The Topic of the Research: Social-emotional Outcome Research

Citation: Mahoney, J.L., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (Dec. 2018/January, 2019). An update on social-emotional outcome research. Kappan, Vol. 100 (4). 

The Premise of the Study: Calls for other learning outcomes beyond academics have grown in recent years. These calls suggest that goals in other domains of human development need to be taught to prepare students for an increasingly complex and diverse world. These goals have some evidence to show that they help increase academic behavior, prosocial behaviors, reduce problem behaviors, and aid in college completion. These domains define in many ways but primarily focus on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (CASEL). Many states, districts, and schools have begun the arduous work of further defining these outcomes by grade level, and some districts and schools have started or use SEL programming. The question for this study asked if there is consensus and documented evidence that SEL programs bring about these more positive outcomes. 

Summary and Findings: This study used four separate meta-analyses ( a synthesis of previous studies that pools together previous data into an overall finding) to see if evidence agreed that SEL programming impact positive social and emotional outcomes. According to the authors, the unequivocal answer is that “The sum total of the existing evidence, we found, strongly suggests that SEL programs do, in fact, have significant benefits for participating students.”( Mahoney, Weissberg, & Durlak (2019). 

  • Study 1 (Durlak et al. 2011) combined 213 separate studies on 270,034 students K-12. Two particular findings from this meta-analysis emerged. First, students who participated in SEL programs compared to those who did not show more positive outcomes, including enhanced SEL skills, positive social behavior, academic performance, and significantly lower levels of problem behavior and emotional issues. Second, the academic performance of students who participated in SEL programs translated into an 11 percentile-point gain in achievement, which suggests that SEL programs “ tend to bolster, rather than detract from students’ academic success.”
  • Studies 2-4 (Sklad et al. 2012, Wigelsworth et al., 2016, & Taylor et al. (2017) synthesized between 75-89 studies each and included many other international studies. All of these meta-analyses found similar results in that those students who participated in SEL programs saw more significant gains in SEL competencies and academic performance.
  • All four meta-analyses also found more specific differences between participating and non-participating students in the domains of 
  1. SEL skills like problem-solving, goal setting, and conflict resolution
  2. Attitudes about self, school, and social topics
  3. Positive social behaviors like getting along, empathy, and cooperation
  4. Conduct problems including classroom behavior, fighting, and discipline referrals
  5. Emotional distress including stress, depression, and anxiety
  6. Academic performance including grades and standardized test scores
  • Last, two of the studies (Sklad, 2012, and Taylor, 2017) assessed outcomes between 7 months and 195 weeks after the conclusion of initial participation in the SEL program. Their findings show that the effects of SEL programs tend to fade over time, suggesting that “ SEL programming will be most beneficial when it is implemented in planned, ongoing, systemic ways from preschool through high school.” However, one area that does not seem to fade is academic performance. The percentile gain of 11 points for participating students was found both in short-term and long-term analysis of achievement data.
  • In sum, All of these combined studies show strong support that well-designed and implemented SEL programs benefit all ages of students.

Questions and Applications: For each research brief, we will generate reflective questions for principals to consider as a way to reflect on the findings from this research. For this research:

  1. Why might SEL programming have such an impact on academic learning? 
  2. What might these findings suggest for your school?
  3. If you currently are using any form of SEL, how do you know the effects are not fading away?
  4. How do you know the impact SEL is having or not having in your school?
  5. What would an average 11 point percentile gain do to your test scores?