Georgia Policy Labs Reports

School-Based SEL Programs and K-12 Academic Achievement

School-Based SEL Programs and K-12 Academic Achievement

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Béla Figge


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Social-emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process of developing interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and the self-control that are important to success in school and beyond. SEL has become increasingly popular and is being considered by many school systems as a tool for dealing with social and emotional challenges brought about by the closure of schools, move to remote learning, and other challenges experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is considerable evidence that participation in SEL programs enhances the social and emotional skills of students, the evidence on the ability of SEL programs to improve academic outcomes of students is not as clear. There are relatively few high-quality studies of the effects of school-based SEL programs on student academic outcomes, and the studies that do exist often yield conflicting evidence.

In this review, we summarize what is known about the average effects of SEL programs on student outcomes as well as investigate how the impact of SEL varies across specific programs. The most reliable studies of school-based SEL programs—those employing randomized controlled trials and large samples of students—showed positive effects of SEL on student achievement on average, but there is substantial variation in the estimated impacts across studies. On average, SEL programs implemented in elementary schools tended to be more effective than those employed in secondary schools; however, impacts do not appear to vary consistently with the intensity of program delivery or with the economic status of the students a school serves.

The inconsistent evidence on the ability of school-based SEL programs to promote academic success is likely due in part to the wide variety of SEL programs that have been adopted by schools and differences in the fidelity of their implementation. Schools considering the adoption of an SEL curriculum would be wise to consider their programmatic goals and how particular SEL programs align with those goals. In addition, given the conflicting evidence on SEL programs in general, it would be prudent to focus on evidence regarding the efficacy of specific SEL programs under consideration, rather than base decisions on meta-analyses that combine effects from disparate programs that have been employed in varying contexts.


School-Based SEL Programs and K-12 Academic Achievement