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Student Well-Being Opinion

How to Distinguish Good SEL From the Dreck

A social-emotional-learning researcher discusses the evidence
By Rick Hess — August 31, 2023 6 min read
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In the spring, Harvard’s Jal Mehta and I discussed the frustrating reality of social-emotional learning, noting the disconnect between the promise of SEL (in theory) and the uneven quality of so many SEL programs (in practice). As we head into a new school year, with parents and educators concerned about the social and emotional well-being of students, it seemed like a good time to seek some practical advice from someone deeply involved in the work of evaluation and implementation. Tia Kim is the vice president of education, research, and impact at Committee for Children, a Seattle-based organization that’s involved in providing SEL programming to millions of learners around the world. Here’s what she had to say.


Rick: With the start of the school year, social-emotional learning is a big question and timely topic. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your organization’s work in this? What have you learned over time?

Tia: Certainly! I’m a developmental psychologist and education researcher. My background is in positive youth development and children’s social-emotional well-being. I lead Committee for Children’s in-house research team and oversee the translation of research into developing and assessing our Second Step SEL programs for educators and students, which are now used in 45,000 P–12 schools nationwide. Our organization was founded almost 45 years ago by two researchers and has been supporting children’s safety and social-emotional development through research and evidence-based programs ever since. We’ve learned that while the foundation of research supporting the benefits of SEL on children’s academics and well-being has remained quite stable over the decades, we’ve recognized a communication gap surrounding its impact outside education circles. This miscommunication has led to confusion. Without access to information, people are left to wonder, suspect, and, unfortunately, be deceived through disinformation campaigns. That’s another reason I’m excited we’re having this conversation today.

Rick: SEL has a lot of intuitive appeal, but I’ve also seen a lot of silly, troubling stuff that travels under the SEL label. How do parents or educators know whether a given SEL program is credible?

Tia: Follow the research. There are many misconceptions about social-emotional learning out there. But there are also decades of research and evidence showing that social-emotional learning works and has positive short-term and long-term outcomes for students, including improved academic achievement, positive peer relationships, higher graduation rates, and helping kids be college and career ready. Unfortunately, many programs claiming they are “SEL” just aren’t up to par. As a longtime social-emotional-learning researcher, I can tell you that SEL curricula must be intentionally and rigorously designed, tested, and rooted in the most recent field research. Otherwise, there’s a good chance it’s malarkey. If an SEL program or practice isn’t based on a good foundation of research, doesn’t have robust proof of its effectiveness, and it can’t claim a significant improvement in skills such as focus, productivity, communication, and confidence, you should be skeptical.

Rick: How do you define which SEL “works”?

Tia: SEL programs vary in the outcomes they are designed to achieve. Some focus on improving students’ academic-readiness skills like communication and critical thinking. Others focus on providing tools to reduce violence and bullying and to protect against abuse. Others may concentrate on character-building life skills that prepare students for college and the workforce. Still others have a mix of all of those goals. Whatever the focus, providers must consider several factors when creating and improving their SEL programs. From field research to randomized control trials—measuring students using the program on specific outcomes—to feedback from teachers, students, school leaders, and parents, if they’re not learning from the individuals impacted by the curricula, there’s a good chance their SEL program won’t work. A legitimate research-based SEL program isn’t stagnant, either. While developing a research-based program is rigorous, once it’s out in the market, providers should continuously test, refine, and improve it based on observational data and feedback from teachers and students.

Rick: Could you point to something that folks should steer clear of? In other words, what’s an example of bad SEL?

Tia: If you can’t find publicly available, easily accessible information on an SEL program’s research or evidence base, it’s likely not a legitimate program. It shouldn’t be hard to find verification that the program works. Here’s an example of a school-based practice that is likely pseudo-SEL: Let’s say a school does a morning announcement about empathy and then instructs students to make a poster about empathy once a week for a month, and then moves on to a different social-emotional skill like responsible decisionmaking and repeats the assignment. While the project is a nice “feel good” task and might elicit some students to reflect for a moment, research tells us that this project alone won’t help strengthen children’s ability to empathize with others or to make responsible decisions. If there is no evidence that the poster-of-the-month club does anything, there is a good reason to suspect that it doesn’t.

Rick: What about when the evidence is mixed?

Tia: As educators, families, and community members, it’s important to be smart consumers of research. If you come across a rigorous evaluation that doesn’t have clear-cut answers or that shows the evidence is poorly synthesized, it may mean more research is needed to figure out why. Poor implementation fidelity, or the degree to which a program is delivered as intended, could be a reason you don’t find results. Or other factors like the setting or context may be influencing the results. It’s important to understand what evaluations can and cannot tell you. Sometimes, studies have limitations that need to be addressed with more research, and usually, those limitations are acknowledged by the researchers in the discussion section of the evaluation.

Rick: If you had one tip when it comes to this work, for parents or educators, what would it be?

Tia: Schools have to work in partnership with families if they really want to support kids. Research shows that when families are involved in their children’s education, students attend school more regularly, stay in school longer, and perform at higher levels. Engaging families in social-emotional learning is equally crucial to supporting children’s growth. Parents and primary caregivers are children’s most important teachers of social-emotional skills. Their continuous presence and involvement can encourage the development of these crucial skills. One of our recent polls concluded that 80 percent of parents support social-emotional learning in schools, and 75 percent agree that schools and families should work together to teach kids social-emotional skills. Parental involvement is also considered a “best practice” when it comes to promoting positive outcomes in social-emotional-learning programs. By fostering this partnership between schools and families, we can empower children to thrive academically, emotionally, and socially.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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