Committee for Children Blog

Research and Evidence: The Second Step® Difference

Colleagues working together.

Committee for Children has long been at the forefront of research, evidence, and continuous improvement in the field of social-emotional learning. With a history of scholarly contributions and the development of the Second Step® family of programs, we’ve kept research at the foundation of our efforts to help students, educators, and communities thrive.

In this interview, Dr. Sherri Widen, research scientist and manager at Committee for Children, explains more about why and how we use data to guide our work.

Why is research and evidence so important to Committee for Children?

Our mission is to equitably foster the safety and well-being of children through social-emotional learning and development. There’s already an established body of field-level and longitudinal evidence on the positive effects of social-emotional learning. We’re committed to basing Second Step programs in research and evidence so that we—and the educators who use them—are confident the programs can help set students up for success.

How are Second Step® programs based in research and evidence?

Second Step programs are all research-based, which means they’re developed on the foundation of current research findings and best practices in the fields of social-emotional learning, education, and psychology. Each program includes a review of research so districts and schools have easy access to its research basis.

Describing a program as evidence-based means external studies have shown that the curriculum has a positive effect on student outcomes. Soon after the release of the earlier, print editions of our programs, we followed the standard practice of funding an external researcher to conduct randomized control trial (RCT) studies.

The RCT studies showed that compared to control groups:

  • Children who participated in Second Step® Early Learning (2011) had improved executive function.
  • Students who participated in Second Step® Elementary (2011) had increased skills for learning, emotion management, and social-emotional competencies, as well as decreased emotion problems and hyperactivity.
  • Students who participated in the Second Step® Child Protection Unit for PreK–Grade 4 had increased knowledge about personal safety and how to avoid and report child sexual abuse.

There are organizations that provide ratings of the evidence base of social-emotional learning curricula to help districts and schools find evidence-based programs. Two of the top groups are the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Each gave us their top ratings based on positive results from the RCT studies: the print editions of our early learning and elementary programs have Tier 1 ratings from ESSA and SELect ratings from CASEL.

For our newer, digital programs, we use a continuous improvement approach that allows us to make targeted improvements before RCT studies are conducted. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll fund external RCT studies of our digital programs to confirm that they have the intended positive results.

Can you explain more about the continuous improvement approach and the difference it makes for educators using Second Step® programs?

The continuous improvement approach allows us to see how the programs are working in classrooms and make adjustments based on what we learn. The difference this method makes is clear: it supports strong programs, good experiences for teachers, and positive outcomes for students.

Five key commitments make this difference in quality and integrity possible:

  1. Research expertise. Gathering, questioning, and understanding data can be done to differing standards of accuracy and excellence. Our bar is high, which reflects the impact-focused and nonprofit nature of our organization. We currently house a team of 17 research scientists (including seven doctorate-level researchers), many of whom have published their own contributions to the field.
  2. An approach to social-emotional learning from an equity framework. Our newer programs (the Second Step Elementary and Second Step® Middle School digital programs, Second Step® SEL for Adults, and Second Step® Out-of-School Time) are reviewed by experts who provide direction on ways to make them more culturally relevant to a broad range of students.
  3. Standing advisory groups. We regularly partner with groups of students, educators, site leaders, and other field professionals to gain insights and in-depth feedback or test new ideas.
  4. Ongoing data collection. We gather live data to help us understand how materials are being used and embed feedback opportunities at the end of lessons to capture in-the-moment perspectives from educators.
  5. Continued improvement. By making annual updates to student-facing content and more frequent updates to resources and supplemental content, we ensure the data we collect results in regular program improvements.

What studies on Second Step® programs are currently underway?

This year, we’re applying the data that we’ve collected to improve our programs’ content and implementation supports. We partner with a small number of schools for each program and educators teach the full curriculum. To learn what works and what we can improve, we have different data collection methods: we observe classrooms during lessons, ask the teachers to complete surveys, and get feedback from students and educators in focus groups. For some programs, we also ask the teachers to complete assessments of their students’ social-emotional skills so we can learn how effective the program is, or we get permission to access students’ grades to look at the effect of the program on academic outcomes.

For additional insights, we partner with external researchers or conduct grant-funded research on our programs. For example:

  • Researchers at New York University are developing and testing engaging home links for the Second Step Elementary digital program, to give parents and caretakers tools to further support their child’s social-emotional development.
  • A study of Second Step Middle School funded by the Gates Foundation will help develop teacher supports to elevate student voice and increase engagement and learning.
  • An external researcher received funding from the Institute of Education Sciences for an RCT study to learn whether Second Step Middle School supports students’ social-emotional development and has a positive impact on other outcomes such as academic performance.
  • An RCT study is underway to learn whether Second Step Out-of-School Time supports the development of children’s social-emotional skills.

How can I find out more about the research and evidence behind Second Step® programs?

Our Research Team works closely with the Education Partnerships, Client Support, and Client Success teams who are listening and responding to educators every day. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or feedback! You can also explore these additional resources:

Second Step® Programs and Research

The Case for a Comprehensive Approach to Social-Emotional Learning