Does SEL Make the Grade?By Jill Suttie | September 20, 2011 | 11 comments
Fueled by new research, the social-emotional learning movement is building momentum. Is it enough to make American schools change their course?
Seventeen years ago, best-selling author Daniel Goleman and a group of education leaders and researchers tried to instigate a sea change in the American educational system by launching the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Believing that children need more than academic training to be successful in life, they envisioned schools as places where students learned to better understand and manage their emotions, develop compassionate concern for others, make ethical decisions, handle conflicts constructively, and form positive relationships both inside and outside of the classroom—a set of skills known as social and emotional learning (SEL).
Goleman and his colleagues formed CASEL as a way to advance the science and research-based practice of SEL. They argued that these skills would help reduce problem behaviors like drug use, bullying, and violence in schools. More importantly, they were necessary to help children grow into responsible, contributing members of society.
Yet since its founding, CASEL has had to fight an uphill battle. Shrinking funds and a “Back to Basics” movement in education have narrowed the scope of what schools are able and willing to provide. With the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001, schools were pressured to focus more on academic subjects and prepare students to pass standardized tests. Programs that were seen as tangential to this goal—physical education, art, and music classes, for example—often suffered the budgetary ax, while SEL was relegated to the back burner.
New research might make educators think again. A landmark study published earlier this year lends support to the SEL movement, offering perhaps the strongest evidence to date that SEL programs not only reduce problem behaviors and increase kids’ social and emotional skills but boost academic performance as well. The results come at a time when CASEL and the SEL movement is gearing up for a major expansion, possibly giving them the empirical ammunition they need to take their work to the next level.
But the story’s not so simple: Another major recent study has gotten conflicting results. The discrepancy raises questions about whether SEL works—and how it fits into today’s educational landscape.
The good news
Despite the challenges they have faced, the number of SEL programs has grown steadily over the last two decades. In 2003, CASEL sorted through more than 240 different SEL programs before publishing a report called “Safe and Sound,” which narrowed the list down to 22 recommended programs for teachers and principals. The list includes programs like Peace Works, which teaches conflict resolution skills as students work together on group projects, and Caring School Community, which uses class meetings, pairings of older and younger kids, and peer mentoring to help kids form closer, more caring relationships with one another.
Some studies have suggested that SEL programs like these reduce violence, aggression, truancy, and drug use in schools, while improving schools’ overall social climate. But critics argue that SEL programs have limited potential and have not been independently evaluated to prove they work. In addition, SEL programs can require a large effort on the part of schools and teachers, leading many to question whether the investment is worth the payoff.
It was against this backdrop that CASEL’s president and CEO, Roger Weissberg, recently teamed up with Joseph Durlak, a professor of psychology at Loyola University, to conduct one of the largest analyses of the SEL research to date. With Durlak as the lead researcher, the team looked at 213 studies, covering school-wide SEL programs affecting more than 270,000 kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. The researchers wanted to see how participation in SEL programs affected kids’ social and emotional skills, academic achievement, and problem behaviors like bullying.
The results, published earlier this year in the journal Child Development, were encouraging: They suggest that SEL programs significantly increase social and emotional skills, positive attitudes toward oneself and others, and kind, helpful (or “pro-social”) behaviors in children of all ages, while reducing kids’ behavior problems and emotional distress. In addition, when researchers followed up at least six months after an SEL program had ended, they found that those positive changes were lasting.
According to Weissberg, who in addition to being CASEL’s CEO is also a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the real surprise was in the area of academic achievement. For kids exposed to SEL programs, academic achievement increased by 11 percentage points. This means that if a class were averaging 50 points on a standardized test, the average score would go up to 61 points after participating in an SEL program—an educationally meaningful increase, according to Weissberg.
“If you’d asked me before the study, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Weissberg. “It’s what we call a ‘twofer’: We showed that SEL programs not only improve social and emotional skills, they also improve academic performance.”
Another important finding from Durlak’s study is that simply teaching SEL isn’t enough to guarantee success—it matters how the program is designed and executed. For example, they found when programs provide kids with an opportunity to rehearse and practice SEL skills—like positive communication or problem-solving—through role-playing and other activities, they are more successful than programs that rely on passive modes of learning, like lectures or books. In addition, those SEL programs that have manuals or lesson plans outlining a sequenced, step-by-step training approach and target specific SEL skills are more successful than those that don’t.
These lessons are invaluable to advocates of SEL, according to Brian Flay, a professor of public health at Oregon State University, Corvallis. Flay has studied the effectiveness of an SEL program called Positive Action, which was developed by his wife, Carol Allred, a researcher who also works at OSU.
“The Durlak study is particularly helpful because there were enough subjects and studies to have statistical power,” he says. “We can be more confident that the interventions we’re making are really affecting the groups studied.”
At the same time, he adds, “We can see that if SEL programs are not well-structured, they don’t work well.”
The bad news
While these results are encouraging to SEL researchers and practitioners, not all large-scale studies have provided such hearty endorsements of SEL lately. Last fall, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released a report that evaluated seven different SEL programs, including Positive Action, and the results were underwhelming.
