Building social and emotional learning into the classroom

There has been a surge of interest recently in what schools can do to promote a set of attitudes, behaviours and skills that enable children to thrive. This involves both preventing problems such as bullying or anxiety before they become more serous, and building skills that help children to succeed at school and beyond. However, despite the wave of enthusiasm in support of this agenda, it remains difficult for schools to know exactly what they should do and how they should focus their efforts.

Earlier this week, the Public Policy Institute of Wales (PPIW) published a report synthesising the evidence of 'what works' in building the emotional resilience of children in primary schools in Wales. The PPIW's report draws out some key messages from a vast and complex literature that policymakers and practitioners can use when trying to grapple with these issues.

As the report makes clear, there is emerging evidence for a range of targeted and whole-school approaches to improving social and emotional skills, and promoting well-being. These range from using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to reduce anxiety, to whole-school social and emotional learning curricula and parenting programmes. Many of the promising approaches referenced in the report, such as Friends, FAST and the Good Behaviour Game are currently being trialled by the EEF in English schools. This evidence provides a good starting point for prioritising efforts: it makes sense to start from what others have tried and found to be successful even if this is not a guarantee of future success.

However, as this week's report also argues, there are often substantial challenges to implementing and embedding the most promising approaches in real world conditions. This is in part because social and emotional initiatives are often squeezed to the margins of the timetable, and seen as ‘an extra thing’ for teachers to do. For example, though PATHS – a social and emotional learning curriculum in primary schools – has strong evidence of positive effects from international trials, a recent EEF study in 45 schools, did not find positive effects, with teachers reporting a lack of time to implement the programme at the recommended frequency; on average, only half of the lessons were delivered.

The PPIW's report argues that work on social and emotional learning must be seen as connected with (rather than competing with) the wider priorities of the school. It should be viewed as lying at the core of effective teaching and learning, and integrated with the wider policies of the school – from pedagogy to parental engagement. Indeed, there is promise that approaches aimed at improving social and emotional skills, far from distracting from academic goals, are actually likely to enhance them if implemented effectively. For example, EEF’s trial of Philosophy for Children provides initial promise that a classroom environment encouraging reasoned discussion, questioning and taking others’ perspectives, may enhance academic outcomes in reading and maths, as well as children’s self-confidence, engagement and ability to speak and listen to others.

To date the EEF has funded 120 programmes with the aim of building evidence to inform schools’ decision-making, with a particular focus on supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are increasingly interested in approaches to building social and emotional skills (or ‘character education’), and by funding further trials we aim to offer schools a rigorous and independent assessment of what really works in this area, including what conditions are needed to enable effective approaches to become embedded. The PPIW's report is a timely reminder to attend to the important contexts that affect how programmes are implemented, and that social and emotional development should be seen as connecting with (and contributing to) teaching and learning, not competing with them.

The report, Promoting Emotional Health, Well-being and Resilience in Primary Schools, can be read, in full, here

Matthew van Poortvliet is Grants Manager at the EEF, offers his view on a new report from the Public Policy Institute of Wales (PPIW) on supporting emotional health, well-being and resilience in primary school children.

This blog previously appeared on the PPIW's website.