When Districts Support and Integrate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
Findings From an Ongoing Evaluation of Districtwide Implementation of SEL
Students need more than just academic knowledge to succeed in college, careers, and personal and public life. They need to understand their own skills and abilities, manage their emotions and behavior, communicate effectively, negotiate conflict, care about others, and make responsible decisions. Social and emotional skills undergird student success—and build better citizens. When such skills are intentionally taught, practiced, and reinforced in schools, students have better behavioral, social, and academic outcomes.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is increasingly accepted by educators and researchers as a process to cultivate life skills that foster personal development, academic achievement, and a more empathic school climate. SEL has been integrated into classes and taught in many schools, but the challenge for educators and policy makers is to better understand the most effective strategies for districtwide implementation.
Research on students who participated in some form of SEL instruction has found short and long-term benefits in student outcomes, with most research focusing on elementary and middle grade programs.
Although most SEL research has focused on the classroom or school, AIR is in the fifth year of evaluating a first-ever initiative to promote districtwide integration of SEL into the core activities of large urban districts. The Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI)—developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and funded by the NoVo Foundation and the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust—focuses on district systems, district strategic vision that includes SEL, SEL standards, professional learning, and continuous improvement to implement and integrate SEL into districts’ ongoing efforts. Each of eight districts received annual grants of $250,000 for up to 6 years.
This amount represents less than 0.04% of the average CDI district’s annual budget for all expenses (this average excludes Chicago’s budget, which is larger than the other seven CDI district budgets combined).
Even with this modest investment, the research shows that districts improved each year in implementing key SEL activities. Three of the measured districts showed consistent gains in school climate; four of six measured districts showed improvement in third graders’ social and emotional competence; and, across the eight districts, GPA improved in four and discipline improved in six. However, other student outcomes (e.g., middle and high schoolers’ social and emotional competence and student attendance) have not shown significant change to date.
Although many preschool through high school teachers—as well as college faculty and administrators, employers, parents, and students themselves—understand the potential benefits of cultivating social and emotional development, few have the time or support to enable students to build social and emotional competencies.
State, district, and school leaders should consider making SEL a priority. Doing so would entail implementing policies, standards, and guidance that support teachers and administrators to integrate SEL with academic instruction. Support is also extended to fostering best practices in behavior management, discipline, and school climate that promote healthy, safe, and nurturing environments for all students. Based on findings from this study and others, even modest investments in SEL can pay off for individuals, schools, and society.