School-based social and emotional instruction

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

School-based social and emotional instruction focuses on five core competency areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making1. Such instruction typically includes efforts to develop skills such as recognizing and managing emotions, setting and reaching goals, appreciating others’ perspectives, establishing and maintaining relationships, and handling interpersonal situations constructively. Skills may be modeled, practiced, and then applied throughout the school day2. Social and emotional learning (SEL) can also be called emotional literacy, emotional intelligence, mental health, resilience, life skills, or character education3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Increased high school completion

  • Improved social emotional skills

  • Increased school engagement

  • Increased self-confidence

  • Improved mental health

  • Improved youth behavior

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced violence

  • Reduced bullying

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that school-based social and emotional instruction increases academic achievement1, 3, self-confidence, commitment to school3, social and emotional skills, and prosocial behavior among participants2, 4. Such interventions have also been shown to reduce depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal among participating youth2 and increase high school completion rates among youth at risk of dropping out of school5. Interventions appear effective in urban and rural schools, and in schools in communities with low incomes4, 6, 7, 8. Effects can be strongest with younger children, especially when interventions in later years reinforce earlier messages3.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions for pre-K through grade 12 have been shown to improve math, reading, and science achievement; effects on science achievement are smaller than effects on math and reading1. Whole class interventions and interventions that focus on children who have demonstrated social and emotional difficulties appear effective3, 6. Whole class SEL interventions, especially those that include older children or cognitive behavioral interventions, also improve anger management and reduce violence, bullying, and conflict. However, interventions that focus only on children who have demonstrated violent or bullying behavior can increase problematic behavior, especially when peer-based interventions group these children together3, 9.

Studies of Second Step, a SEL program, show significant reductions in delinquent behavior, leading to reductions in bullying and aggressive behavior10, 11, 12. Participants who began the school year with fewer skills than their peers show substantial improvements in social emotional competence and behavior13. Studies also suggest that high quality implementation (defined by adherence, dosage, and competency) is associated with better program outcomes14, 15.

Research suggests that SEL program benefits can be similar for students regardless of socio-economic background, race, ethnicity, or school location4. Minority students may benefit from having early access to SEL instruction and SEL interventions may mitigate factors that put students at risk for poor social, emotional, and behavioral development9. Overall, additional research is needed to understand differential effects of SEL instruction9, 16.

Interventions that focus directly on social and emotional outcomes and communicate specific, well-defined guidelines, goals, and rationales are more effective than those that do not3. Interventions lasting nine months or more yield stronger effects on behavior, mental health, violence, and bullying than shorter interventions. Shorter interventions can improve mild difficulties with conflict, anxiety, or emotions, however, single, brief interventions do not appear effective3. SEL programs that use a coordinated sequence connecting activities to objectives, active learning to reinforce new skills, focus on developing personal or social skills, and explicitly address social and emotional skills—all four components of SAFE (sequenced, active, focused, and explicit) practices—achieve the broadest range of possible outcomes2.

Whole class, teacher-led interventions can be more effective than specialist-led interventions, especially for academic outcomes2, 3. Researchers suggest that SEL interventions involve teachers to ensure that SEL skills are incorporated into daily school life3. Afterschool interventions also appear effective6. Implementing SEL interventions with Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) interventions can lead to significantly greater improvements in overall mental health and greater reductions in externalizing behaviors, including defiant, angry, argumentative, aggressive, or disruptive behaviors, than implementing either intervention alone17.

Implementation Examples

As of 2022, 27 states have social and emotional learning (SEL) standards for preschool through grade 12. All 50 states have SEL standards for preschools. Forty-four states have web pages that provide guidance, tools, and resources to support implementation of SEL in schools18.

There are several SEL curriculum programs available for purchase, such as PATHS and Second Step19, 20.

Implementation Resources

CASEL - Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

CGTL 2014 - American Institute for Research (AIR). Teaching the whole child: Instructional practices that support social-emotional learning. Center on Great Teachers & Leaders (CGTL). 2014.

