Social-emotional learning—aimed at fostering a wide assortment of soft skills from empathy and listening to anger management and goal-setting—has been one of the hottest trends in education over the past decade, and more recently, a new flashpoint in the culture wars. Moms for Liberty, a conservative group, advises parents to oppose it, while advocates on the left say it should include such topics as social justice and anti-racism training.
For years, advocates have claimed that research evidence supports social-emotional learning, citing hundreds of studies that find SEL instruction improves both academic achievement and student well-being. One of the most influential papers is a 2011 meta-analysis that reviewed more than 200 studies on SEL programs in schools and concluded that academic performance jumped 11 percentile points. That study has been cited more than 11,000 times, according to Google Scholar. But that research is old, including studies conducted only through 2007.
An updated meta-analysis was published in July 2023 in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development. It was conducted by 14 researchers, the majority from Yale University, and it also found good results for SEL interventions in schools while simultaneously broadening the category of “social and emotional learning” to encompass even more non-academic skills. However, this latest research synthesis doesn’t really settle the debate over whether the evidence for SEL is strong or guide schools to which SEL interventions are most effective.
The new meta-analysis reviewed a fresher batch of 424 studies conducted between 2008 and 2020 across more than 50 countries and involving more than 500,000 students in kindergarten through grade 12. The studies took place in schools, as opposed to research laboratories, and compared what happened to students who received the lessons to those who didn’t. All the SEL programs in the paper lasted for at least six sessions or four months. Single workshops were excluded. Sometimes students learned about social and emotional skills during a once-a-week advisory session for a year. The lessons ranged from five minutes to two hours.
There was also a huge variety in the kinds of soft skills taught during these lessons. Some programs focused narrowly on discrete skills such as mindfulness or emotional intelligence. Others touched upon the full gamut of social-emotional skills, from interpersonal relations to self improvement. Also included were programs that addressed ethical and civic values. Sex education programs or interventions that primarily addressed drug use or obesity were excluded.
All of these SEL variations were stirred together into a big stew, and the researchers calculated that, on average, students who received them were generally better off than students who didn’t get the training as measured by improved social skills, attitudes, behaviors, relationships and academic achievement. It was almost an unending laundry list of positives, including a decrease in bullying, stress, suicides and depression. The largest improvement was in school climate; students who had participated in SEL programs felt that their schools were much safer and students were more respected. For some studies, there was longer term follow-up data and even six months after a program ended, students were still benefiting from their SEL lessons.
Only three out of 12 outcome categories did not show improvements from SEL programs, including disciplinary incidents, physical health and family relationships. The failure to see a reduction in suspensions was surprising and confusing given that the researchers found improvements in student behavior.
A concern with this meta-analysis, like much of the research in the field, is that it was conducted by SEL proponents. The lead author of the meta-analysis, Christina Cipriano, a psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center, is a prominent researcher in the field of social-emotional learning. She is the director of the Education Collaboratory at Yale, whose mission is to “advance the science and practice of social and emotional learning (SEL).”
In an interview, Cipriano said she made every effort to collect all studies on SEL, including negative ones that hadn’t been published in journals, and that all of the data is publicly available for other researchers to scrutinize.
Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, testified before Congress that research claims about SEL have been “oversold.” He says many of the studies included in large meta-analyses like these are of low quality that would not meet the threshold for rigorous evidence by outside organizations, such as RAND or the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.
It’s quite likely that many of the studies included in this 2023 meta-analysis might be thrown out by outside researchers, and it’s unclear whether the overall results would still be so positive.
Another problem for the field is that it’s very hard to measure a child’s emotions or friendship skills and sometimes researchers create their own surveys to capture how much a student’s well-being has improved. And when researchers make their own yardsticks, studies may be more likely to find that an intervention was successful.
“It’s quite obvious that when you teach kids that they are supposed to respond in certain ways to certain phrases, that they’ll be more likely to respond in those certain ways than students who haven’t been trained that way,” said Eden, in an interview conducted via email. “Whether any of this actually captures anything of a child’s internal/emotional state may be doubted.”
On the other hand, more objective outcomes like grades and test scores also improved, according to the meta-analysis. And even though school climate surveys are somewhat subjective, researchers have found them to be reliable.
Amid the confusion over how we should measure the effectiveness of SEL programs is a political backstory, which explains why there is so much more criticism and scrutiny of the research.
Social-emotional learning enjoyed widespread bipartisan support more than a decade ago. Explicitly teaching non-cognitive skills to children, especially in low-income communities, appealed to many educators and policymakers. Some of these skills, like learning to share and take turns, had long been part of what teachers have always taught in preschool and kindergarten.
Much of the drive to teach older children soft skills began in urban charter schools, which were were finding success with what is often called character building, teaching kids how to be responsible and resilient. Journalist Paul Tough popularized the ideas for social-emotional learning in his 2012 best seller, “How Children Succeed,” and the programs spread nationally.
A backlash followed. Critics on the left questioned why white psychologists were trying to “fix” Black and brown children with these lessons instead of overhauling racist systems that prevented all children from succeeding.
Many in the SEL field took the criticisms to heart. And as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered steam, SEL programs expanded into social justice and anti-racism training, encouraging students to create a better world. According to the 2023 meta-analysis, about half the SEL programs focused on “values,” 30 percent on “perspectives,” and 34 percent on “identity.”
Critics also began to question whether some SEL programs force teachers, who aren’t generally trained in counseling, to be therapists. (Nonetheless, one of the interesting conclusions of the 2023 meta-analysis was that teachers were the most effective instructors of SEL lessons. When these lessons were led by school counselors or outsiders, they didn’t work as well.)
It’s easy to see how both sides have hijacked what was once a simpler idea of teaching kids to share and respect each other. Conservative groups like Moms for Liberty may exaggerate the content of typical SEL programs, while advocates on the left seek to expand SEL into political action.
Meanwhile, a big SEL industry is selling programs to schools. In their sales pitches, they’re quick to cite research and I expect this 2023 meta-analysis will be used to back this claim. But all research isn’t equal and many vendors haven’t put their SEL programs to a rigorous scientific test. There’s certainly a lot of snake oil out there. Schools need more help figuring out which programs are worthwhile. In the meantime, buyer beware.
Jill Barshay is a senior reporter at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. This column was initially published by The Hechinger Report.