In the study, for each SEL program, a research team compared a group of five to seven schools running that program with other schools in the same district not employing the program. When the researchers looked at their results, they saw no significant differences in social and emotional literacy between the schools that received SEL training and those that didn’t, and no increases in academic achievement or decreases in problematic behavior. In other words, the SEL programs appeared to be duds.
“We were pretty surprised by the findings,” says Tamara Haegerich, one of the authors of the report, who is currently a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which co-sponsored the study. “We knew from previous evaluations of the programs that they can work and, frankly, we were hoping for significant effects.”
The report serves as a contrast to the Durlak study. And, since it was conducted by an outside agency with little to no connection to the individual SEL programs, it may seem less biased in its results.
“If you do studies to evaluate your own program, then there is a strong motivation to find positive outcomes,” admits Weissberg. But he doesn’t think that was the case with Durlak’s study.
“When we did the meta-analysis, we asked Durlak to do it specifically because he’s not with CASEL,” he says. “Also, the studies we looked at were the work of other people. Bias just doesn’t enter into meta-analysis quite as easily as in other types of studies.”
Several SEL researchers, including Mark Greenberg of Penn State and Maurice Elias of Rutgers University, have suggested that discrepancies between the two studies can best be explained by problems with the IES study’s methods. For example, IES researchers couldn’t be sure that the supposedly non-SEL schools in their study weren’t using some SEL techniques in their classrooms. This could explain why larger differences weren’t found in the analysis: Kids in the comparison schools may have benefited from some form of SEL instruction even if they didn’t receive a formal program.
In addition, Flay and Greenberg both claim that the IES study was “underpowered”—meaning that researchers did not use statistical measures suited to the kind of data they collected—which would help explain why they found no differences between the schools receiving the programs and those that didn’t. When Flay and his colleagues reanalyzed the IES data using other statistical measures, he says they did find significant improvements in the behavior and attitudes of kids receiving the Positive Action program.
“I think the IES did a disservice to the field, to do an underpowered study and then put it out to the world that SEL doesn’t work,” he says.
Haegerich doesn’t dispute these criticisms. Still, she says, the fact that it produced no significant results and contradicted years of prior research points to at least one important conclusion.
“We need to have more information about what really works in these programs,” says Haegerich. “We wouldn’t want to make policy decisions based on just one study.”
In the meantime, Haegerich says researchers have already identified some programs schools can feel comfortable using. She points to the Blueprints for Violence Prevention website, which lists programs that have been vetted by an independent board of researchers to ensure that the programs listed there have met strict evaluation criteria.
A tipping point?
But SEL is about more than violence prevention, according to Mark Greenberg, whose PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) program is listed on the Blueprints site. Greenberg says many SEL programs market themselves as violence prevention programs, but that sells them short; they are as much about promoting positive behaviors—like compassion, empathy, and altruism—as reducing negative ones. The Durlak study and prior studies bear this out.
The fact that these two large-scale studies were undertaken in the first place suggests that the SEL movement is building momentum. Indeed, now armed with evidence that SEL also increases academic performance, Weissberg and other proponents are pushing to get SEL into classrooms across the country.
To that end, CASEL launched an initiative last spring to implement SEL programs district-wide in several large schools systems around the country. CASEL has already begun implementing programs in Anchorage, Alaska, Austin, Texas, and Cleveland, Ohio; researchers plan to evaluate the success of these programs to guide expansion to five other districts.
In support of this initiative, the New York-based NoVo Foundation has committed $4 million in funding to CASEL this year, and it has budgeted a total of $7 million for direct funding to the collaborating school districts over the next three years.
The manager of NoVo’s SEL initiative, Pamela McVeagh-Lally, says the time is right for this broad investment in SEL because education in the U.S. is in desperate need of a course correction.
“We’ve reached a tipping point,” she says. “Our education system has become too focused on standardized testing, even though neuroscience tells us that, as humans, our cognitive and emotional development are inextricably linked.”
In addition to spreading SEL across large school districts, the initiative seeks to strengthen the network of universities and programs offering SEL training and research, and to promote widespread state and federal legislation to support SEL education.
CASEL and NoVo came a step closer to achieving this last goal in July, when House Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) and two Democratic colleagues introduced a bill in Congress—H.R. 2437—which would provide support to train teachers and principals in proven SEL practices. Weissberg hopes the bill will be incorporated into the No Child Left Behind legislation, which is currently being reviewed for revision and reauthorization.
Yet even as CASEL works toward greater acceptance of SEL, Weissberg continues to press for more and better research on SEL’s application. For instance, he says he’d like to see research like the IES study and Durlak’s study spur efforts to improve social and emotional education by tailoring it to specific groups and problems, such as high school kids abusing drugs.
And because so many teachers and schools have limited time and money, he argues that SEL researchers should try to integrate SEL into the rest of the academic curriculum. He points to programs like Facing History and Ourselves, which is writing SEL into history curricula, making it easier for teachers to incorporate SEL into their classes, especially in middle and high school, where they don’t have the same students in their classrooms all day.
“It isn’t magic,” says Weissberg. “It can happen via good, evidenced-based programs, and should be implemented as well as possible. Let’s keep learning so we can get better and better at it.”
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About The Author
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.