Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” a crowd-sourced, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. We're publishing each as a stand-alone blog post.
The development of children’s social and emotional skills is a longstanding component of elementary education, and may be more important now than ever. Many students will have spent more than a year away from school with limited opportunities to socialize with other children. And some will have experienced significant traumas related to the pandemic, economic downturn, George Floyd’s murder, and more.
Effective social and emotional learning (SEL) is best encountered not in standalone programs, but within the context of academic lessons and a broader school culture and climate that provides students opportunities to encounter, reflect on, and practice habits of character. Such activities are inclusive and recognize and affirm students’ diverse cultures. The proliferation of SEL programs is based on the recognition that students’ emotions and social contexts are deeply intertwined with their success in school and beyond, including in the labor market.
- Build SEL into core academic programs, such as English language arts, by adopting a curriculum that incorporates the comprehensive teaching of social and emotional skills. For example, the Aspects and Habits of Character promoted in EL Education’s English Language Arts curriculum are ready complements to familiar, widely-used definition of SEL.
- Create a school culture, school-wide expectations around student behavior, and expectations for teachers and other staff that focus on supporting and modeling positive social and emotional skills.
By systematically and opportunistically integrating character development into its ELA curriculum, schools can address social and emotional learning far more effectively than only with a standalone program.
Supporting students in social and emotional learning can have broad, positive impacts on a host of outcomes. In a 2011 meta-analysis in Child Development, the authors analyzed studies of 213 studies SEL interventions involving more than 270,000 children of varying grade levels. Despite significant variation in the nature of the interventions considered, overall the programs significantly improved students’ behavior and academic skills. When they revisited the topic in 2017, the authors confirmed the follow-up effects of SEL interventions on positive academic and behavioral outcomes. (Granted, most of these programs likely were of the standalone type.) In addition, a recent study of Chicago high schools found students had fewer absences, higher grades, and higher rates of graduation when their high schools were better at fostering emotional well-being and the habit of working hard.
While there is not standalone research on the efficacy of the SEL components of ELA programs like the EL curriculum, its SEL features are aligned to those of other strong SEL programs. Specifically, the Aspects of Character integrated into each EL lesson address the features of all strong SEL interventions that demonstrate the highest impact—that they are recurrent, encourage prosocial behavior, and support students’ mental health.
Those aspects and habits fall into three core areas: work to become effective learners, work to become ethical people, and work to contribute to a better world. For example, in a third-grade unit titled “Overcoming Learning Challenges Near and Far,” students read Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter. While a typical ELA curriculum would likely have used the text to advance students’ reading comprehension or analysis skills, the EL curriculum has students discuss and write about questions of democratic values and “standing up for what is right” in the context of a girl forced to attend school secretly.
In addition, although it’s an emerging topic of research, there is evidence that SEL programs have a positive impact on the inculcation of democratic values. A 2017 study examined the voting frequency of adults who developed psychosocial skills early on in elementary school. Over twenty years, the study found that students who possessed such skills were more likely to vote as adults.
Aspen Institute. (2017). “Putting It All Together.” National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: Washington, D.C.
Aspen Institute. (2019). “Integrating Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD): An Action Guide for School Leadership Teams.” National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: Washington, D.C.
Barbarasch, B. and Elias, M. J. (2009). “Fostering social competence in schools.” In R. W. Christner and R. B. Mennuti (Eds.), School-based mental health: A practitioner’s guide to comparative practices (pp. 125–148). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
- Points to many possible benefits of SEL, including developing a sense of citizenship.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2008). “Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Student Benefits: Implications for the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Core Elements.” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention.
- Well-implemented SEL programs can have positive impacts on students’ academic, behavioral and health outcomes.
Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R. and Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.
- Meta-analysis that points to clear academic and behavioral benefits for students in schools that have undertaken SEL interventions. A significant, positive impact on a range of outcomes is associated with a variety of interventions.
Gershenson, S. (2016). Linking teacher quality, student attendance, and student achievement. Education Finance and Policy, 11(2), 125-149.
Holbein, J. (2017). Childhood Skill Development and Adult Political Participation. American Political Science Review, 111(3), 572-583.
- This 20-year study demonstrates that kindergartners with “psychosocial skills” were more likely to vote in adulthood. The study was based on a childhood random assignment participation in a specific elementary school SEL intervention, The Fast Track Project.
Humphrey, N. (2013). “Social and emotional learning: A critical appraisal.” Washington, D.C.: Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Reviews the many complex factors impacting SEL and implementation. SEL is not a fully crystallized concept that can simply be adopted and implemented.
Immordino-Yang, M.H., Darling-Hammond, L. and Krone, C. (2018). “The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: How Emotions and Social Relationships Drive Learning.” Aspen Institute. National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: Washington, D.C.
- An emotionally safe environment is not only a good in and of itself, but is necessary for student learning.
Jackson, C. K., Porter, S., Easton, J., Blanchrd, A. and Kiguel, S. (2020). School Effects on Socioemotional Development, School-Based Arrests, and Educational Attainment. American Economic Review: Insights, 2 (4): 491-508.
Jackson, C. K. (2018). What do test scores miss? The importance of teacher effects on non–test score outcomes. Journal of Political Economy, 126(5), 2072-2107.
Kraft, M. A. (2019). Teacher effects on complex cognitive skills and social-emotional competencies. Journal of Human Resources, 54(1), 1-36.
O’Conner, R., De Feyter, J., Carr, A., Luo, J. L. and Romm, H. (2017). “A Review of the Literature on Social and Emotional Learning for Students Ages 3-8: Outcomes for Different Student Populations and Settings (Part 4 of 4). REL 2017-248.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.
- SEL programs seem to have a bigger positive impact on students from low-income backgrounds. Only high-quality SEL approaches appear beneficial.
Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., Ben, J. and Gravesteijn, C. (2012). Effectiveness of School-Based Universal Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Programs: Do They Enhance Students' Development in the Area of Skill, Behavior, and Adjustment? Psychology and Schools, 49(9), 892-909.
- Meta-analysis of 70 studies points to the positive impact of SEL on “social skills, antisocial behavior, substance abuse, positive self‐image, academic achievement, mental health, and prosocial behavior.”
Taylor, R., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. and Weissberg, R. (2017). Promoting Positive Youth Development Through School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Interventions: A Meta-Analysis of Follow-Up Effects. Child Development, 88(4):1156-1171
- Confirms the positive follow-up effects of SEL interventions on behavioral and academic outcomes.
Wiglesworth, M., Lendrum, A., Oldfield, J., Scott, A., ten Bokkel, I., Tate, K., and Emery, C. (2016). The Impact of Trial Stage, Developer Involvement and International Transferability on Universal Social and Emotional Learning Programme Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis. Cambridge Journal of Education, 46(3), 347-376.
- International meta-analysis identified a positive impact of SEL interventions on academic and behavioral outcomes.