Social and emotional learning


Moderate impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence.

Cost Per Pupil Cost estimate: Less than £80 per pupil per year. cost per pupil
Evidence Rating Evidence estimate: Three or more rigorous meta-analyses. evidence rating Average impact: + 4 additional months. Impact +4 months

What is it?

Interventions which target social and emotional learning (SEL) seek to improve attainment by improving the social and emotional dimensions of learning, as opposed to focusing directly on the academic or cognitive elements of learning.  As with behaviour, three broad categories of interventions can be identified: 1. Universal programmes which seek to improve behaviour and generally take place in the classroom; 2. More specialised programmes which are targeted at students with either behavioural issues or behaviour and academic problems; 3. School level approaches to developing a positive school ethos or improving discipline which also aim to support greater engagement in learning.

SEL interventions seek to improve the ways in which pupils work with and alongside their peers, teachers, family and community. In 2005, a national SEL programme was introduced to support effective learning, positive behaviour, attendance, and emotional well-being, first in primary schools then in secondary schools.

How effective is it?

On average, SEL interventions have an identifiable and significant impact on attitudes to learning, social relationships in school, and attainment itself (on average around three to four months additional progress).

However, though SEL interventions almost always improve emotional or attitudinal outcomes, not all interventions are equally effective at raising attainment. In particular, evidence from the nationwide SEL programme introduced in 2005 suggests that benefits on learning will not be automatically achieved. A quasi-experimental evaluation of the impact of the secondary programme did not find a significant impact on attainment in the SEL schools.

Improvements seem more likely when approaches are embedded into routine educational practices, and supported by professional development and training for staff. In addition, the implementation of the programme and the degree to which teachers were committed to the approach appeared to be important. 

SEL programmes appear to benefit disadvantaged or low-attaining pupils more than other pupils, though all pupils benefit on average. Approaches have been found to be effective from nursery to secondary school.

How secure is the evidence?

There is extensive research in this area and a number of meta-analyses, though more research has been undertaken with younger children in primary, than in secondary schools, and more studies have evaluated the impact on disadvantaged or low attaining pupils. 

What are the costs?

Social and emotional interventions targeted at individuals are the most expensive (see also Behaviour interventions). Estimates from the US suggest targeted programs cost about $4,600 per student (about £2,800) per year and involve professional counselling services. However, the costs of training school staff and implementing and evaluating the impact are estimated at £1,000 per teacher for professional development and in-school support. Overall the costs per pupil are therefore estimated as low at about £40 per pupil per year, assuming a school-based, whole class approach.

What should I consider?

  • Skills should be taught purposefully and explicitly linked to direct learning in schools, encouraging pupils to apply the skills they learn.

  • Teachers and other school staff can effectively support these approaches, particularly with appropriate professional development.

  • How will you ensure that staff commit to supporting the programme and consistently apply the skills more widely in school?

  • Sensitive and targeted intervention may benefit at risk or more vulnerable pupils.

  • The impact on attainment of social and emotional aspects of learning is not found consistently, so it is important to evaluate the impact of any initiative? Have you considered how you will evaluate the impact of these approaches?