Social and emotional learning

Interventions which target social and emotional learning (SEL) seek to improve pupils’ interaction with others and 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:

  • universal programmes which generally take place in the classroom;
  • more specialised programmes which are targeted at students with particular social or emotional needs; and
  • school-level approaches to developing a positive school ethos, which also aim to support greater engagement in learning.

How effective is it?

On average, SEL interventions have an identifiable and valuable impact on attitudes to learning and social relationships in school. They also have an average overall impact of four months' additional progress on attainment.

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.

SEL approaches have been found to be effective in primary and secondary schools, and early years settings.

How secure is the evidence?

There is extensive international research in this area, including a number of meta-analyses. More research has been undertaken in primary than in secondary schools, and a number of studies have specifically evaluated the impact on pupils who are low-attaining or disadvantaged.

In England, a number of studies have identified a link between SEL interventions and academic outcomes, although a recent EEF study of a popular US programme did not show a positive impact overall.

What are the costs?

The main financial cost of implementing a whole-school social and emotional learning approach will be the cost of professional development. In EEF-funded programmes, the average cost of professional development is well under £80 per pupil. However, targeted programmes are likely to be much more expensive, so the overall average cost is rated as moderate.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. How will you link the teaching of social and emotional skills with academic content?

  2. How will you provide appropriate professional development for teachers and other school staff to effectively support SEL approaches?

  3. How will you ensure that you support all staff to consistently apply aspects of SEL more widely in school and embed them in routine school practices?

  4. How will you sensitively target social and emotional approaches to benefit at-risk or vulnerable pupils?

  5. The impact on attainment of social and emotional aspects of learning is not consistent, so it is important to evaluate the impact of any initiative. Have you considered how you will do this?