How do social-emotional skills affect learning outcomes for students?
Children’s ability to learn is determined by much more than their cognitive capabilities. Social and emotional issues play a significant role, as how students see themselves and how their relationships to people around them can help shape their learning process.[i] Research shows that social and emotional factors are connected to later success in school, starting as early as preschool.[ii]
Social-emotional learning (SEL) refers to a set of competencies that form the basis of human interaction. Despite a range of SEL definitions and models, common ground can be found in identifying three broad categories that SEL skills and competencies can be classified as: thinking skills; behavioral skills; and beliefs and attitudes.[iii] Thinking skills can change with age and include: the ability to recognize emotions in others; perspective-taking; and social problem-solving. Behavioral skills, like thinking skills, appear to change over time and include a range of positive and aversive social behaviors. The beliefs and attitudes category includes other behaviors, mindsets, and attitudes—such as self-regulation and perseverance—that affect learning outcomes.[iv]
In early childhood, children build the capacity to understand and manage their own emotions and behaviors, which is an important foundation for success both in school and life. For example, studies show that children who are self-aware are better able to recognize their strengths and challenges, figure out what they need to do to complete a task, recognize other people’s needs and feelings, and see how their behavior affects others. These are key SEL skills that not only improve achievement, but also improve prosocial behaviors and attitudes towards school.[v]
For SEL to be effectively implemented, teachers and schools must understand how these skills reflect an approach toward the whole child (See Whole Child Supports & Interventions Topic Page). Rather than only measuring student success based on academic achievement, SEL demonstrates how nurturing relationships and understanding students’ needs beyond the classroom also shape learning.
The sections below highlight key findings from the research on social-emotional learning, including the effect of SEL on learning outcomes, and best practices for integrating SEL practices in educational settings.
Children’s brains develop differently based on their environments.[vi] Some children arrive at school having had opportunities to engage actively and safely with rich and meaningful environments, while others come from stressful, physical and emotional environments that can be toxic to brain development. Decades of research and practice show that social, emotional, and cognitive development are deeply intertwined, and that the growth of related skills and competencies is fostered by supportive environments. Furthermore, a rigorous body of evidence documents the importance of social, emotional, and cognitive development for a range of positive outcomes including academic achievement, well-being, and career and economic stability.[vii] Designing schools and other learning environments to foster positive emotions can help students make meaning of what they are learning, and apply their skills and knowledge in useful ways in real-world situations.[viii]
Optimal learning environments, such as classrooms with small ratios of children to adults can lead to healthy early-care environments, when interpersonal interactions between children and adults are maximized.[ix] This kind of environment can provide young people opportunities to: follow their interests and passions; reflect on their strategies so they can guide their own learning over time; examine ideas from multiple perspectives; and interact with trusted adults.[x] In addition to a small adult to child ratio, it is important that students have the opportunity to pursue worthwhile goals within a rigorous and supportive environment. Children do better when challenged in a supportive environment, where they have the right SEL tools to deal with obstacles. On the other hand, children who are not challenged to take on long-term or higher-order goals might not stretch themselves to match their skill level. After all, research shows that individuals are most productive and motivated in the face of challenges appropriate to their skill level.[xi]
Students’ relationships with their peers also affect how they learn; the more comfortable and connected students feel in a classroom, the more they can focus on learning. For example, one study found that strong and positive emotional interactions between students are associated with higher grades.[xii] In classrooms, stronger achievement has been found to occur when tasks are undertaken in a cooperative manner with mastery focus, where students are recognized for accomplishing their individual and collective learning goals, rather than in competitive settings focused on student rank or grades achieved.[xiii] Unfortunately, many students will encounter challenges throughout their schooling that can negatively affect learning, including bullying and interpersonal conflicts. Positive and negative peer relationships can shape outcomes for students and their learning experiences. By honing SEL skills like communication and collaboration, students can be better prepared and supported for learning in school and beyond.[xiv]
Emotions play an important role in many aspects of the learning process including memory, decision-making, and creativity, as well as reasoning and rational thinking.[xv] Research shows that students can develop SEL thinking and behavioral skills to help them persevere in and out of the classroom. In a recent report, SRI International researchers identified three teachable psychological resources that support perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals. These include: academic mindsets; strategies and tactics; and effortful control.[xvi] Academic mindsets refer to how students understand themselves as learners and how they understand their learning environments. Strategies and tactics refer to the tools that equip students to deal with setbacks and challenges so that they are better prepared to persevere. Effortful control refers to the willpower and attention regulation that successful students can enlist in order to stay on track and execute on long-term goals.
