George Lucas Educational Foundation

Social and Emotional Learning Research Review: Evidence-Based Programs

Choosing the best program to implement social and emotional learning in your school can be daunting. Edutopia's research analyst recommends these research-proven programs.
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
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Five young girls huddled together cheek-to-cheek smiling
Schools That Work: In North Charleston, South Carolina, elementary school girls build strong relationships as part of the WINGS for Kids afterschool program. Photo credit: Grace Rubenstein

Given the strong evidence that social and emotional learning can contribute to academic success, how do educators choose the right SEL programs? We've compiled a chart with our recommendations for some of the most effective research-proven SEL programs available.

Evidence-Based SEL Programs*
  Practices Outcomes & Evidence
Roots of Empathy
  • Classroom sessions over a twenty-seven-week program involve nine family visits with a baby (ages 6-12 months). The trainer facilitates the curriculum, and can be anyone except the teacher who participates in a training program with Roots of Empathy.
  • Decreased aggression (approximately half as many youth getting into fights each year)
  • Increased prosocial behavior
  • Immediate and long-term effects, lasting up to three years after intervention

(Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman-Zait & Hertzman, 2012; Santos, Chartier, Whalen, Chateau & Boyd, 2011; Cain & Carnellor, 2008)

Positive Action
  • Thinking and doing positive actions
  • Based on the premise that you feel good about yourself when you think and do positive actions, and that there is always a positive way to do things.
  • Academic achievement gains, averaging 14 percentile points
  • Decreased violent behaviors, averaging 19 percentile points

(U.S. Department of Education, 2007)

Responsive Classroom Approach
  • Morning meetings
  • Three to five positively stated school rules (developmentally and individually relevant to the child) for the whole school or classroom
  • Responding to misbehavior with positive redirecting language and logical consequences
  • Problem-solving strategies in class or small-groups; written agreements with individual students
  • Modeling, role-playing and positive teacher language to teach expected behaviors
  • Continuous evaluation of implementation and impact
  • Increased math and reading test scores
  • Improved student attitudes about schools, teachers, and peers
  • Decreased misbehavior and improved social skills
  • Teachers felt more effective and positive about teaching, offered higher-quality instruction, and collaborated more frequently with other teachers

(Brock, Nishida, Chiong, Grimm & Rimm-Kaufman, 2008; Sawyer & Rimm-Kaufman, 2007; Rimm-Kauffman & Chiu, 2007; Rimm-Kaufman, Fan, Chiu & You, 2007)

Second Step
  • Skills in impulse control, (e.g. using self-talk), showing empathy, anger and emotional management, and problem-solving
  • Brain Builder Games to develop self-regulation skills
  • Increased cooperative behavior
  • Reduced aggression in the classroom, lasting up to six months.

(Cooke, Ford, Levin, Bourke, Newell & Lapidus, 2007; Grossman, Neckerman, Koepsell, Liu, Asher, Beland, Frey & Rivara, 1997; Frey, Nolen, Van Schioack, Edstrom & Hirschstein, 2005)

4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution)
Resolving Conflict Creatively Program
  • Continual training of teachers
  • Problem solving by using perspective-taking, decision-making, and negotiation techniques
  • Peer mediation
  • Parent training and coaching
  • Decreased hostility and aggression
  • Increased reading and math test scores among high-risk students

(Jones, Brown & Aber, 2011; Aber, Brown & Jones, 2003; Aber, Jones, Brown, Cahudry & Samples, 1998)

  • Mindfulness, or open-monitoring meditation, involves observing thoughts and emotions without reacting to them.
  • Focused-attention meditation involves focusing on a single object.
  • School-based meditation practices ranged from 10 to 40 minutes, daily to bi-weekly, over three to six months.
  • Decreased aggression and rule infractions
  • Improved academic functioning on attention-skills tests
  • Decreased anxiety

(Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010; Black, Milam & Sussman, 2009; Barnes, Bauza & Treiber, 2003; Napoli, Krech, & Holley, 2005; Zylowska, Auckerman, Yang, Futrell, Horton, Hale, Pataki & Smalley, 2008; Semple, Reid & Miller, 2005)

