George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning Research Review

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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
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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.

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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; Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, & Gullotta, 2016). These competencies provide the foundation for maintaining high-quality social relationships and for responding to the challenges of life.

1. Self-Awareness:

  • What are my thoughts and feelings?
  • What causes those thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I express my thoughts and feelings respectfully?

2. Self-Management:

  • What different responses can I have to an event?
  • How can I respond to an event as constructively as possible?

3. Social Awareness:

  • 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?

4. Relationship Skills:

  • 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?

5. Responsible Decision Making:

  • 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; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014). 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). In 2015, 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). Additional research supports the long-term benefits of SEL programs, finding evidence that investing in high-quality programs for all children can increase the number of productive, well-adjusted adults and yield positive economic benefits in the future (Jones et al., 2017). Finally, a 2017 meta-analysis of 82 school-based SEL programs found long-term (between 6 months and 18 years) improvements in four areas: SEL skills, attitudes, positive social behavior, and academic performance. Additionally, decreases were found in three areas: conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use (Taylor et al., 2017).

A 2015 economic analysis found that in the period from 1980 to 2012, automation has increasingly replaced repetitive and analytical tasks, placing greater demand on jobs that require social skills (Deming, 2015). In a 2015 Amici Curiae brief, nearly 50 Fortune-100 and other leading American businesses argued that in order to be competitive, businesses need to be able to hire workers who have experience sharing ideas and viewpoints with diverse groups of people.

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.

SEL Research Table of Contents:
  1. Introduction and Learning Outcomes
  2. Evidence-Based Programs
  3. Avoiding Pitfalls
  4. Annotated Bibliography