Social and emotional well-being programs may boost academic success

Programs and policies that enhance the emotional and social skills of elementary school students may also improve academic success and even pave the way toward better jobs in adulthood, according to a report from Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

In the report, researchers suggest that programs that improve the students’ skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building and responsible decision making can positively affect other aspects of the learning environment, including classroom behavior and teacher satisfaction. They add that this social and emotional learning — SEL — can benefit the students long after they have left school.

“SEL programs can improve children’s well-being, as well as improve engagement and learning in the classroom,” said Mark Greenberg, Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research and professor of human development and psychology. “They can reduce barriers to learning and mental health problems, for example, inattention, conduct problems and disruptive behavior.”

Over the past 20 years, research has shown that students who have received lessons in social and emotional learning have also academically outperformed students who did not have the training, according to the report, which was prepared by Linda Dusenbury, senior researcher, Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, and Roger P. Weissberg, distinguished professor of psychology and education, University of Illinois.

In an analysis of 213 studies and 270,000 students — also called a meta-analysis — those who received training in SEL showed a 11 percent gain in academic achievement. About 56 percent of these studies were conducted with elementary school students.

“The research supporting SEL that we reviewed in this brief is very strong, now,” said Dusenbury. “There have been hundreds of studies, many of them rigorous, pretest-posttest control-group designs, showing that kids in classrooms and schools implementing these approaches perform better — in terms of academic performance, discipline, prosocial behavior, and anxiety — than kids that aren’t exposed to these kinds of instruction and teaching practices. More importantly, there are replications and longitudinal follow-ups — the gold standard in research — that provide even stronger evidence for the effectiveness of these kinds of approaches.”

Besides classroom improvement, the researchers suggest that SEL can benefit the students once they leave school and enter the workforce. A meta-analysis of 82 SEL follow-up studies found that programs that enhanced social and emotional learning lasted months and, in some cases, years after the lessons.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for every dollar invested in an evidence-based SEL program, there was an $11 return. SEL training usually focuses on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

“Human beings are social and emotional creatures, so social and emotional learning is happening all the time,” said Dusenbury. “We’re always learning, from the moment we’re born and all through our lives, and in every social situation, how to adjust our own behavior and how to approach others, to achieve our objectives and get along with others. It’s human nature. But not all experiences and circumstances support healthy habits and development.  Research has identified key factors promoting social and emotional development, including positive school climate and a variety of teaching practices that help students learn to manage their emotions and develop positive relationships.”

Greenberg, who is also the founding director of the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, said that schools that are considering adopting SEL programs in their districts should select an evidence-based program that has a quality training model.

“School administrators should be prepared for the long term,” he said. “Full implementation in a school will take about 3 years or so. A SEL curriculum should not only focus on children’s skills, but also on creating a healthy and caring school environment for both children and adults.” He added that involvement of the school’s principal is a key factor for each step of the implementation.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported this work.

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