SEL Work is important

What is the key to a high quality social emotional-learning-program ? It has to be a whole school-effort.

According to developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones and her research team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They’ve spent the past five years exploring connections between social-emotional skills and positive life outcomes, in the process measuring the efficacy of many programs that teach those skills.

Their findings — developed as part of a research project called SECURe (Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in education) — show that a successful SEL program involves “all the adults in the building being trained in and familiar with a set of language and practices that they can use in the hallways, in the gym, at recess, in the lunchroom, on the bus — all the times when kids have less structure, and are actually engaging in social interactions, when emotions are more likely to come up,” says research manager Rebecca Bailey.


Educators differ slightly in how they define these skills, which help kids pay attention in class, develop friendships on the playground, and make smart decisions after the school day ends, among other self-regulation tasks. Jones’s team identifies three main “buckets” of skills, based on their analysis of SEL programs and a comprehensive review of the developmental literature:

  • Cognitive regulation skills. Also called executive function skills, this bucket includes working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and attention control.
  • Emotion skills. This group includes emotion knowledge and expression, emotion behavior and regulation, and empathy and perspective taking.
  • Interpersonal skills. Also called the social domain, this bucket includes prosocial behaviors and skills, the ability to understand social cues, and conflict resolution.

These skills look different for children of different ages, and many build off of one another over time. For example, in a first-grade classroom, conflict resolution might just mean sharing and taking turns. In an eighth-grade classroom, conflict resolution might also necessitate empathy and cognitive flexibility.


In the traditional approach to SEL, school leaders might implement a curriculum that has one adult — usually the student’s teacher, school social worker, or psychologist — leading a once-a-week, class-wide lesson on a predetermined skill.  But research studies have shown that this method isn’t wholly effective.

“While a handful of SEL programs have been tested and shown to improve children’s SEL skills as well as academic, mental health, and behavioral outcomes, the effect sizes are smaller than we would expect,” says Jones. “This suggests that existing programs aren’t capitalizing on the potential to improve student outcomes. This could result from implementation challenges, or it could suggest that traditional SEL programs need a different approach.”