Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Creating Better People: SECD Can Make a Difference

December 23, 2008

People often ask me what evidence there is to support the view that our schools should promote social, emotional, and character development in our students. They seem especially interested in whether SECD actually helps shape the character and behavior of students over time.

Because many educators lose track of former students as they move on in grades and grow into adulthood, it's natural for them to wonder, "Did the SECD curriculum really help my students and do any good in their lives?" A recent study published by the research team at the Seattle Social Development Project reminds us that, when delivered effectively, SECD interventions in schools have long-term benefits.

The Results of an Earlier Study

The Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, of which I am director, carried out one of the earliest peer-reviewed studies on the benefits of SECD. In the study, the group compared three cohorts of students who received social decision-making/social-problem-solving (SDM/SPS) lessons in elementary school. The groups received varying amounts of the program's components, ranging from two years to five years, with some follow-up in high school after concluding the intervention. Educators used students who received no treatment as a control group.

Results from this study indicate that ninth-grade students who had received interventions drank significantly less alcohol, had fewer self-destructive or identity problems, earned higher scores in overall social competence, exhibited a higher level of membership and participation in positive social organizations and nonsports activities, and did better on-the-job work.

Tenth-grade students who hadn't participated, meanwhile, had significantly higher rates of vandalizing school property, attacking persons with intent to injure, hitting or threatening other students, self-destructive or identity problems, and unpopularity than students who went through the program. They also showed lower scores in overall social competence. Eleventh-grade students in the control group had significantly higher rates of vandalizing their parent's property, hitting or threatening their parents, and using chewing tobacco than students in the program.

Across grades, male students in the control groups significantly exceeded male students in the program in rates of petty theft and buying alcohol. The findings also indicated that students who were in the higher-fidelity program generally showed better goal attainment than those in the lower-fidelity program.

Further Findings

David Hawkins, founding director of the University of Washington's Social Development Research Group, says that fifteen years after the Seattle Social Development Program conducted its evidence-based SECD intervention, young adults ages twenty-four and twenty-seven who were part of the intervention reported better mental and sexual health and higher educational and economic achievement than a control group of young adults who didn't receive the intervention.

As lead author of the study, Hawkins told Science Daily in a recent interview, "The effects of working with children in elementary school show up in their teen years as their rates of violence, heavy alcohol use, and dropping out of school are reduced. By age twenty-one, more of them have completed high school and have better jobs. And by ages twenty-four and twenty-seven, they are above the median in socioeconomic status and education, and they are having fewer mental-health and sexual-health problems."

The study involved 598 students from fifteen Seattle public schools that serve high-crime neighborhoods. The participants were divided into three groups. One group of 146 students received the intervention in grades 1-6. A second group of 251 students received a partial intervention in only grades 5-6. And the third group of 201 students did not receive any training from the program.

Hawkins reported that the dosage effect found in the SDM/SPS program -- and in earlier studies of the Seattle program -- was still evident. Children who received the full intervention in elementary school showed the strongest effects and the most positive functioning when followed up. Those receiving the partial intervention showed lesser effects, though they were generally better than the no-exposure control group. The findings indicate that those who received the full intervention had significantly fewer sexually transmitted diseases and reported higher income, increased responsibilities at work, and more community involvement. However, the full intervention had no effect on reducing substance abuse or cutting criminal behavior in young adulthood.

Said Hawkins, "The real value in following people over time is that we get to see how what we do in childhood affects their lives and has enduring effects as they change. We can't know how one phase of development affects the next step unless we follow people over time."

The Power of SECD

These studies complement other data -- from a meta-analysis completed recently by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning -- that reveal the positive follow-up benefits of SECD programs for students in both academics and mental health. The consistent message of these studies, however, is that the "dose" matters and that comprehensive, coordinated, multiyear efforts at SECD are what yield positive results.

This is why my organization, Developing Safe and Civil Schools, is working with New Jersey schools to ensure that they are carrying out their programs in problem prevention, promotion of social and emotional competence, positive youth and character development, and school-climate improvement in ways that will yield the desired effects. Too many schools are doing more than they need to, but with not enough efficiency and coordination to achieve the desired academic and behavioral outcomes. The evidence suggests that we can do better without doing much more.

What do you think about SECD efforts in public schools? Please share your thoughts.

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  • K-2 Primary

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