Service Learning
  • Involving students in designing, implementing, and evaluating service projects
  • Community partnerships that provide real-world context for service, communication, and interaction
  • Projects have clear educational goals and meet genuine community needs
  • Can protect from negative life stresses
  • Can improve relationships with peers and adults
  • Can increase civic engagement

(Hamilton & Fenzel, 1988; Yates & Youniss, 1996; Markus et al, 1993; cited in Stukas, Clary & Snyder, 1999; Scales et al., 2000; Billig, 2002)

Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support
  • Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), also known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS or PBS), is an approach to preventing problem behaviors and promoting positive behaviors.
  • Three to five positive expectations are chosen and reinforced for the entire school.
  • Moderately effective in reducing misbehavior, particularly in urban settings

(Solomon, Klein, Hintze, et al., 2012)

Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions (RULER)
  • RULER emphasizes systematic professional development for educators (school leaders, teachers, support staff) and families so that emotions become central to learning, teaching, and parenting.
  • Educators work directly with researchers and trainers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and then devise a plan for rolling out the RULER approach with their faculty/staff, students, and families.
  • Improved academic performance, increased positive social behavior, improved academic behaviors, and improved climate at the school

(Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning, SEL program guide)

(*) Programs and practices listed here received support from at least three studies by independent evaluators and/or peer-reviewed publications, using controlled experimental designs and independent outcome measures. Please leave a comment to alert us to additional programs that have strong evidence of success.

Continue to the next section of the SEL research review, Avoiding Pitfalls.

Comments (18) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

@Rachel, thanks for catching that. I'll let our editorial team know about the bad link.

Kari Kovick's picture

Do you know of any arts-based SEL curricula? I am a music educator, and feel that combining SEL education in schools with opportunities for the children to express themselves freely through art, music, movement and play could allow some of those messier energies to find acceptance. It is really hard to give kids permission to be themselves while at the same time socializing them to be part of a community. They need freedom and acceptance as well as knowing when to express and when to inhibit certain impulses. Such a tall order for a teacher, parent, and for the child. What do you know about SEL Arts programs?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Kari! I'm not sure that it's really a "curriculum" per se, but the teachers at Creative City Charter School ( in Baltimore are doing some really great stuff with this. You should check them out! The art teacher there, Morag Bradford, is doing some really great work. I'm sure she'd be happy to talk to you about your questions.

Terri's picture
passionate about Innovations, STEM, Early College, Early Childhood

Hello Vanessa & Edutopia Research Team - I recently toured some K-8 schools that are using the Steven Covey ( 7 Habits ) organization's The Leader in Me - TLIM, for their SEL... 7 Habits for Highly Effective K-12 students. I hold K-12 Spec Ed Director & School Principal licenses -- & while I believe PBIS strategies offer so much --I was also VERY impressed with K-8 students abilities to absorb the empathy and develop critical language -- used repetitively, within The Leader in Me. Students, parents, educators do not have to invest large amounts of time into training -- before seeing big pay-offs. Numerous free online tools are widely available, and the Covey organization provides books & workbooks, for modest prices. Here is an interesting testimony from Iowa, with related leads :

Terri's picture
passionate about Innovations, STEM, Early College, Early Childhood

Interesting, Ahmed... If the game brings more young students to the "conversation table" for SEL,.. then awesome...! I noted that some "gaming experts" gave it good ratings. There's ongoing encouragement " to grow this Open Source content." I hope talented kids & adult advocates continue to "groom the game's SEL value." Thanks for sharing...! General info:

Terri's picture
passionate about Innovations, STEM, Early College, Early Childhood

Here's a video clip about a tool to identify SEL deficits:

On this website, look for the "DESSA Resources Section" you will see key aspects of SEL that the "Parent or Teacher rating tool yields"- I predict parents & teachers will want to purchase certain of these supports:

whytryteam's picture

We are part of the WhyTry Organization, a social emotional learning program that has been around for over 20 years. We would appreciate it if you onsidered us to join your list of effective, research-based SEL programs.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Thanks for submitting your program. We'll review the research supporting WhyTry and add it to the list, if appropriate.

Terri's picture
passionate about Innovations, STEM, Early College, Early Childhood

Thanks for posting about your SEL organization here. It will be great to learn more about ... !

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