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Data and Research: Social & Emotional Learning

There’s no shortage of research and data to unpack social and emotional learning. (See the section below for details and links.) Some studies, for example, find the development of strong social and emotional skills is linked to higher academic achievement, as well as improved school attendance and graduation rates. In addition, some research finds that SEL contributes to improved mental health among students, less risky behavior, and fewer discipline referrals in schools. Social-emotional skills are also valuable to students’ success in the workforce and life, research shows.

However, the benefits of SEL can be overstated, or it can be mistaken as a panacea. For example, some research finds that students may not apply the social and emotional skills they learn at school in their lives outside the classroom. In case studies involving a few districts, researchers found that social and emotional programs adopted to address racial disparities in how schools disciplined students lowered exclusionary discipline overall but didn’t close racial gaps in discipline rates. This may be because districts focused their efforts on changing students’ behaviors and didn’t address educator behavior and attitudes and the broader school culture. This gets at a criticism of SEL and its implementation – that it focuses on students who are seen to have SEL “deficits,” not addressing weaknesses in educators’ social and emotional skills or acknowledging the myriad societal and environmental factors that students cannot control that may affect their behavior. 

Many SEL proponents caution that success lies in how well it’s implemented – with evidence-based curricula, explicit and implicit instruction, and plenty of teacher professional development. Research on how best to implement social and emotional learning programs and practices has lagged behind the rising interest in SEL. 

There are also limitations to measuring students’ social and emotional skills. Student surveys or questionnaires to gauge these skills have been the dominant forms of measurement, but are fairly subjective. Teacher observations, student interviews, scenario-based assessments, and related data, such as suspensions and attendance, can also be used to measure progress in students and schools. Because of the subjective nature of many SEL assessments, experts caution against using social-emotional learning for high-stakes accountability purposes. Instead, they say measuring students’ social and emotional skills should be focused on improving SEL programming and students’ individual skills.

Below is a collection of research, reports and survey data on social and emotional learning. 

Research on the effects of SEL

Reports on the state of the field of SEL

Polling data on attitudes toward SEL 

A reading (and watch) list to quickly get up to speed on what SEL is, and some of the largest debates in the field.