When I was working on my Ph.D. back in the late ’90s, the education system had just entered the standards-based reform era. It was a time that called for higher standards through more rigorous content. 

In contrast to many other previous reform efforts, the standards movement was one of the first to begin to crack the “black box” of the classroom. Many previous reforms had been impervious to the nature of the teacher, teaching, and the necessary capacity and learning needed for real school improvement. Most of these efforts had generated a throwaway pile of many great ideas.

In contrast, the standards-based reform era took a more systemic view of improving schools and learning. One of the most seminal papers I read during this time was titled Instruction, Capacity, and Improvement authored by David Cohen and Deborah Lowenberg Ball from the University of Michigan. This paper deliberately took the stance that if learning is to be improved, teaching needs to improve through the development of instructional capacity.

They defined instruction as the “interactions among teachers and students around educational materials.” or the instructional core. The instructional core soon made its way into how I thought about improving schools. 

Rather than seeing teachers as the sole problem to solve, these authors advocated that all three elements are essential for powerful instruction. Just like a stool, excellent instruction needs solid curricular materials, the personal and intellectual resources of teachers, and engaged, confident students. Put these elements together, ignite them, and we should get great learning to occur.

Source: blogs.edweek.org


Since this paper appeared, US education has seen increased testing to finish out the systemic theory, increased numbers of digital materials, and an increased focus on developing the skills of teaching through enhanced evaluation systems of teachers.

However, what has been missing in this equation is the third leg of the stool: a student-centered focus and how resources they bring impact their learning. We now recognize that the resources and capacity students bring to school every day can be modified and developed if schools and teachers pay attention to them. We are entering an era in which we now know more than ever before about learning and how social-emotional development works in tandem to support academic learning. 

We are entering an era in which developing the whole child needs to come to the forefront of our efforts as educators. Using our analogy of the stool, we have been teetering on two legs for too long; we need to construct the third leg.

Over the next few months, we will explore this third leg focused on social-emotional learning, what we know about its impact on learning, how it supports learning, and steps leaders need to take to integrate SEL into their schools. This post will start with why the case for why SEL is probably the most critical leg of the instructional core.

The Case for the Third Leg

The past 20 years or so has focused primarily on the cognitive aspect of child development. However, much research done during this time suggests that done together, SEL can enhance academic learning along with other essential outcomes.

One such initial finding comes from research done investigating kindergarten prosocial skills and their ability to predict critical adolescent and adult outcomes. This study took data on kindergarteners’ social-emotional skills in low socioeconomic neighborhoods in both urban and rural settings. Associations were measured 13-19 years later as these students entered early adulthood. Statistically significant associations were found between social-emotional skills in kindergarten and critical outcomes across education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health. In essence, early social and emotional skills in young children enhanced later positive behaviors while a lack of these skills led to later negative behaviors.

A more extensive meta-analysis performed in 2011 combined 213 previous studies of 213 schools and over 270,000 students from kindergarten to high school. In this study, students in SEL programs as compared to control groups showed improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behaviors resulting in an 11 percentile gain in achievement. The authors of this study suggest that well designed and implemented SEL interventions can mitigate many of the achievement problem schools face.

A second meta-analysis done in 2017 focused on SEL interventions in 82 schools and involved over 97,000 students. After 18 months as compared to control groups, participants had significantly enhanced social-emotional skills, attitudes, and indicators of well-being regardless of students’ race, socioeconomic background, or location of the school. These studies also point to the role of SEL in positive developmental trajectories for students. 

A report on the findings of four separate meta-analyses found similar results. All four studies showed positive and significant connections between school-based SEL programs, SEL outcomes, and academic performance over both short-term and long-term periods. Effect sizes ( the magnitude of the effect of the intervention ) of these four studies found between a .26 and .33 effect size relative to academic performance meaning SEL interventions have a significant effect on the cognitive aspects of learning.

So if that is not enough evidence for you, here is one more piece. In 2017 the Council of Distinguished Scientists of the Aspen Institute’s National Commission of Social, Emotional, and Academic Development wrote a series of consensus statements from research evidence linking the role of social and emotional development with cognitive development. The most impactful statement states:

“Social, emotional, and cognitive capabilities are fundamentally intertwined—they are interdependent in their development, experience, and use.” 

In essence, these developmental factors have to grow in tandem and are an integral part of academic success.


The most recent results on the PISA exam show little improvement since 2000, with the gap widening between the top-performing and lowest-performing students. The current strategy of testing and accountability does not seem like it is making much of a difference, especially for our most disenfranchised children. In short, US education has focused on two legs of the stool over the past twenty years to the detriment of the third leg: the social-emotional development of the student.

Are we on the cusp of a new era for school reform? Years of research and numerous experts in the area of child development point to the overwhelming evidence that social-emotional skills and their development strongly support academic learning and other long-term benefits. It is time we balance the stool.

Until next time.