AIR-SEL - American Institutes for Research (AIR). Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). 2018.

RWJF-SEL resources - Social and Emotional Learning. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). 2018.


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1 Corcoran 2018 - Corcoran RP, Cheung A, Kim E, Xie C. Effective universal school-based social and emotional learning programs for improving academic achievement: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 50 years of research. Educational Research Review. 2018;25:56-72.

2 Durlak 2011 - Durlak JA, Weissberg RP, Dymnicki AB, Taylor RD, Schellinger KB. The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development. 2011;82(1):405-32.

3 Weare 2011 - Weare K, Nind M. Mental health promotion and problem prevention in schools: What does the evidence say? Health Promotion International. 2011;26(Suppl 1):i29-69.

4 Taylor 2017 - Taylor RD, Oberle E, Durlak JA, Weissberg RP. Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development. 2017;88(4):1156-1171.

5 CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) center-based early childhood education programs (ECE) to improve educational outcomes that are associated with long-term health as well as social- and health-related outcomes.

6 CASEL-Payton 2008 - Payton J, Weissberg RP, Durlak JA, et al. The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); 2008.

7 Lewis 2013 - Lewis KM, DuBois DL, Bavarian N, et al. Effects of positive action on the emotional health of urban youth: A cluster-randomized trial. The Journal of Adolescent Health. 2013;53(6):706-11.

8 NBER-Cook 2014 - Cook PJ, Dodge K, Farkas G, et al. The (Surprising) efficacy of academic and behavioral intervention with disadvantaged youth: Results from a randomized experiment in Chicago. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2014: Working Paper 19862.

9 O’Conner 2017 - O'Conner R, De Feyter J, Carr A, Luo L, Romm H. A review of the literature on social and emotional learning for students ages 3-8 : Outcomes for different student populations and settings (part 4 of 4). Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic. 2017:247.

10 Espelage 2015 - Espelage DL, Low S, Ryzin MJ Van, Polanin JR. Clinical trial of second step middle school program: Impact on bullying, cyberbullying, homophobic teasing, and sexual harassment perpetration. 2015;44(4):464-479.

11 Espelage 2015a - Espelage DL, Rose CA, Polanin JR. Social-emotional learning program to reduce bullying, fighting, and victimization among middle school students with disabilities. 2015.

12 Espelage 2015b - Espelage DL, Low S, Polanin JR, Brown EC. Clinical trial of Second Step middle-school program: Impact on aggression and victimization. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 2015;37:52-63.

13 Low 2015 - Low S, Cook CR, Smolkowski K, Buntain-Ricklefs J. Promoting social-emotional competence: An evaluation of the elementary version of Second Step. Journal of School Psychology. 2015;53(6):463-477.

14 Low 2016 - Low S, Smolkowski K, Cook C, Early F, Low S. What constitutes high-quality implementation of SEL programs? A latent class analysis of Second Step Implementation. Prevention Science. 2016;17(8):981-991.

15 Cook 2018 - Cook CR, Low S, Buntain-ricklefs J, et al. Evaluation of second step on early elementary students' academic outcomes: A randomized controlled trial. School Psychology Quarterly. 2018.

16 Rowe 2018 - Rowe HL, Trickett EJ. Student diversity representation and reporting in universal school-based social and emotional learning programs: Implications for generalizability. Educational Psychology Review. 2018;30(2):559-583.

17 Cook 2015 - Cook CR, Frye M, Slemrod T, et al. An integrated approach to universal prevention: Independent and combined effects of PBIS and SEL on youths' mental health. School Psychology Quarterly. 2015;30(2):166-183.

18 CASEL-State scan - Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). State scan scorecard project.

19 PATHS - PATHS Program LLC. PATHS (Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies) Program: Create a positive & supportive classroom environment with social emotional learning.

20 CFC-Second Step - Committee for Children (CFC). Second Step early learning through grade 8: Skills for social and academic success.