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What Makes SEL Work?

An effective social-emotional learning program has to be a whole-school initiative
A smiling teacher calling on students in math class

What is the key to a high-quality social-emotional learning program that makes a lasting impact? It has to be a whole-school effort, according to developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones and her research team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They’ve spent the past five years exploring connections between social-emotional skills and positive life outcomes, in the process measuring the efficacy of many programs that teach those skills.

Their findings — developed as part of a research project called SECURe (Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in education) — show that a successful SEL program involves “all the adults in the building being trained in and familiar with a set of language and practices that they can use in the hallways, in the gym, at recess, in the lunchroom, on the bus — all the times when kids have less structure, and are actually engaging in social interactions, when emotions are more likely to come up,” says research manager Rebecca Bailey.

Social-Emotional Skills: What Do We Mean?

Educators differ slightly in how they define these skills, which help kids pay attention in class, develop friendships on the playground, and make smart decisions after the school day ends, among other self-regulation tasks. Jones’s team identifies three main “buckets” of skills, based on their analysis of SEL programs and a comprehensive review of the developmental literature:

  • Cognitive regulation skills. Also called executive function skills, this bucket includes working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and attention control.
  • Emotion skills. This group includes emotion knowledge and expression, emotion behavior and regulation, and empathy and perspective taking.
  • Interpersonal skills. Also called the social domain, this bucket includes prosocial behaviors and skills, the ability to understand social cues, and conflict resolution.

These skills look different for children of different ages, and many build off of one another over time. For example, in a first-grade classroom, conflict resolution might just mean sharing and taking turns. In an eighth-grade classroom, conflict resolution might also necessitate empathy and cognitive flexibility.

Limits of Traditional SEL

In the traditional approach to SEL, school leaders might implement a curriculum that has one adult — usually the student’s teacher, school social worker, or psychologist — leading a once-a-week, class-wide lesson on a predetermined skill.  But research studies have shown that this method isn’t wholly effective.

“While a handful of SEL programs have been tested and shown to improve children’s SEL skills as well as academic, mental health, and behavioral outcomes, the effect sizes are smaller than we would expect,” says Jones. “This suggests that existing programs aren’t capitalizing on the potential to improve student outcomes. This could result from implementation challenges, or it could suggest that traditional SEL programs need a different approach.”

An All-School SEL Approach

Jones’ SECURe team has been developing a set of approaches that expand on traditional notions of when and how SEL happens at school. The takeaway: SEL should exist everywhere at school, across the building — with every adult in the building on board. Educators should teach SEL through strategies, routines, and structures, as opposed to just through lessons and curricula.

Examples of practice:

  • Teachers can facilitate quick games during downtime or transitions that build a specific SEL skill. Jones and her team have developed a set of “brain games" that help students develop executive function and self-regulation skills in fun, engaging, and ongoing ways.
  • When a conflict between several students arises, all adults at the school can encourage students to use “I messages” (“I feel ___ when you ___”) to express their feelings. The student using an “I message” develops self-awareness and an emotion vocabulary, and the students listening develop perspective taking and empathy skills — and everyone develops conflict-resolution skills.
  • Classrooms can incorporate specific structures and objects to help kids manage their behavior. A “SECURe corner” might be a designated area for students to visit when they need to squeeze a stress ball or want to use a feelings tree to help them articulate how they’re feeling.
  • These structures can exist elsewhere in the school as well. For example, SECURe created a “peace path” poster for disagreeing students to use, which helps them articulate the reason for their disagreement and pick a solution. Some schools chose to paint a giant peace path on their playground or in their cafeteria, to help students manage conflicts on their own throughout the school day.

Supporting SEL in Adults, Too

A whole-school approach to SEL means that all the adults in the building — not just teachers and principals, but lunchroom monitors, bus drivers, librarians, and specialists — have to be invested and on the same page with SEL. In their own interactions, as well as in their work with students, adults should model the type of behavior they want their students to exhibit, Bailey says.

So while regular professional development can teach adults the nuts and bolts of integrating SEL into the school day, one more step is crucial to a successful program: Ensuring that adults develop their own social-emotional capacities. “Our approach has shifted towards supporting the adults’ own social emotional needs, addressing the stressors they may be experiencing as professionals in education,” says Bailey.

Supporting adults means offering tailored SEL strategies — but it also means creating opportunities for school staff to listen, problem-solve collaboratively, and reflect and plan. It means proactively considering the social-emotional needs of all staff. 

SEL Programs that Make a Lasting Impact

  • They take a whole-school approach, involving every student and every adult in every part of the building.
  • They offer all-staff trainings and the use of school-wide strategies.
  • They proactively consider the SEL needs of staff, with support from administrators and school leaders.


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