The Impact of Enhancing Students' Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions

This paper reports on the first large-scale meta-analysis of school-based programmes to promote students' social and emotional development.

  • J Durlak, A Dymnicki, R Taylor, R Weissberg, and K Schellinger
  • Child Development, (January 2011)

A challenge for 21st-century schools involves serving culturally diverse students with varied abilities and motivations for learning (Learning First Alliance, 2001). Unfortunately, many students lack social-emotional competencies and become less connected to school as they progress, and research has shown this lack of connection negatively affects their academic performance, behaviour and health.

Schools have an important role to play in raising healthy children by fostering not only their cognitive development, but also their social and emotional development. Yet schools have limited resources to address all of these areas and are experiencing intense pressures to enhance academic performance.

Previous research has suggested that universal school-based efforts to promote students' social and emotional learning (SEL) represent a promising approach to enhance children's success in school and life. Extensive developmental research indicates that effective mastery of social-emotional competencies is associated with greater wellbeing and better performance, whereas the failure to achieve competence can lead to a variety of personal, social and academic difficulties.

The goals of SEL programmes are to foster the development of five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective and behavioural competencies: self-awareness; self-management; social awareness; relationship skills; and responsible decision making (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2005). These, in turn, should provide a foundation for better adjustment and academic performance as reflected in more positive social behaviours, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved test scores and grades (Greenberg et al, 2003).

This paper reports on the first large-scale meta-analysis of school-based programmes to promote students' social and emotional development. The researchers explored the effects SEL programming had on students across multiple outcomes: social and emotional skills, attitudes toward self and others, positive social behaviour, conduct problems, emotional distress and academic performance.


Four search strategies were used to secure a systematic, non-biased, representative sample of published and unpublished studies. First, relevant studies were identified using key search terms; second, psychosocial interventions referenced in the studies were examined; third, manual searches were conducted in 11 journals producing relevant studies between 1970 and 2007; fourth, searches were made of organisation websites promoting youth development and social-emotional learning.


The sample consisted of 213 studies involving 270,034 students. Results (based on 35 to 112 interventions depending on the outcome category) indicated that, compared to control groups, students demonstrated enhanced SEL skills, attitudes, and positive social behaviours following intervention, and also demonstrated fewer conduct problems and had lower levels of emotional distress. Academic performance was also significantly improved.

Programmes delivered in the classroom by teachers were effective in all six outcome categories, and multicomponent programmes (conducted by school staff) were effective in four categories. In contrast, classroom programmes delivered by non-school personnel produced only three significant outcomes (improved SEL skills and pro-social attitudes, and reduced conduct problems). Student academic performance significantly improved only when school personnel conducted the intervention.

The prediction that multi-component programmes would be more effective than single-component programmes was not supported. Multi-component programme effects were comparable to, but not significantly higher than, those obtained in classroom-based teacher programmes in four outcome areas (attitudes, conduct problems, emotional distress, and academic performance). They did not yield significant effects for SEL skills or positive social behaviour, whereas class-based by teacher programmes did.


Current findings document that SEL programmes yielded positive effects on targeted social-emotional competencies and attitudes about self, others and school. They also enhanced students' behavioural adjustment in the form of increased pro-social behaviours and reduced conduct and internalising problems, and improved academic performance on achievement tests. While gains in these areas were reduced during follow-up assessments, effects nevertheless remained statistically significant for a minimum of six months after the intervention.

Overall, findings from the current meta-analysis point to the benefits of SEL programming. However, other studies have shown that attention skills, not social skills, predict achievement outcomes.

Implications for practice

  • Promotion of competence, self-esteem, mastery and social inclusion can serve as a foundation for prevention and treatment of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders.
  • These steps include the dissemination of information about available programmes, adoption of programmes that fit best with local settings, proper implementation of newly adopted programmes, effective programme evaluation to assess progress, and methods to sustain beneficial interventions over the long term.
  • Effective leadership and planning also promote quality programme implementation through ensuring adequate financial, personnel and administrative support as well as providing professional development and technical assistance.
  • There is a need to establish assessment and accountability systems for SEL programmes in relation to student outcomes.

The four research studies for this special report have been selected by the PSHE Association

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on PSHE education. Click here for more

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year