It is understood that childrens’ emotions in school are connected to their learning and academic achievement. The evolution of concepts such as emotional intelligence explain why the ability to recognise, use, express and manage one’s emotions makes a huge difference to success in later life. As the American author and philosopher Walker Percy said, “You can get all As and still flunk life.”
Schools wishing to teach students these non-cognitive skills, such as self-awareness, self-control, empathy, decision making and coping, have turned to social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes. In the US, UK and Ireland, these are recommended as ways for schools to teach these “soft skills”.
Teaching social and emotional competence
But there are a large and growing number of SEL programmes offered to schools. Typically, these programmes concentrate on managing emotions, setting positive goals, and increasing social and self-awareness. Relationship skills and decision making may also be included. While they vary in scope, the programmes tend to include both elements for developing teachers’ professional competencies and classroom-based activities for students. But do they work?
With funding from the Jacobs Foundation, my team and I conducted a systematic review of research looking at SEL programmes, drawing upon studies conducted over 50 years and including children from pre-school to grade 12 (around age 17-18). The review analysed the effects of social and emotional learning programmes in schools on achievement in three subjects: reading (57,755 pupils), mathematics (61,360 pupils), and science (16,380 pupils), selecting only the 40 most methodologically rigorous studies.
While we found evidence that the SEL programmes improved the children’s performance in these subjects, the effects of the different approaches varied widely. There was great disparity in the quality of the studies, and it appears that different study designs may produce different results – for example when comparing quasi-experimental studies to randomised controlled studies. There is also evidence that some of the approaches to teaching SEL that have become popular over the last few decades might not be as effective as policymakers and schools may believe.
Using a similar approach proposed by education psychologist Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, programmes were ranked according to the strength of evidence of effectiveness, balancing for factors such as the studies’ methodological quality. In the table below, we’ve rated the evidence strong (3), limited (2), insufficient (1), or that no studies qualified for this review (0). Two programmes used composite, cross-subject scores.
Roisin Corcoran: Associate Professor, University College Dublin: Read the full article.