Learning and Teaching Toolkit

Social and emotional learning

Moderate impact for moderate cost, based on extensive evidence.

What is it?

Interventions which target social and emotional learning (SEL) seek to improve learners’ 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 programmes appear to be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged or low-attaining learners.

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 learners who are low-attaining or disadvantaged.

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, which means that the cost per learner per year for whole-school approaches is low (below £80). However, targeted programmes are likely to be much more expensive. The overall cost is rated as moderate.

What should I consider?

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

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

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?

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

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?

Challenge questions to support collaborative self-evaluation

  • Is there an effective whole school approach to health and wellbeing that is regularly reviewed and updated to reflect the current needs of learners and their families?
  • How well do staff understand the nurturing principles and apply these in their daily practice and interactions with children and young people and the wider school community?
  • How well do we use our understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences to ensure we have an inclusive, supportive and flexible learning environment that meets the needs of all learners, particularly those who have experienced early adversity and trauma?

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