eBASE, effective basic services:Social and Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning

Moderate impact for moderate cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

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.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), there is a dearth of evidence on the impact of social and emotional learning on educational attainment. One research trial evaluating the impact of a SEL infused program implemented in the Democratic Republic of Congo reported an improvement in reading and geometry of three and six months respectively for learners. However, limitations such as low level of significance and missing data raises concerns about the internal validity of this particular study. The study suggests a positive impact of SEL on math and reading scores.

  • 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.

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).

The cost of implementing social and emotional learning interventions will be moderate, as it will mostly entail the cost of professional development of teachers.

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.

Local evidence in SSA on the impact of social and emotional learning on educational outcomes is very limited, with only one experimental study identified. Even this study had serious limitations, and there is therefore a need for more robust assessments.

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 strength
Number of studies54
Review last updatedJuly 2021