Research shows that well-implemented school-based SEL programs can significantly improve these mindsets and skills.[xvii] As a result of the widespread adoption and availability of SEL programs, efforts are beginning to focus on building usable, feasible, and scalable tools to measure and assess SEL.
Researchers have found that the SEL thinking skills that can be reliably assessed include children’s ability to recognize emotions in others, perspective-taking, and social problem-solving.[xviii] By using a framework like the model defined by the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to identify skills and attitudes that an organization wants to assess, schools can begin to develop an SEL assessment strategy that can benefit teaching and learning. Social-emotional learning assessment options can include direct assessment of SEL thinking skills, rating scales and structured observations for assessing behavioral skills, questionnaires to assess attitudes and beliefs.[xvix]
Some SEL thinking skills have already been incorporated in state standards and benchmarks.[xx] For example, the Illinois SEL standards include a measure for self-control, stating that children should “identify and manage … emotions and behavior” and “express emotions in a socially acceptable manner.”[xxi] It is important to note that an assessment of an individual’s SEL competencies should not be taken lightly. The American Institutes for Research, for example, provide a decision tree to guide educators in crafting their assessment plan while avoiding unethical assessments.
Social and emotional learning programs help enhance students’ social and emotional competence explicitly. For example, some programs teach students to regulate their emotions, develop positive social relationships, engage in cooperative learning, and practice responsible decision-making.[xxii] A large body of research suggests that SEL interventions can improve children’s social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as significantly increase their academic achievement.[xxiii] A cost-benefit analysis found that for every dollar schools spend on six common SEL programs, those interventions return an average $11 worth of benefits to students, taxpayers, and society.[xxiv] The benefits to students include higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system.
Studies suggest that SEL programs work in a variety of school settings and with students of all ages.[xxv] There is also evidence that SEL programming has lasting effectiveness in fostering positive youth development.[xxvi] Research indicates that SEL programs are more effective when they follow a set of best practices known as SAFE: a sequenced, step-by-step approach (S); opportunities for active learning (A); a focus on skills development (F); and the use of explicit learning goals (E).[xxvii] Because SEL programs target social skills, they may work best when implemented systematically throughout an entire school, like the RULER approach. For instance, a review of research on anti-bullying programs found that school-wide programs are more effective than individual-level interventions, likely because they influence the social and emotional climate of the school as a whole.[xxviii] Finally, best practices in SEL interventions call for adaptations based on ongoing refinements in order to lead to continuous improvement.[xxvix]
[i] Elias, M. J. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. ASCD.
[ii] Denham, S. A., Bassett, H. H., Zinsser, K., and Wyatt, T. M. (2014). How preschoolers’ social–emotional learning predicts their early school success: Developing theory promoting, competency-based assessments. Infant and Child Development, 23(4), 426-454.
Valiente, C., Eisenberg, N., Haugen, R.G., Spinrad, T.L., Hofer, C., Liew, J. and Kupfer, A. (2011).Children’s effortful control and academic achievement: Mediation through social functioning. Early Education & Development, 22(3): 411-433.
Montroy, J.J., Bowles, R.P., Skibbe, L.E. and Foster, T.D. (2014). Social skills and problem behaviors as mediators of the relationship between behavioral self-regulation and academic achievement. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(3): 298-309.
