- A social-emotional learning program focusing on skills such as cooperation, self-control and empathy was associated with some positive results on state tests in reading and math, but the findings don’t match the large gains found in other research on the connections between SEL and students’ academic performance, a new study finds.
- In a randomized trial, researchers at Pennsylvania State University examined state test scores in grades 3-5 for 2nd graders who participated in the Social Skills Improvement System-Classwide Intervention Program, which includes 10 lesson units over a 12-week period. While scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment were higher in some grade levels for students who participated in the program, the findings in general were not statistically significant.
- The program, the authors write, may have “lacked sufficient dosage to substantially move the needle on student achievement,” but they add the results also “address potential concerns about possible negative state test outcomes resulting from reallocation of academic instructional time.”
After two years of study, a top takeaway from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development was that SEL is the process through which students learn and is important for all students, not just those with behavior problems or who have experienced trauma. And since that time in 2018, interest in weaving social-emotional skills through academics has grown.
But evaluating students’ test scores in core subjects is still important when accountability systems are primarily based on academic growth and proficiency levels. “State test performance not only has the potential to shed light on the impact of SEL on distal student outcomes but also represents an area of emphasis for educators across the country,” write the authors, led by Susan Crandall Hart.
They note a few differences between their study and others that have found larger positive effects from SEL. In addition to randomly assigning students to classrooms with the SSIS lessons and those without, their study also considered students’ baseline reading and math skills. When they removed that data, the impact of the intervention looked more positive.
A widely cited review of more than 200 SEL studies, on the other hand, pointed to strong academic gains, but the authors of the Penn State study note many of the studies included in that review did not use random assignment — considered the most rigorous type of research. Other studies used different measures of academic achievement, such as GPAs and grades, and didn’t consider students’ baseline skills.
Still, the authors say the value of SEL is not only in whether state test scores increase. That’s why research on SEL should expand to look not only at specific SEL skills and test scores, but also “broad indicators of student success,” such as peer relationships, attendance and degree attainment.