By Katrina Schwartz

More schools are working to change school culture through programs aimed at improving the social and emotional skills of students. The lessons directly teach young people how to interact with one another in positive ways, deal with anger, and solve problems, and new studies show they improve academic performance, too. As more schools try this approach, researchers have begun paying closer attention to the effects of social and emotional learning on behavior and academic achievement.

That research is showing that social and emotional learning (SEL) is crucial to mitigating the social problems that inherently exist in schools and detract from learning. These programs are much more than an anti-bullying strategy – they teach life skills.

To that end, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – better known as CASEL – has spearheaded the effort to evaluate and measure the positive effects of social and emotional learning programs. The organization is releasing a new report that updates the guide released 10 years ago, when this movement was in its infancy.

The 2013 CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs reflects increased rigor in evaluation of programs and draws from the more than 200 studies on SEL learning that have been published in Child Development. CASEL has also designated 23 programs as SELect because they are well-designed for classroom-based instruction, include training and other implementation support for teachers, and are evidence-based. Many of the programs that received the SELect designation went through randomized control trials, while others were evaluated, but only in what the report calls a “quasi-experimental” manner, meaning conditions were assigned to groups in a non-random way.

“Social and emotional learning involves the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions,” the report states.

In order to do that, programs focus on teaching students at a young age how to communicate, problem solve, deal with frustration and set goals through focused activities. They stress five competency areas: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. If students do well in these five areas research shows that on average academic achievement improves 11 percentile points.

The programs that CASEL evaluates in the report are designed for preschool through elementary school-aged kids. For example, one program called 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect and Resolution) provides materials for teachers to read aloud and discuss with their students. There are then specific, sequential, interactive lessons to help students develop creative problem solving, acceptance of diversity, management of feelings and the ability to stand up to teasing or bullying. The lessons are interspersed throughout the year, about one per week. The stories come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and the program is offered from pre-k through eighth grade. Additionally, there are homework assignments that require the student to bring their social and emotional learning home to guide parents and caregivers.

This program was evaluated in the third and fourth grades of an urban school where 62 percent of students were on free or reduced lunch and the population was largely African-American and Latino. The randomized control trial followed students over three years and discovered an improvement in academic performance for students who often act out, increased positive behavior, fewer conduct problems and less emotional distress.

CASEL sees programs like 4Rs as proof that students need explicit instruction in fundamental social and emotional lessons that will help them cope with interpersonal problems throughout life. They argue that spending a small amount of class time focusing on SEL learning saves teachers a lot of time dealing with conduct and social issues during other lessons.

The CASEL guide, essentially a clearinghouse for SEL programs, can be a practical tool for educators. All the SELect programs are evaluated and there are Consumer Report-type descriptions of each program for administrators or educators looking for a program that suits their classroom context  And the various programs, approaches, and outcomes provide a valuable tool for schools trying to reflect on their own attempts at SEL education.

Teaching Social and Emotional Skills in Schools 19 September,2012MindShift

  • I agree completely that teaching kids social and emotional skills is critical. Equally critical is figuring out how to measure those skills so that we can evaluate our instruction of them. It seems that oftentimes when we talk about social and emotional skills we get very “loosy-goosy” about what the actual behavior is that we expect. Quite unlike math skills, for example. If we want to emphasize these skills then we must be able to demonstrate that we are effectively teaching them as well.

    • Michael S.

      Are there any reliable assessments that anybody can recommend that measure high school students’ social and emotional learning?

      • Daniel Goleman has done work on this.

      • Monica Alatorre

        There are actually few studies on SEL and high school students; Dan Goleman is a good source. My organization, The Hawn Foundation, is planning to study the intervention of our SEL program, MindUP, with high school students in LA, in collaboration with a researcher at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. We are excited about this project, in part because it will contribute new knowledge to the SEL field, specifically about how high school kids respond.

  • The Rite Journey is a school program now being used in Australia, NZ and the UK which not only provides social emotional learning but also helps early teens step into responsibility in a world where adolescence now stretches well into a person’s 20s! Check out

  • cmbg

    “More schools are working to change…” –More schools than what? How many more? How long has the the counting been going on? Argh. If you have to open with a meaningless fudge word, “many” would work better, because at least that wouldn’t beg the “more than what?” question.

  • ThatKidsMomMI

    They instituted Conscious Discipline in my school a couple of years ago and you know it’s working when your child brings it home and uses it on a brother. I recogize the language (having attended parenting classes after the fact) and think it’s spot on. my middle son is emotionally charged and ready to pounce. being taught that people only get that he’s angry when he punches but have no idea why he’s angry; that maybe using words to explain and express it would be more helpful in mitigating its occurance in the future– perhaps this is something more kids used to learn at home and we don’t have the time to ‘use words’? i don’t know but i see drastic changes in my children since this program was implimented.

    • tbarseghian

      That’s fantastic — just more day-to-day proof of the importance of developing these skills. Thanks for writing in.

  • Thinx2much

    It is very sad that so many families are so emotionally and socially disturbed today that one of the few places where many young people can learn functional emotional and social skills is in the school. This is nonetheless the fact. It is good that society is learning to do what has to be done to address this problem in spite of our traditional view that it is primarily the parent’s responsibility. We have finally begun to wake up and realize that we all suffer if we expect emotionally sick parents to do what they will not and cannot do for their own children.

  • Kacey

    I think this is an awesome post about an awesome new program. I work with alternative school kids between 7th grade and 12th grade, and I believe that if there was a program like this in schools when they were younger, half of them would not be in my class. I especially agree with the part of the program that gives students “homework” to work on with their parents or caregivers. I will be doing some research in the future on the CASEL program.

  • programs like this and the one mentioned below The Rite Journey should be made mandatory in all schools.

  • Another great research-based program called MindUp is wonderful! Goldie Hawn started a educational foundation and developed this with Scholastic books. Check it out!

  • Marissa

    I think this sounds amazing! I am volunteering for a similar program called Kids Learning About Social Skills (KLASS) that teaches children social skills among their peers and adults. I feel like learning these skills at a younger age will benefit the kids tremendously. Communication and Emotional skills are critical for a successful future. As Karen said in a post below, sometimes emotional skills are not clearly defined. Emphasizing these skills will build better relationships as well as the child’s confidence.

  • This program too! MindUP, which is one of the programs endorsed in the 2013 CASEL guide, helps schools focus better, be more empathetic, and respond positively to stimuli and stress. Kids need this…everyone needs this.

  • Please take a look at
    A new idea which heavily dependent on emotions to remember academic content.

  • Christa Tinari

    I’m so glad to see SEL and CASEL getting even more coverage than ever before. I have been teaching SEL strategies to educators and students for the past fifteen years. It’s incredible to see the transformations that take place- in the learning environment, within individual students and educators, and in the relationships they share- when SEL is integrated into regular classroom practices. I recently created a tool to help educators teach SEL skills to students through short, engaging activities in languagh arts (with Common Core connections), art, music, science, theater and problem-solving. This tool is called The Feel & Deal Activity Deck, and educators and counselors are using it already with great results! ~Christa Tinari, PeacePraxis Educational Services (and former Student Assistance Counselor)

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  • For college level treatment of the subject, see this model relating emotions to learning:

    Cognition, Affect, and Learning

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