Committee for Children Blog

Trends in Social-Emotional Learning Research: What Are the Outcomes?

In my earliest years as an educator, I remember people asking me, “What does the research say about social and emotional learning?” Although the people who support social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and efforts saw those benefits first-hand, there wasn’t yet much hard evidence, and the effect of social-emotional skills on academic learning wasn’t formally acknowledged.

One research study propelled the SEL–academic connection to the forefront.

Perhaps the largest and most well-known study about the impact of social-emotional learning, by Joseph Durlak and his colleagues, was a meta-analysis published in 2011, early in the history of formal SEL research. 1 It synthesized results from prior studies of 213 school-based SEL programs in grades K–12, with outcomes for 270,000 students. It showed that students participating in universal SEL programs demonstrated more enhanced social-emotional skills and positive social behavior—as well as lower levels of emotional distress and conduct problems. Students participating in these universal SEL programs also showed an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement, suggesting that SEL may strengthen academic success.

The widespread impact of SEL—on multiple outcomes—has been shown through a wealth of studies since then. Here’s a snapshot highlighting a few of the more recent studies and trends in the research.

Studies now find long-term effects of social-emotional learning programs.

The earliest SEL studies looked at the immediate impact of SEL programs. More recently, researchers have been exploring whether these impacts last long after the SEL program. What we’ve learned: they definitely do.

A 2012 meta-analysis of 75 studies reported effects of universal social-emotional and behavioral programs at least seven months after the program. Increases in social skills, decreases in antisocial behavior—both were seen.2

Two years ago, researchers explored long-term effects of SEL from 6 months to 18 years after students from kindergarten through high school experienced SEL teaching, through a meta-analysis of 82 school-based universal SEL programs involving 97,406 students.3 Those students showed stronger social-emotional skills and attitudes, more positive social behaviors, and greater academic success, an average of 3.75 years afterward. The academic performance of students in SEL programs was an average of 13 percentile points higher than peers without SEL exposure. Excitingly, SEL programs were protective factors against later conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use. These significant positive long-term effects were seen from programs both within and outside the United States and across socioeconomic and racial groups.

The effects in some areas tended to fade over time, suggesting the importance of ongoing, long-term support of SEL for students.

Looking more broadly than just at formal SEL training, a growing body of research highlights the impact of all teachers on developing students’ social-emotional skills and the value of moving beyond a sole focus on traditional academic instruction. For example, a recent study involving data on over 570,000 students found that teachers have an effect on noncognitive (social-emotional) skills.4 Teacher effects on non-test score behaviors—such as absences, suspensions, and grades—predict longer-term high school dropout and graduation rates. To sum it up, positive teacher impact is not limited to academic test scores.

Another discovery, made in 2015, was that SEL benefits outweigh costs significantly, giving a return of $11 on every $1 spent on SEL programming.5

Qualitative survey and interview studies show outcomes of SEL in a different way.

The Missing Piece, a 2013 report covering a national teacher survey of pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 teachers, explored what value teachers see in SEL.6 Large majorities support the inclusion of SEL in schools: 87 percent of teachers believe SEL will help prepare students for the workforce, and 80 percent of teachers who view school climate as a problem believe that SEL is a solution to that problem.

A November 2018 report on the perspectives of high school youth about social-emotional learning shows that 89 percent of current high school students from strong SEL schools say students at their school get along well with one another, compared to 46 percent of current high school students from schools with a less developed SEL presence.7 One further finding: 83 percent of high school students from strong SEL schools say their school did a “great” or “pretty good” job preparing them for success after high school, compared to 13 percent from the other SEL schools.

Evidence for specific social-emotional learning programs is also increasing.

Implementations of Committee for Children’s own Second Step curricula have recently shown strong results in the research literature. Second Step SEL for Early Learning has been associated with many positive outcomes, such as increased executive-function skills for early learners.8 Children studied in Kindergarten through Grade 2 showed improvements in prosocial and social-emotional skills such as emotion management and problem solving, especially those children who started the year with lower skill levels compared to their peers.9

If you’d like to dig further into this information, the CASEL Program Guides include information about other evidence-based programs and their benefits.10 The What Works Clearinghouse is another resource for finding SEL programs that show outcomes based on high-quality research.11

SEL research continues to evolve.

To summarize, the evolving research is indicating that social-emotional learning supports provide students with skills that both promote well-being and protect against negative outcomes. Although SEL is not a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s an effective strategy regardless of school location and socioeconomic status. Students and teachers report the benefits of SEL, and teachers affect SEL outcomes. There are also both economic and long-term benefits of SEL programming.

The research about SEL continues to expand, so keep following my future posts for updates.

Research references

1. 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: 405–432.

2. Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., Ben, J., & 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, 892- 909.

3. Taylor, R., 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, 1156–1171.

4. 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.

5. Belfield, et al. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. New York, NY: Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

6. Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The missing piece: A national teacher survey of how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Washington D.C.: CASEL.

7. DePaoli, J. L., Atwell, M. N., Bridgeland, J. M., & Shriver, T. P. (2018). Respected: Perspectives of youth on high school & social and emotional learning (Report). Washington D.C.: CASEL.

8. Wenz-Gross, M., Yoo, Y., Upshur, C. C., & Gambino, A. J. (2018). Pathways to kindergarten readiness: The roles of Second Step Early Learning curriculum and social emotional, executive functioning, preschool academic and task behavior skills. Frontiers in Psychology (9). 

9. Low, S., Cook, C. R., Smolkowski, K., & Buntain-Ricklefs, J. (2015). Promoting social-emotional competence: An evaluation of the elementary version of Second Step. Journal of School Psychology, 53, 463–477.

10. CASEL. (2019). CASEL Program Guides: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs. Retrieved from https://casel.org/guide/

11. Institute of Education Sciences. (n.d.) Welcome to the What Works Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/