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Teaching Social and Emotional Skills in Schools

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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.

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