George Lucas Educational Foundation

Social and Emotional Learning Research Review

Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
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Four girls dancing
Schools That Work: Elementary school children in the WINGS for Kids afterschool program in North Charleston, South Carolina, learn social and emotional skills. Photo credit: Grace Rubenstein

Editor's Note: This article was originally written by Vanessa Vega, with subsequent updates made by the Edutopia staff.

Numerous research reports show that social and emotional learning (SEL) can have a positive impact on students' academic performance. Edutopia's SEL research review explores those reports and helps make sense of the results. In this series of four articles, learn how researchers define social and emotional learning, review some of the possible learning outcomes, get our recommendations of evidence-based programs, find tips for avoiding pitfalls when implementing SEL programs, and dig in to a comprehensive annotated bibliography with links to all the studies and reports cited in these pages.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

How do we define social and emotional learning (SEL)? Researchers generally agree upon five key competencies of SEL (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011). These competencies provide the foundation for maintaining high-quality social relationships and for responding to the challenges of life.

  • What are my thoughts and feelings?
  • What causes those thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I express my thoughts and feelings respectfully?
  • What different responses can I have to an event?
  • How can I respond to an event as constructively as possible?
  • How can I better understand other people's thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I better understand why people feel and think the way they do?
  • How can I adjust my actions so that my interactions with different people turn out well?
  • How can I communicate my expectations to other people?
  • How can I communicate with other people to understand and manage their expectations of me?
  • What consequences will my actions have on myself and others?
  • How do my choices align with my values?
  • How can I solve problems creatively?
Editor's Note: To learn more about the five key competencies, visit the "What is SEL? Skills and Competencies" page from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Learning Outcomes

A meta-analysis of 213 programs, primarily covering three decades of research, found that social and emotional learning interventions that address the competencies listed above increased students' academic performance by 11 percentile points, as compared to students who did not participate in such SEL programs (Durlak et al., 2011). The social and emotional learning programs also reduced aggression and emotional distress among students, increased helping behaviors in school, and improved positive attitudes toward self and others (Durlak et al., 2011). Effective SEL programs addressed the five key competencies listed above, explicitly and sequentially, and used active-learning techniques to engage youth in developing understanding of them. Specific practices and programs shown by multiple, rigorous, peer-reviewed studies to benefit K-12 youth are described on the Evidence-Based Programs page of the SEL research review.

SEL Skills and Academic Success

Relationships and emotional processes affect how and what we learn. By reducing misbehavior and the amount of time spent on classroom management, SEL programs create more time for teaching and learning. SEL also strengthens students' relationships with their peers, families, and teachers, who are mediators, collaborators, and encouragers of academic achievement.

Researchers have documented the importance of caring teacher-student and student-student relationships in fostering students' commitment to school and in promoting academic success (e.g. Blum & Libby, 2004; Hamre & Pianta, 2006; Hawkins, Smith, & Catalano, 2004; Jennings & Greenberg 2009; cited in Durlak, et al., 2011). Safe and orderly environments that encourage and reinforce positive classroom behavior have been identified by research as one of the necessary conditions for academic achievement (Marzano, 2003).

There are also several person-centered reasons SEL can promote academic success. Self-regulation, the ability to control and manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, has been linked to academic achievement in numerous studies. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002; cited in Durlak et al., 2011). Students who set high academic goals, have self-discipline, motivate themselves, manage stress, and organize their approach to work learn more and get better grades (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Elliot & Dweck, 2005; cited in Durlak et al., 2011). Finally, students who use problem-solving skills to overcome obstacles and make responsible decisions about studying and completing homework do better academically (Zins & Elias, 2006; cited in Durlak et al., 2011).

According to a national survey of middle and high school students, less than one third indicated that their school provided a caring, encouraging environment, and less than half reported that they had competencies such as empathy, conflict resolution and decision-making skills (Benson, 2006; cited in Durlak et al., 2011). By strengthening students' social support networks and their skills in self-management, SEL can help to unleash the potential within academic environments to support students' well-being and success.

Several studies explore the long-term benefits of social and emotional learning programs. In one, researchers examined how SEL intervention programs (such as social skills training, parent training with home visits, peer coaching, reading tutoring, and classroom social-emotional curricula) for kindergarten students impacted their adult lives, and found that these programs led to 10% (59% vs. 69% for the control group) fewer psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse problems at the age of 25 (Dodge et al., 2014). Another study examined kindergarten teachers’ ratings of their student’s prosocial skills (e.g. kindness, sharing, and empathy) and discovered a strong correlation to adult outcomes such as higher educational attainment, stronger employment, and better mental health, in addition to reduced criminal activity and substance use (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). Finally, researchers analyzed the economic impact of six widely-used SEL programs and found that on average, every dollar invested yields $11 in long-term benefits, ranging from reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health (Belfield et al., 2015).

A 2017 research review found that SEL programs can promote academic success and increase positive behavior, while reducing misconduct, substance abuse, and emotional distress for elementary school students. In addition, effective SEL programs are enhanced when schools partner with families and when they are culturally and linguistically sensitive (Dusenbury & Weissberg, 2017).

Continue to the next section of the SEL research review, Evidence-Based Programs.

Social and Emotional Learning Overview

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

From much experience, I absolutely concur. The comments here are also spot on. I just want to add my gratitude to Edutopia for supporting SEL. It will truly take a village to change the world.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

I remember when I first read this. Reviewing it again is a powerful reminder of the good set in motion when Edutopia decided to highlight SEL.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

New research on empathy and preschoolers:

Preschoolers with low empathy at risk for continued problems

"A toddler who doesn't feel guilty after misbehaving or who is less affectionate or less responsive to affection from others might not raise a red flag to parents, but these behaviors may result in later behavior problems in 1st grade."

Shin Yoshida's picture

Vanessa or anyone else, who can respond.
I am writing from Japan.
What are your recommended book(s) for teachers to understand the five key competencies of SEL and to implement exercises in order for children to be able to practice those competencies in and out of school?

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Hi Shin,

The "Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning" is an excellent book to learn more about SEL. Some of the authors and editors are the same people who developed the 5 competencies you mention:

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is an organization that focuses on SEL ( Co-founder Daniel Goleman has books that can help teachers understand SEL: We produced videos with him to explain many SEL ideas:

You can also share this video we produced on the 5 SEL competencies: It's an excellent introduction for educators, parents, and anyone else interested in learning more. We have a large library of videos if you'd like to see SEL in schools:*&f[0]=solr_node_index%25...

Finally, check out these resource roundups:
They contain many resources for understanding and teaching SEL.

Let us know if there's anything else we can do to help!

Shin Yoshida's picture

Thank you, Youki-san.
It's very comprehensive. 630 pages. $80.
Are there more concise ones? So that any teachers can read.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Here are some options:

The Educator's Guide to Emotional Intelligence and Academic Achievement: Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

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