Committee for Children Blog

Social-Emotional Learning and Cultural Relevance


by Dr. Kim Gulbrandson

Someone recently asked me whether the Second Step program is effective with all populations of students, and it’s not the first time this question has come up.

The development of social skills is critical for everyone to be effective in life. We all need to have skills to interact positively with others, communicate effectively, make responsible decisions, and handle difficult situations such as managing our emotions and resolving problems. This is important regardless of our ethnicity, social status, economic status, gender, religion, home and community environment, educational background, or personal experience. Without these skills, it can be difficult to develop and maintain positive relationships or to sustain a job.

Milwaukee has an extremely diverse student population (see demographic data below), for whom the Second Step program has been shown to be effective, as you’ll see below. This data concerns students of various cultural and economic backgrounds, attending monolingual and bilingual classrooms during the 2009–2011 school years.

A comparison of pre- to post-test scores from kindergarten through grade 2 student knowledge assessments showed that students who participated in Second Step lessons made significant improvements in all eight areas measured:

  • Ability to identify emotions (empathy)
  • Use of physical cues, situational cues, and perspective taking to identify emotions (empathy)
  • Ability to brainstorm solutions to a problem (problem-solving/impulse control)
  • Ability to formulate a prosocial solution for joining a group (problem-solving/impulse control)
  • Ability to gain access to something that isn’t yours (problem-solving/impulse control)
  • Ability to predict consequences of a solution (problem-solving/impulse control)
  • Ability to use an alternative, prosocial solution when one isn’t working (problem-solving/impulse control)
  • Ability to identify appropriate calming-down techniques (emotion management)

Students also showed additional significant improvements after the second year of implementation and did not lose any of their social skills knowledge during the summer months. In grades 3–5, classrooms with 100 percent curriculum implementation showed significantly more student gains than those with only 80 percent implementation.

The good news is that, regardless of students' background, the Second Step program can have lasting effects, and if the implementation level is high, the results are extremely positive!

Background Information: Milwaukee Public Schools

We have approximately 89,000 students with 82 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch. There are 175 schools in various areas of the city. The student demographic breakdown is as follows:

  • 57 percent African American
  • 22.6 percent Hispanic
  • 11.9 percent Caucasian
  • 4.6 percent Asian
  • 0.8 percent Native American
  • 3.1 percent other

The district has been using the Second Step program for about 20 years, and schools also utilize other social-emotional learning programs such as the Steps to Respect program.