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Creating Better People: SECD Can Make a Difference

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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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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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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John McMahon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not sure what type of SECD program you have at your school, but I believe that it is very important that, especially in my school district, that teachers promote and teach social, emotional and cultural values. I have been a substitute teacher for the past 7 years in an inner-city school district of Rochester, NY . At a time when more and more students are on their own as far as their education is concerned and more and more have very little positive influence at home the school is the only place where they are going to learn how to treat others different from themselves, learn how to behave in social setting and deal with their emotions in a appropriate manner. Inner-city schools are in crisis and we need programs like SECD more than ever.

Kate Lockwood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a school where we use a Social Decision Making and Problem Solving program. It is used in grades K-4. This is our first year using this program and the children seem to like it. It does take away from class time, but I feel that in the long run it will be worth it. If the children are exposed to this for years, then by the time they get into middle school the desired behaviors will hopefully come more natural to them.

Katie Lockwood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree completely. We have been using a similar program in our school and it is truly working. I feel if we give the kids the tools they need to resolve things peacefully at a young age and continue to reinforce it as they grow, then they will master those ideas when they reach high school.

Amy Volk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that this type of curriculum is beneficial to students. At our school we use a program called Second Step. It's a program that teaches kids strategies for dealing with such issues at resisting temptation, controll ing anger,and handling bullies. It gives them language and techniques they can use in every day playground or home situations. My favorite part is to listen to my third graders use the specific language with each other. The program has been a tremendous help to our school.

Julie Kortum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a kindergarten teacher, and I am very invested in teaching appropriate social traits to my students. The school I teach at has a program called Character Counts, in which six pillars of character are introduced to the students--trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. I believe all students should be taught these traits and given situations in which to practice and master these vital skills. I am always looking for social activities and decision-making activities, and I am excited to check out the other programs referenced on this blog by my fellow teachers. Thanks for the research.

David Howard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am encouraged by the findings in the articles stating that the earlier and more consistent the program is put in place the better the outcomes. I teach 6th 7th and 8th grade, I see the need on a daily if not hourly basis for students to have a good foudation of skills to deal with the social and emotional challenges that they face in these middle years. I would very much like to see my district take a more dedicated approach to giving my students the basics for a posistive well rounded SECD.

Crystal Kempter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Third grade teacher in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I agree with this article and I feel that Character Building is very important. Every Friday we have our school Social Worker and Psychologist come into the Third grade classrooms and work with our students on each of the categories of SECD. I have seen great improvement in my students when it comes to being socially accepted by their peers. I feel that this is a great program for our Third graders and I am very excited to keep it going. I am also very excited to share the resources in this blog with the Social Worker and the Psychologist, maybe it will give them some information for when they are teaching our students during that time.

Lisvet Diaz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Social, emotional, and character development are definitely vital tools that every student should be taught as they grow up. I find this article very interesting and I agree and think that the earlier teachers put this plan to work, the better the outcomes at the end of the road. I also consider these values should be reinforced and taught in school even thought it takes time away from academic learning. Many parents might not be aware of how important this could be for their children and their social development in the future, so, we can not expect every parent to teach these values and if they do so, it might not be in the best way. That's why this curriculum should be practice by every school; it does help shape the character and behavior of students over time. Many teachers that are working with it have left feed back and said it does works so, SECD can definitely make a difference!!!

Kristen Welch's picture

I have often wondered how much impact the schools can have on making a difference in the development of SEDC. I was pleased to read the research here and find that studies are supporting the impact of efforts made in this area in young children. As a teacher of primary students, I see the constant need for coaching and training in SECD. I am a strong advocate of these skills being primarily taught in the home, but I realize that this is just not happening accross the board. In addition, I have recognized that some behaviors present themselves in a group setting that is not seen in the home. It is in the class community setting that some character traits and social/emotional skills can only be addressed and formed. I am hopeful that more training and resources will be provided to teachers and schools so that SECD will continue to be endorsed and incorporated into the daily culture of the classroom experience.

jenni's picture

I agree with the commenters above. At first I was sceptical with the premise of tracking students over time, since anything that happens to them will be hard to attribute to the program.

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