The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives schools a variety of options for implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) programs. But how is an administrator to choose from the wide range of SEL curricula now available?
A new report from the RAND Corporation identifies 60 elementary, middle and high school-level SEL programs that can meet ESSA’s expectations for using an evidence-based intervention. The report also lists which positive outcomes the program or practice might produce, such as reducing aggression, improving motivation or addressing test anxiety.
The authors note, however, that the law is vague on just how strong the evidence supporting a particular intervention should be, which can lead to different interpretations. For example, while the law calls for "well-designed" and "well-implemented" studies, it doesn't define those terms.
For now, to use federal funding to support SEL initiatives, ESSA expects schools to use programs that meet one of four levels — or tiers. Tier I is strong evidence backed by at least one “well-designed and well-implemented study.” Tier II is moderate evidence from a “well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study. Tier III is described as promising evidence, meaning that there is a relationship between the program and positive outcomes, but not necessarily that the program or strategy caused the outcomes. A Tier III study would also control for selection bias.
Finally, the law adds a Tier IV, which means that there is a strong belief that a particular intervention will be effective and that it is currently being evaluated, but that there is no evidence yet. “Tier IV offers educators the flexibility to implement interventions that lack empirical research yet meet local needs,” the authors write.
Under ESSA, there are three primary funding streams that can be used to support SEL efforts, even though the law doesn’t explicitly say “social-emotional learning.” Title IV focuses on improving educational opportunities for students and includes the Student Enrichment and Academic Support Grants, requiring districts to put at 20% of that funding toward providing a “well-rounded education” and 20% toward efforts to develop “safe and healthy” students. Title IV also includes grant programs that support SEL-related efforts, such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Full-Service Community Schools and Promise Neighborhoods.
Title I, the primary funding source for schools serving students from low-income families, is another option for supporting SEL curricula. A school, for example, could improve academic instruction by incorporating an SEL program that focuses on improving student behavior. SEL strategies could also be incorporated into a state’s efforts to target its lowest-performing schools. Finally, Title II funding, which supports teacher recruitment efforts and professional development for teachers and administrators, can also be used to support SEL efforts in schools by training teachers how to implement and measure the success of these programs.
The 60 programs named in the report include some that are designed for specific age groups and some that can be implemented across elementary, middle and high schools. Many of the programs are branded curricula, such as Second Step and RULER. But generic programs, such as yoga, are also included.
While the report focuses on “freestanding” programs that aim to teach intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, the authors also note that schools approach SEL in a variety of ways, such as using teaching practices that promote positive relationships and integrating skills like persistence into academic instruction.
The authors recommend that districts assess the needs among their students before deciding what type of SEL program to implement. They also note that it’s possible that a district might decide that none of the programs or approaches included in the report fit the needs of their population.
They also encourage school leaders to try interventions that perhaps only meet the Tier IV requirements, saying that this flexibility “allows educators to create new interventions or significantly adapt existing approaches to fit local contexts, provided creators can offer a research-based rationale and engage in ongoing evaluation of these efforts.”
The Wallace Foundation, which provided support for the RAND report, also provides resources to help education leaders match SEL programs to their schools. Their "Navigating SEL from the Inside Out” report, written by Harvard researcher Stephanie Jones and her colleagues, also includes guidance on how to choose programs that can work during the school day as well as during after-school and other extended learning programs.
“Evidence suggests that social and emotional outcomes improve when children and youth have opportunities to practice self- regulatory and social and emotional skills across settings, and when adult expectations are aligned,” they write.
They also note that because few SEL programs are designed specifically for out-of-school-time use, it makes sense for educators to adapt these programs to after-school settings.
Finally, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s District Resource Center includes tools for planning and implementing SEL in schools, and its June report provides a window into the way districts have already made these decisions.