Student Well-Being

What New Research Shows About the Link Between Achievement and SEL

By Lauraine Langreo — July 07, 2023 2 min read
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Students’ social-emotional skills are positively correlated with their reading and math performance, according to a study by Branching Minds, an ed-tech company that provides multitiered system of supports software.

That means if a student’s SEL skills are strong, their reading and math performance tends to be higher. If their SEL skills are weak, their reading and math performance tends to be lower. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of students who were identified as needing additional social-emotional support were also identified as needing additional academic support, the study found.

To understand the links between social-emotional learning and academic outcomes, the Branching Minds’ study analyzed student screening assessments for social-emotional skills (DESSA-Mini) and reading and math performance (NWEA MAP Growth) of nearly 4,000 K-8 students in the 2021-22 school year. The findings were presented at the International Society for Technology in Education conference last month.

The findings come as educators are grappling with large declines in math and reading performance on the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” as well as other measures of academic achievement. They’re also dealing with an increase in student behavioral problems and other social, emotional, and mental health challenges.

Because of the greater focus on student well-being in recent years, “we’ve really seen a growing interest in social-emotional screening tools to use alongside academic screening tools,” said Essie Sutton, the director of learning science at Branching Minds.

The study’s findings are in line with previous research that shows social-emotional learning has a positive impact on students’ academic achievement, but there’s still a gap in “understanding how those pieces of data [academic and social-emotional strengths] should be integrated and used together” when creating intervention plans for students, Sutton said.

The study also found that social-emotional skills may act as “a protective factor” for some students performing below academic standards, meaning that students’ social-emotional strengths could be used to boost their academic achievement, Sutton said. Therefore, “it would be beneficial for educators to think about more integrated support plans for struggling students,” she added

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A student in Stephanie Brugler, during the educational development of SEL with her students of Jefferson PK-8 school.
A student in Stephanie Brugler 3rd grade class participates in an SEL lesson on emotions at the Jefferson PK-8 school in Warren, Ohio, on Nov. 1, 2022.
Daniel Lozada for Education Week

For example, if a student is struggling with reading, but they are very social, “how can we build that into a support plan, and perhaps make these targeted or individualized reading support groups more social and play to that strength that they have?” Perhaps the student could take on the role of teacher and explain something to their peers in order to help them practice reading comprehension, as well as social skills, Sutton said.

The study also recommended that results from academic, social-emotional, and behavioral screeners should be used when developing intervention plans for students.

“It’s really important to look at students’ strengths and needs holistically,” Sutton said. To do that, district and school leaders should ensure that their academic, behavioral, and social-emotional support teams are in collaboration instead of being in their own silos, and that all stakeholders—students, parents, and teachers—are part of the process of creating intervention plans.

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