Cover Story

The sad truth is that most U.S. schools don’t foster good mental health or strong connections with friends and nurturing adults. Data show that only 29 percent of sixth- through 12th-grade students report that their schools provide caring, encouraging environments. Another 30 percent of high school students say they engage in high-risk behaviors, such as substance use, sex, violence and even suicide attempts.

For decades, a dedicated group of prevention experts — many of them psychologists — has been trying to improve those statistics through an approach called social and emotional learning, or SEL. They believe that if schools teach youngsters to work well with others, regulate their emotions and constructively solve problems, students will be better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, including academic ones.

“It’s about creating an environment where a child can learn — because if a child isn’t emotionally prepared to learn, he or she is not going to learn,” says SEL researcher and program developer Marc Brackett, PhD, head of the Emotional Intelligence Unit at Yale University’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

Critics charge that SEL programs are too broad-based and that social and emotional learning shouldn’t necessarily fall on teachers’ shoulders. Instead, families should oversee their children’s social, emotional and character development, they contend. Yet studies show the programs improve mental health and behavior, boost children’s social competence, and create more positive school climates. Students who participated in SEL programs gained an average of 11 percentage points more on achievement tests than youngsters who didn’t take part in the programs, according to a meta-analysis of 213 studies of SEL programs, in press at Child Development, by prevention experts Joseph A. Durlak, PhD, of Loyola University Chicago; Roger P. Weissberg, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago; and colleagues.

“That’s pretty remarkable given how difficult it is to alter achievement test scores,” says Mark Greenberg, PhD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University and creator of one of the longest-running and most rigorously studied SEL programs, PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies).

Some studies also show major gains long after an SEL program has ended. In the Seattle Social Development Project — a longitudinal study of 808 elementary school children who received a comprehensive SEL intervention in the first through sixth grade starting in 1981 — participants reported significantly lower lifetime rates of violence and heavy alcohol use at age 18 than no-intervention controls. In addition, intervention-group students were more likely to complete high school than controls — 91 percent compared with 81 percent — and to have lower rates of major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and social phobia at ages 24 and 27. (See the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 153, No. 3; Vol. 156, No. 5; and Vol. 159, No. 1).

In a related vein, Greenberg and others are starting to show that the programs affect executive functioning, an ability some researchers think may be even more important than IQ.

“The ability to maintain attention, to shift your set and plan ahead — these are obviously important learning skills that our programs are significantly improving upon,” Greenberg says.

Other researchers are starting to examine other untapped areas the programs may be affecting, including health, parenting and even the behavior of children whose parents underwent the original interventions. Researchers are also applying SEL programs abroad, with military families and with special-education populations.

The tenets of social and emotional learning

Researchers have been studying a version of SEL since the 1970s, but it was first popularized in “Emotional Intelligence,” the 1995 best-seller by psychologist Daniel Goleman, PhD. He argued that emotional intelligence can be taught and that schools should teach it systematically.

While SEL programs vary somewhat in design and target different ages, they all work to develop core competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Instead of focusing on a single negative behavior — such as drug use, sexual risk-taking or aggression, for instance — SEL researchers take a broad-brush approach to tackling these problems. They believe all of these behaviors share common roots: a lack of social and emotional competence, often exacerbated by factors such as family disruption, violent neighborhoods and genetic and biological dispositions. Schools and families can counter these risks, SEL proponents say, by facilitating students’ emotional and social skills and providing environments that both nurture and challenge children.

A look at the PATHS program shows how these programs work. Like many SEL programs, it uses easy-to-understand, teacher-led lessons and activities that help students learn to recognize feelings in themselves and others, manage their thoughts and emotions more effectively, and solve interpersonal problems. One activity, for instance, has youngsters construct posters resembling a three-color traffic signal. Each signal light represents a different aspect of constructive problem-solving: Red is “stop and calm down,” yellow is “go slow and think,” and green is “go ahead, try my plan.” Children apply this guide to real-life problems, then evaluate how their solutions worked.

Active strategies like this are embedded in a comprehensive program that teachers share in 131 sequential lessons over a seven-year period, from kindergarten to sixth grade. Children don’t just get didactic information but have many chances to practice these skills both in and out of the classroom, Greenberg explains.

“Comprehensive SEL programs create many opportunities for children to practice these skills in the challenging situations they face every day in the classroom and on the playground,” he says. “They also build caring, safe school climates that involve everyone in the school.”

An interesting synergy results when these programs are offered, Greenberg adds. When children are taught these skills, they learn how to foster their own well-being and become more resilient. That, in turn, builds a more positive classroom climate that better engages children in learning. And as they become more absorbed in learning, children are more likely to do better in school.

“Building emotional awareness, self-control and relationship skills are master skills,” Greenberg says. “When we nurture them, children do better in all areas of their daily lives, including school.”

The programs, however, are far from perfect, critics and proponents say. While a 2005 review shows that about 59 percent of schools use some kind of SEL programming, the quality varies widely, says Weissberg. In fact, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL — a nonprofit organization founded by Goleman in 1994 dedicated to advancing the science and evidence base of SEL and promoting the quality of SEL programs — places only 22 of the nation’s several hundred SEL programs (including Greenberg’s and Hawkins’) on its list of exemplary programs for being well-designed and evidence-based, among other criteria. Researchers also continue to debate whether universal or more targeted curricula are better, since SEL programs tend to have the greatest impact on troubled kids.

Meanwhile, educators are feeling an enormous pressure to have kids do well on standardized testing, even in tight economic times, says Weissberg. “So there are several barriers that make it a challenge to implement SEL programs with high quality and fidelity,” he says.

SEL goes national

That said, more money is pouring into the field, thanks to the positive research findings on social and emotional learning. The NoVo Foundation, a philanthropy headed by Peter and Jennifer Buffett (Peter is investor Warren Buffett’s son), has offered $10 million in grants: $3.4 million in research funds and $6.3 million in development funds for CASEL.

Potentially more far-reaching is the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act (H.R. 4223), announced at a CASEL forum in Washington, D.C., in December. The bill, introduced by Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), would authorize the U.S. Department of Education to establish a national SEL training center and provide grants to support evidence-based SEL programs, as well as evaluate their success.

“I don’t think I could have imagined that our field would have come this far,” says Weissberg, CASEL’s president.

In an effort to make the best SEL programming available nationwide, CASEL leaders plan to collaborate with evidence-based SEL providers, work with model school districts, share research to inform federal legislation and state policy, and think realistically about how to implement these programs on a broad scale, says Weissberg. If the legislation passes, it should enhance these efforts, he adds.

The December CASEL forum underscored the field’s growing clout and psychologists’ central role in it, adds APA Chief Executive Officer Norman Anderson, PhD, who attended the meeting. There, psychologists and other SEL researchers and practitioners rubbed elbows with legislators, philanthropists, national media and even some Hollywood celebrities, including Goldie Hawn, who heads her own SEL-related organization.

“This group of experts is doing an outstanding job of moving the SEL model forward and making a real difference in the lives of our children,” says Anderson. He is particularly pleased that research is starting to show a link between developing children’s resilience and academic performance, he says.

“These efforts represent another bridge between the worlds of psychology and education,” Anderson adds. “It’s all very exciting.”

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.