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Education Endowment Foundation:Social and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning

Moderate impact for very low cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation costThe cost estimates in the Toolkits are based on the average cost of delivering the intervention.
Evidence strengthThis rating provides an overall estimate of the robustness of the evidence, to help support professional decision-making in schools.
Impact (months)The impact measure shows the number of additional months of progress made, on average, by children and young people who received the intervention, compared to similar children and young people who did not.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions seek to improve pupils’ decision-making skills, interaction with others and their self-management of emotions, rather than focusing directly on the academic or cognitive elements of learning.

SEL interventions might focus on the ways in which students work with (and alongside) their peers, teachers, family or community.

Three broad categories of SEL interventions can be identified:

  • School-level approaches to developing a positive school ethos, which also aim to support greater engagement in learning;
  • Universal programmes which generally take place in the classroom with the whole class; and
  • More specialised programmes which use elements of SEL and are targeted at students with particular social or emotional needs.

1. Social and emotional learning approaches have a positive impact, on average, of 4 months’ additional progress in academic outcomes over the course of an academic year. This finding, however, has very low security, so schools should be especially careful to monitor the efficacy of SEL approaches in their settings.

2. The studies in the Toolkit focus primarily on academic outcomes, but it is important to consider the other benefits of SEL interventions. Being able to effectively manage emotions will be beneficial to children and young people even if it does not translate to reading or maths scores.

3. While targeted approaches to SEL learning seem to have greater impacts on average, approaches should not be viewed in opposition, as most schools will want to use a combination of whole class SEL learning, and targeted support for pupils with particular social and emotional needs.

4. The evidence indicates that there is particular promise for approaches that focus on improving social interaction between pupils.

The average impact of successful SEL interventions is an additional four months’ progress over the course of a year. The security of this evidence is, however, very low, so schools should carefully monitor the efficacy of approaches in their own settings. Alongside academic outcomes, SEL interventions have an identifiable and valuable impact on attitudes to learning and social relationships in school.

Although SEL interventions are almost always perceived to improve emotional or attitudinal outcomes, not all interventions are equally effective at raising attainment. Improvements appear more likely when SEL 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 are committed to the approach appear to be important.

  • Interventions for secondary age pupils tend to be more effective (+5 months) than those evaluated in primary schools (+4 months).

  • Effects tend to be slightly higher on literacy outcomes (+4 months) than mathematics (+3 months)

  • Interventions which focus on improving social interaction tend to be more successful (+6 months) than those focusing on personal and academic outcomes (+4 months) or those aimed at preventing problematic behaviour (+5 months)

  • Shorter (30 mins or so) frequent sessions (4−5 times a week) appear to be the most successful structure for interventions.

Evidence suggests that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have, on average, weaker SEL skills at all ages than their more affluent peers. These skills are likely to influence a range of outcomes for pupils: lower SEL skills are linked with poorer mental health and lower academic attainment.

SEL interventions in education are shown to improve SEL skills and are therefore likely to support disadvantaged pupils to understand and engage in healthy relationships with peers and emotional self-regulation, both of which may subsequently increase academic attainment.

Schools should carefully consider how targeted approaches are deployed to support pupils with additional social or emotional needs. SEL needs will be based on a variety of factors that may not correspond to academic progress and should be carefully monitored.

Social and emotional learning is important in and of itself. The mechanism by which approaches have an impact on academic outcomes may include improving engagement in learning or self-regulation skills. If schools are aiming to improve a particular skill, they should carefully consider:

  • How the SEL approach will be embedded and modelled across the school.
  • How to identify and provide targeted support for pupils that need additional SEL support.

SEL approaches are typically delivered over a pre-specified period if used as a targeted intervention (e.g. length of one term), although they could also be implemented over the course of an academic year (e.g. if purposed with school wide change).

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Overall, the median costs of implementing SEL approaches are estimated as very low. The costs associated with SEL interventions arise from professional training and development for staff, the majority of which are start-up costs.

Whilst the median cost estimate for SEL approaches is very low, the option to purchase additional books, resource and materials, and ongoing training and support means that costs can range from very low to moderate.

The security of the evidence around SEL approaches is rated as very low. 54 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost additional padlocks because:

  • A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
  • There is a large amount of unexplained variation between the results included in the topic. All reviews contain some variation in results, which is why it is important to look behind the average. Unexplained variation (or heterogeneity) reduces our certainty in the results in ways that we have been unable to test by looking at how context, methodology or approach is influencing impact.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strengthThis rating provides an overall estimate of the robustness of the evidence, to help support professional decision-making in schools.
Number of studies54
Review last updatedJuly 2021