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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

SEL: What the Research Says

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Social-emotional learning
Support for social-emotional learning (SEL) is strong and growing among teachers, administrators, parents, employers, and others concerned about preparing the next generation of students for success. This growing demand is complemented by a growing evidence base that strengthening students' SEL skills works.
Two major meta-analyses (Durlak et al., 2011; Taylor et al., 2017) examined the influence of universal, school-based SEL programs on student outcomes in six domains: social and emotional skills, attitudes toward self and others, positive social behavior, conduct problems, emotional distress, and academic performance. The meta-analyses evaluated studies from a total of 265 reports, and 222 of these reports differed across the two analyses. Therefore, although there is some overlap among the two analyses, each captures a different section of SEL outcome research.
The 2011 meta-analysis examined individual studies from 1955 to 2007 and included 213 school-based, universal SEL programs serving 270,034 K–12 students. All the studies followed a comparison group design and nearly half involved random assignment. Major findings included:
▪ Students participating in SEL programs showed significantly more positive outcomes in all six areas compared to control students.
▪ SEL programs enhance academic achievement. The higher academic performance of students who participated in an SEL program translated into an 11 percentile-point gain in achievement.
▪ SEL programs that were implemented well and adhered to a combination of recommended practices–sequenced, active, focused, and explicit learning—were particularly likely to promote positive outcomes.
The 2017 meta-analysis reviewed longitudinal-study research on 82 school-based, universal SEL programs serving 97,406 K–12 students. Again, the studies included comparison groups and over half followed a random assignment design. This review included more recent investigations (up to 2014) and research conducted outside of the United States. Many of the studies investigated follow-up effects, years later, of participation in SEL programming. Major findings include:
▪ At follow-up, students who had participated in SEL programs continued to show significantly more positive outcomes in all six domains.
▪ Academic benefits endure. The academic performance of SEL program participants translated into a 13 percentile-point gain in achievement at follow-up.
▪ A small number of studies that included long-term follow-up through adolescence and young adulthood found that SEL program participants continued to show significantly better adjustment. More had graduated from high school and attended college; fewer had been arrested.

Implications and Future Directions

This outcome research on SEL programs suggests several implications and future directions. First, it will be critical to determine the best ways to scale up evidence-based SEL programming while maintaining its quality—and make a case for it. Pointing to long-term positive results from SEL programming and a strong return on investment for such initiatives—as these two meta-analyses and other research shows (Belfield et al., 2015)—can help district and school leaders make a compelling case for including SEL in strategic plans and budgets. Second, given the positive connections between participation in universal, school-based SEL programs and academic performance, expanding SEL programming in low-performing schools, especially, seems warranted.
Finally, districts themselves should conduct research and follow a model of continuous improvement to drive SEL program implementation. Areas where more research is needed include: how characteristics of the samples, like gender, race, and ethnicity, relate to program impacts; the role of adult SEL (as an outcome and a contributor to student outcomes); and the significance of continuous, integrated SEL from preK through young adulthood.

Belfield, C., Bowden, B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. New York: Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A, B. Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (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.

Learn More

Roger P. Weissberg, Ph.D., is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He is Executive Director of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). He directs an NIMH-funded Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Prevention Research Training Program in Urban Children's Mental Health and AIDS Prevention at UIC, and also holds an appointment with the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education. Professor Weissberg has published about one hundred articles and chapters focusing on preventive interventions with children and adolescents, and has coauthored nine curriculums on school-based programs to promote social competence and prevent problem behaviors including drug use, high-risk sexual behaviors, and aggression. Three recent books that he coedited are Healthy Children 2010: Enhancing Children's Wellness, Healthy Children 2010: Establishing Preventive Services, and Children and Youth: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Sage 1997). Professor Weissberg was the Research Director for the Primary Mental Health Project from 1980 to 1982. He was a Professor in the Psychology Department at Yale University between 1982 and 1992, where he collaborated with the New Haven Public School System to establish the New Haven's Kindergarten through grade 12 Social Development Project. He has been the President of the American Psychological Association's Society for Community Research and Action. He is a recipient of the William T. Grant Foundation's five-year Faculty Scholars Award in Children's Mental Health, the Connecticut Psychological Association's 1992 Award for Distinguished Psychological Contribution in the Public Interest, and the National Mental Health Association's 1992 Lela Rowland Prevention Award. He may be contacted at Department of Psychology (M/C 285), The University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607-7137. Phone: (312) 355-0640; fax: (312) 355-0559; e-mail:

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