Queen Rania Foundation

Social and emotional learning

Moderate impact for very low cost based on very limited evidence.

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Evidence strength
Impact (months)
Effect size

What is it?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions seek to improve pupils’ decision-making skills, interaction with others and their self-management of emotions, rather than focusing directly on the academic or cognitive elements of learning.

SEL interventions might focus on the ways in which students work with (and alongside) their peers, teachers, family or community.

Three broad categories of SEL interventions can be identified:

  • School-level approaches to developing a positive school ethos, which also aim to support greater engagement in learning;
  • Universal programmes which generally take place in the classroom with the whole class; and
  • More specialised programmes which use elements of SEL and are targeted at students with particular social or emotional needs.

Key Findings

1. Social and emotional learning approaches have a positive impact, on average, of 4 months' additional progress in academic outcomes over the course of an academic year. This finding, however, has very low security, so schools should be especially careful to monitor the efficacy of SEL approaches in their settings.

2. The studies in the Toolkit focus primarily on academic outcomes, but it is important to consider the other benefits of SEL interventions. Being able to effectively manage emotions will be beneficial to children and young people even if it does not translate to reading or maths scores.

3. While targeted approaches to SEL learning seem to have greater impacts on average, approaches should not be viewed in opposition, as most schools will want to use a combination of whole class SEL learning, and targeted support for pupils with particular social and emotional needs.

4. The evidence indicates that there is particular promise for approaches that focus on improving social interaction between pupils.

How effective is the approach?

The average impact of successful SEL interventions is an additional four months’ progress over the course of a year. The security of this evidence is, however, very low, so schools should carefully monitor the efficacy of approaches in their own settings. Alongside academic outcomes, SEL interventions have an identifiable and valuable impact on attitudes to learning and social relationships in school.

Although SEL interventions are almost always perceived to improve emotional or attitudinal outcomes, not all interventions are equally effective at raising attainment. Improvements appear more likely when SEL approaches are embedded into routine educational practices and supported by professional development and training for staff. In addition, the implementation of the programme and the degree to which teachers are committed to the approach appear to be important.

Improving students Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is an effective approach to develop their overall wellbeing and academic achievement. Studies in the Arab world have not yet investigated the association of these variables but have focused, instead, on the reasons behind social and emotional difficulties for K-12 students.

In Egypt, the lack of recreational facilities and closed communities especially in rural areas and family socio-economic status were behind the increased social and emotional difficulties especially among adolescents. In Jordan, authoritative and permissive parenting style were factors that have a negative association with kindergarten students emotional intelligence. As a result, children could not manage their emotions and had lower self-esteem.

To date, educators, mostly teachers, views about SEL are not examined. That is why, literature lacks data around the best effective teaching strategies to improve SEL. Furthermore, teachers’ understanding about these skills and how they can integrate them in their instruction for the benefit of students is very limited. When these have been explored, researchers have recommended that curriculum designers  create textbooks that are based on social and emotional learning and include certain life skills that teachers can incorporate into their everyday educational practices. For instance, in an experimental study conducted in a private school Lebanon in 2014,  primary students who were taught based on the Social Decision-Making Skills Curriculum (SDSC) gained greater benefits on their emotional intelligence and prosocial behaviors in comparison with their peers in the control group.

Lastly, researchers are recommended to conduct comparative analyses to examine the most effective social and emotional interventions programs and determine their impact on students’ academic, communication, and language skills. Experimental studies are highly needed in this area to determine the causal relationship between these variables in order to imply causality. Longitudinal studies are also needed to have a better understanding about the psychosocial determinants of adolescent behavioral and emotional problems.

Behind the average

Interventions for secondary age pupils tend to be more effective (+5 months) than those evaluated in primary schools (+4 months).

Effects tend to be slightly higher on literacy outcomes (+4 months) than mathematics (+3 months)

Interventions which focus on improving social interaction tend to be more successful (+6 months) than those focusing on personal and academic outcomes (+4 months) or those aimed at preventing problematic behaviour (+5 months)

Shorter (30 mins or so) frequent sessions (4-5 times a week) appear to be the most successful structure for interventions.

Closing the disadvantage gap

Evidence suggests that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have, on average, weaker SEL skills at all ages than their more affluent peers. These skills are likely to influence a range of outcomes for pupils: lower SEL skills are linked with poorer mental health and lower academic attainment.

SEL interventions in education are shown to improve SEL skills and are therefore likely to support disadvantaged pupils to understand and engage in healthy relationships with peers and emotional self-regulation, both of which may subsequently increase academic attainment.

Schools should carefully consider how targeted approaches are deployed to support pupils with additional social or emotional needs. SEL needs will be based on a variety of factors that may not correspond to academic progress and should be carefully monitored.

How could you implement in your setting?

Social and emotional learning is important in and of itself. The mechanism by which approaches have an impact on academic outcomes may include improving engagement in learning or self-regulation skills. If schools are aiming to improve a particular skill, they should carefully consider:

  • How the SEL approach will be embedded and modelled across the school.
  • How to identify and provide targeted support for pupils that need additional SEL support.

SEL approaches are typically delivered over a pre-specified period if used as a targeted intervention (e.g. length of one term), although they could also be implemented over the course of an academic year (e.g. if purposed with school wide change).

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

What does it cost?

Overall, the median costs of implementing SEL approaches are estimated as very low. The costs associated with SEL interventions arise from professional training and development for staff, the majority of which are start-up costs.

Whilst the median cost estimate for SEL approaches is very low, the option to purchase additional books, resource and materials, and ongoing training and support means that costs can range from very low to moderate.

How secure is the evidence?

The security of the evidence around SEL approaches is rated as very low. 54 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost additional padlocks because:

  • A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
  • There is a large amount of unexplained variation between the results included in the topic. All reviews contain some variation in results, which is why it is important to look behind the average. Unexplained variation (or heterogeneity) reduces our certainty in the results in ways that we have been unable to test by looking at how context, methodology or approach is influencing impact.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

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