What does the research say about the effectiveness of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs on student success? As Senior Research Scientist for Social-Emotional Learning at Panorama Education, I set out to find answers to this question.
That’s why I teamed up with esteemed SEL researchers Dr. Joseph Durlak and Dr. Alaina Boyle. We reviewed as many rigorous studies as we could to discover the impact of SEL programs on student achievement.
Today, I’m pleased to announce we’ve published our SEL research review. You can read the full study in the Psychological Bulletin, an academic journal published by the American Psychological Association.
By combining 12 different meta-analyses in our review, we were able to analyze data from over 1 million students. This is the most comprehensive review of the impact of SEL programs on students, from early childhood through high school.
The meta-review covered 12 meta-analyses, encompassing 523 studies, with 61% randomized control trials, accounting for a total of 1 million students.
So what did we find out? Our meta-review shows that SEL programs improve students’ social-emotional skills. But that’s not all—they also have an enduring positive impact on academic outcomes and student behavior.
The data confirms that SEL programs can be an effective educational approach for tackling learning recovery and other pandemic-era issues.
What the Research Says: Benefits of SEL Programs
Our meta-review found that SEL programs implemented properly led to measurable impacts. These spanned multiple domains, including social-emotional skills, academics, behavior, and well-being.
Meta-analysis: A statistical method of combining research findings from many different studies into a single overall assessment.
Meta-review: An analysis of multiple meta-analyses to provide conclusions based on the largest possible set of data.
SEL program: A coordinated approach to help students develop social and emotional skills and attitudes that support academic success.
Universal program: A program delivered to all students within a school or district, also known as Tier 1.
When implemented well, universal, school-based SEL programs led to all student demographic groups developing skills such as identifying emotions, teamwork, and self-management.
The results show that SEL programs do what they set out to do: improve SEL. But that’s not all they do. The skill development translated to positive effects on academic performance. Students also had more positive social behaviors and attitudes, and reduced conduct problems and emotional distress.
After SEL, students using these programs saw the largest follow-up impact in academics. Our review shows an increase in students’ academic performance immediately after providing an SEL program. Students also received continuing academic gains over the long term. The positive impact on academic performance was observed across reading and math achievement as well as school grades.
SEL programs impact positive social behaviors such as getting along with others, empathy, and cooperation. At the same time, the programs resulted in a decrease in conduct problems. For example, disruptive behavior, fighting, bullying, and discipline referrals were all diminished.
Finally, SEL programs had a positive impact on student well-being. This includes attitudes about oneself, school, and social topics. The research also demonstrates a decrease in emotional distress such as depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.
SEL Impact Across Demographic Groups
While conducting our research analysis, we wanted to understand whether SEL programs impact different student groups differently. Do only certain students benefit from SEL programs, while others do not?
Fortunately, we found that SEL programs have positive benefits for all students, regardless of race, gender, or geographic area. The impact of SEL programs on social-emotional skills, academics, and behavior was equally strong across these demographic groups.
That’s great news for educators implementing SEL initiatives. It shows the universal impact of these programs on a broad range of students.
Additionally, SEL programs have positive effects across all ages, although they are stronger for younger students than older ones. This is likely because programs for younger students are often better resourced, and school leaders can choose from a wider range of evidence-based options.
What Makes an Effective SEL Program?
These 12 meta-analyses encompassed many different types of SEL programs. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that as a researcher, I recommend selecting evidence-based SEL programs. That means programs where peer-reviewed research shows a positive impact on students.
But that’s not the whole story—no one program will fit all districts and schools. It's important that the program chosen also matches the particular strengths, needs, and values of the community. I’ve seen success when schools review and select an evidence-based program in partnership with families and community members.
Plus, no SEL program will see results if it isn’t implemented properly (or at all). That means following the program the way it is intended, and at the right intensity and duration. Educators need sound training and adequate resources to implement any program in this manner.
SEL for Learning Recovery
Across the board, our review found that SEL programs, when implemented well, have many positive effects. Most significantly, they boost academic achievement, immediately and in the long-term.
These positive outcomes make SEL instruction an important part of a whole child approach to pandemic learning recovery. It's proven to have positive impacts on academics, behavior, well-being, and more.
Evidence from 523 different studies representing 1 million students is clear. There’s no need for either/or thinking about SEL and academic instruction. We can and we should do both to not only recover from learning loss, but also increase academic achievement.
Next Steps for Your District
Districts that want to give their students the advantages of SEL can begin with a universal SEL program for all students. Universal SEL strategies can provide shorter-term outcomes for students, such as positive attitudes and relationship skills. Those can then translate into longer-term outcomes, such as academic success and mental health.
Districts should measure SEL skills, supports, and environments for all students. By analyzing and acting on SEL data, educators can ensure SEL programs provide positive outcomes for all students.
Durlak, J. A., Mahoney, J. L., & Boyle, A. E. (2022). What We Know, and What We Need to Find Out About Universal, School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs for Children and Adolescents: A Review of Meta-Analyses and Directions for Future Research. Psychological Bulletin, 148(11/12), 765–782. https://doi.org/10.1037/