and engaging all stakeholders in the process of constructing the standard help to ensure that everyone understands and supports the implementation of the learning standards. Anchorage School District has clearly defined their districtwide SEL standards and developed an extensive library of learning materials for staff and students. Anchorage staff reported that through grappling with the meaning of the standards and reaching consensus about what they wanted students to learn, everyone involved felt a greater stake in the success of the program.

Monitor Progress

Continuous evaluation is necessary to test for desired implementation and impacts and to develop the collective practices toward those goals (Elias, 2003). Illinois has adopted statewide SEL standards, while Kansas has adopted Social, Emotional, Character Development standards. A recent report of Illinois's statewide social and emotional learning implementation provides a useful framework for understanding the three distinct phases of social and emotional learning programs: readiness, planning and implementation (Gordon, Mulhall, Shaw & Weissberg, 2011). Phases include steps to:

  • Develop knowledge-building along with an SEL standard and framework;
  • Ensure teacher capacity and readiness to implement SEL;
  • Provide professional development and other support necessary to ensure that all lessons are delivered as intended;
  • Provide a system for ongoing review of project implementation and impact.

Generally, a dedicated curriculum specialist is needed to help ensure that SEL lessons are delivered as intended. In the final stage of development, it becomes appropriate to assess whether the SEL program is achieving the intended outcomes and whether the program can be adjusted to best serve the needs of the local context. American Institutes for Research has reported on the DESSA as a tool to evaluate SEL programs and has also achieved sufficient reliability and validity by asking teachers to rate the SEL competencies of six randomly selected students in each classroom. Raikes Foundation recently released a report (2011) on various assessment tools to evaluate middle school SEL programs.

Continue to the next section of the SEL research review, Annotated Bibliography.

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  • Mental Health
  • Mindfulness

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