[iii] Schonert-Reichl. K.A. (2019). Advancements in the landscape of social emotional learning and emerging topics on the horizon. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 222-232.
[iv] McKown, C. (2017). Social-emotional assessment, performance, and standards. The Future of Children, 27(1): 157-178.
Swann Jr., W. B., Chang-Schneider, C., and Larsen McClarty, K. (2007). Do people’s self-views matter? Self-concept and self-esteem in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62(2): 84-94.
Ferkany, M. (2008). The educational importance of self-esteem. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(1): 119–132.
Zimmerman, B.J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learning: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(2): 64-70.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., and Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6): 1087-1101.
[v] Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., and Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405-432. Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., Ritter, M.D., Ben, J., and 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 in the Schools, 49(9):892-909.
[vi] Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., and Krone, C. (2018). The brain basis for integrated social, emotional, and academic development: How emotions and social relationships drive learning. Aspen Institute.
[vii] Jones, S.M., McGarrah, M.W., and Kahn, J. (2019) Social and emotional learning: a principled science of human development in context, Educational Psychologist, 54(3): 129-143.
[viii] Immordino Yang, M. H., and Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1): 3-10.
[ix] Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., and Krone, C. (2018). The brain basis for integrated social, emotional, and academic development: How emotions and social relationships drive learning. Aspen Institute.
[x] Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., and Krone, C. (2018). The brain basis for integrated social, emotional, and academic development: How emotions and social relationships drive learning. Aspen Institute.
[xi] SRI International (2018). Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance: Critical factors for success in the 21st century. SRI International, Menlo Park, CA.
[xii] Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., and Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom emotional climate, student engagement, and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104: 700-712.
[xiii] Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T. and Stanne, M. B. (2000). Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
[xiv] SRI International (2018). Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance: Critical factors for success in the 21st century. SRI International, Menlo Park, CA.
[xv] Immordino Yang, M. H., and Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1): 3-10.
[xvi] SRI International (2018). Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance: Critical factors for success in the 21st century. SRI International, Menlo Park, CA.
McKown, C. (2017). Social-emotional assessment, performance, and standards. The Future of Children, 27(1): 157-178.
[xvii] McKown, C., and Taylor, J. (2018). Introduction to the special issue on social-emotional assessment to guide educational practice. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 55: 1-3.
[xviii] McKown, C. (2017). Social-emotional assessment, performance, and standards. The Future of Children, 27(1): 157-178.
[xvix] McKown, C. (2017). Social-emotional assessment, performance, and standards. The Future of Children, 27(1): 157-178.
[xx] Blyth, D. A., Jones, S., and Borowski, T. (2018). SEL frameworks – What are they and why are they important? Chicago, IL: CASEL.
[xxi] McKown, C., and Taylor, J. (2018). Introduction to the special issue on social-emotional assessment to guide educational practice. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 55: 1-3.
[xxii] Domitrovich, C., Durlak, J., Goren, P., and Weissberg, R. (2013). Effective social and emotional learning programs: Preschool and elementary school edition. 2013 CASEL guide. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. [xxiii] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., and Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405-432. [xxiv] Belfield, C., Bowden, A. B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., and Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(03): 508-544.
[xxv] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., and Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405-432. [xxvi] Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., and 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(4): 1156–1171.
[xxvii] Durlak, J. A., and Weissberg, R. P. (2011). Afterschool programs that follow evidence-based practices to promote social and emotional development are effective. In Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success, Eds. White, W. S., & Peterson, T.K., pp 24-28.
[xxviii] Pearce, N., Cross, D., Monks, H., Waters, S., and Falconer, S. (2011). Current evidence of best practice in whole-school bullying intervention and its potential to inform cyberbullying interventions. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 21(1): 1-21.
[xxvix] Elias, M.J. (2019) What if the doors of every schoolhouse opened to social-emotional learning tomorrow: Reflections on how to feasibly scale up high-quality SEL, Educational Psychologist, 54(3): 233-245.