Prioritise social and emotional learning to avoid “missed opportunity” to improve children’s outcomes - new EEF guidance

Six evidence-based recommendations in new EEF report to support primary schools to review their current approaches to SEL

Effective social and emotional learning (SEL) can increase positive pupil behaviour, mental health and well-being, and academic performance. However, despite being seen as one of their top priorities by almost all primary schools, only just over one-third say that dedicated planning for SEL is central to their practice. 

These are key findings from new guidance published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in partnership with the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF).

The report – Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools – reviews the best available research to offer school leaders six practical recommendations to support good SEL for all children. It stresses this is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and other vulnerable groups, who, on average, have weaker SEL skills at all ages than their better-off classmates.

Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools

Six recommendations for improving social and emotional learning in primary schools

Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools

Evidence from the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that effective SEL can lead to learning gains of +4 months over the course of a year. 

Yet – even though SEL is already a large (and often unrecognised) part of their current job – few teachers receive support on how they can develop these skills in their everyday teaching practice. This is particularly important at a time when schools are reviewing their core vision and curriculum offer, and planning to implement statutory Relationships and Health education.

The report's recommendations include teaching SEL skills explicitly and integrating them into everyday classroom practice. For example, a teacher might connect the characters and situations in a book with the children’s experiences by reading a passage at least twice and then asking questions, such as:

  • ‘What do you think the characters are feeling?’
  • ‘How can you tell they are feeling this way?’
  • ‘How would you solve the problem?’
  • ‘Can you use words from the story to explain how you feel when you…?’
  • ‘What could we do differently if this happens in our classroom?’

Open-ended questions like these enable children to link fictional texts to their own experiences, learn new vocabulary, and practise applying social and emotional skills.

Today’s guidance aims to help build professional knowledge and support schools in applying it. Its emphasis is on developing and reinforcing SEL skills in the classroom, as well as through leadership and whole-school practices, rather than increasing current workloads.

This report sits alongside the EEF’s other guidance reports – including improving literacy, maths, metacognition, effective implementation, and making best use of teaching assistants – providing the basis for an overall advance towards evidence-informed school improvement. 

Sir Kevan Collins, EEF chief executive, comments:

Any primary school teacher will tell you that, alongside the ‘core business’ of teaching literacy and numeracy, a large and often unrecognised part of their job involves addressing children’s emotional, social and behavioural needs. This is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and other vulnerable groups.

However, many schools feel that there’s little time for developing such skills or that social and emotional learning is ‘what we do already’. This is a missed opportunity because, when carefully implemented, social and emotional learning can improve children’s outcomes in later life, including physical and mental health, school readiness, employment, and income.

Today’s report provides a starting point for primary schools to review their current approaches, and suggests actionable ideas to implement. Importantly, it argues that such approaches can be woven into everyday class teaching without creating burdensome new programmes of work.

Dr Jo Casebourne, chief executive at the Early Intervention Foundation, adds:

The evidence linking social and emotional skills in childhood with improved outcomes at school and in later life is extensive. Good social and emotional skills are associated with a range of positive outcomes including good physical and mental health, academic achievement, reduced involvement in crime, and higher income.

We also know a good deal about what works to support children’s social and emotional development, and that high quality social and emotional learning in primary schools can have a range of positive impacts including improved behaviour and attitudes, improved attainment, and reductions in emotional distress.

We have spoken to primary schools across the country and we know that social and emotional learning is already a core part of what they do on a day to day basis. They instinctively understand its importance. This guidance aims to help schools ensure that the work they are doing is high quality, well implemented, and likely to have an impact. It draws from the extensive evidence on social and emotional learning programmes to outline a set of evidence-based practices and strategies ranging from everyday classroom interactions to supportive whole-school approaches.

We look forward to continuing to work with EEF to support schools to implement these recommendations.