Social-Emotional Research Brief




Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process by which youth and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (Maurer and Brackett, 2004).  To thrive in a social world, students must learn social and emotional skills, such as controlling their impulses, interpreting and understanding emotions, motivating themselves, and developing positive attitudes toward school and the community (Pianta and LaParo, 2003; Cervone and Cushman, 2014).  School performance is a complex phenomenon, shaped by a wide variety of factors intrinsic to students and in their external environment (Farrington et al., 2012).  In addition to content knowledge and academic skills, students need to develop sets of behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies that are crucial to academic performance in their classes, but typically not reflected in state standardized accountability tests.


The School Role in SEL

To build and support these skills, schools have widely adopted social and emotional learning programs.  When well-designed and well-implemented, SEL programs are associated with positive outcomes including the following:  students have a sense of belonging and purpose, who can work well with classmates and peers to solve problems, who can plan and set goals, and who can persevere through challenges – in addition to being literate, numerate, and versed in scientific concepts and ideas.  Educators, too, understand the benefits of educating the whole child, meaning the major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—which are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior (Jones and Kahn, 2017).


Changing Demographics, School Context, Development of SEL

As several researchers (Nagaoka, et al., 2015; Hussar and Bailey, 2014; Jones and Kahn, 2017) and institutions (The Aspen Institute, Buck Institute for Education) have reported, the nature and number of youth’s opportunities for development vary significantly by race, socioeconomic class, and context, in general.  Development is the on-going process that happens when youth observe the world, interact with others, and make meaning of their experiences.  Thinking of the school context where youth have various developmental opportunities, educators in California, and other states, know that classroom demographics have changed, in some cases, dramatically over the past 5 to 10 years.  The percent of students from low-income families, who are English learners, students of color, and who have limited developmental opportunities has grown to the point that in some schools 90 – 100% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch (Hussar and Bailey, 2014). 


These school context realities are important to keep in mind when considering the development of social-emotional skills because developmental experiences are opportunities for action and reflection that help youth build self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values, and develop agency, an integrated identify, and competencies (Nagaoka et al., 2015).  These developmental experiences are “maximized” in the context of social interactions with others.  “Others” are the relationships youth have with adults and peers, and social-emotional development is not just about the skills that students and adults possess and use; it is also about the features of the educational setting itself, including culture and climate (Aspen Institute Education and Society Program, 2018).


Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and California’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP)

In 2015 the federal government, through ESSA, also recognized the importance of social-emotional learning and required states to measure at least one indicators of “School Quality or Student Success,” defined broadly to include measures of student engagement, educator engagement, student access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, or school climate and safety.[1]  Just prior to the passing of ESSA, in 2013-14 California enacted the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) including the Local Control Accountability (LCAP)[2] process.  With the LCAP districts are expected to develop and report indicators representing a wide range of educational goals, including measures of school culture-climate.[3]  As described later in this Brief, the California CORE districts[4] created and disseminated a survey to measure culture-climate in their participating schools.  These data continue to be collected and provide comparable outcomes across all school sites.


Organization of Brief

The purpose of this Brief is to provide an overview of the most important topics relevant to social-emotional learning. This Brief is not an exhaustive review of the literature.  We provide references, and links to additional resources, and encourage further exploration of the numerous topics explored below.


Following the Introduction, the content of this Brief moves to an examination of what is social-emotional learning.  We include a brief history, an examination of SEL frameworks, competencies, and identify some of the leading institutions.  Specifically, we briefly review three frameworks including, Harvard’s The Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory, Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER program, and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, Foundations for Young Adult Success, A Developmental Framework.  Then, we turn to a more comprehensive review of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2015) framework, competencies, learning environments, continuum of approaches to using SEL, and theory of action for schoolwide implementation.


With an understanding of what SEL is, and how it can be used, the focus turns to an understanding of SEL standards and assessment practices. In the past two decades, learning standards have become the driving and organizing force in education, and are the cornerstone of the current educational reform movement (Finn, Julian, & Petrilli, 2006).  Because academic learning depends on SEL, it is important for SEL be a part of learning standards. 

Assessment is critical for measuring progress toward educational goals. Ideally, in conjunction with SEL standards, states, districts, and schools need to recommend and use reliable and valid methods of assessments so that teachers can easily monitor student progress toward achieving standards. 


This Brief closes with a review of some SEL outcome data.  Beyond selecting an appropriate SEL assessment instrument, some additional methods for collecting SEL competency data are presented. These methods include: Self-report survey questionnaires, Interview protocols, Observation protocols and rating scales, and Performance-based assessments.   It cannot be over stated how important it is for teachers, administrators, and all stakeholders interested in youth’s success to use the collected data (Marsh, et al., 2018).  To help understand the importance of using data to drive decision making, we finish with an examination of three SEL programs that met CASEL’s highest level of reliability and validity selection criteria (i.e., randomized control trial (RCT), or quasi-experimental design).  These examples are from CASEL’s 2015 Guide for Middle and High School Programs.  All three met the “gold standard” for selection, meaning they received the highest rating of effectiveness, and include: (1) Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education, (2) the Buck Institute for Education, Project-based Learning, and (3) Second Step: Student Success Through Prevention for Middle School.


We turn now to provide an understanding of what is social-emotional learning.


What is Social-Emotional Learning

A Brief History

For many readers, the important role that social-emotional learning has taken on in schools is often associated with the 1994 publication by Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence.  Interestingly, following this publication, Goleman went on to work with Weisberg and colleagues to create the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).  More recently, some readers will identify the continued rise of SEL as linked to Paul Tough’s 2013 publication How Children Succeed, in which he places a great deal of emphasis on “grit” as a malleable skill that all children can “grow,” in order to be successful in school and life.  A topic (grit) that is linked to the widely cited research of University of Pennsylvania positive psychologist, Martin Seligman and his protégé, Angela Duckworth.[5] 


Other readers might recognize that social, emotional, and cognitive skills are developed as the result of our biological foundation interacting with experience so that these skills emerge, grow, and change over time, beginning in the earliest years and continuing throughout childhood and adolescence.  In short, some skills act as building blocks, serving as a foundation for more complex skills that emerge later in life.  For instance, regulating and managing one’s emotions is fundamental to resolving complex social conflicts, and identifying basic emotions in oneself is essential to being able to regulate them effectively. Children must develop certain basic social, emotional, and cognitive competencies before they can master others.  As a result, the role of SEL can be traced back to historical and contemporary research into such topics as motivation, executive functioning, self-identity, mindsets, values, and decision making (The Aspen Institute, 2017; Nagoaka et al., 2015).


It is important to recognize the depth of research and long held interests in SEL because social and emotional development involves a set of tools for learning, while others see it as a way of promoting resilience in the face of both normative and traumatic stresses. Others see it as a morality and character-building exercise, and still others focus on the importance of neurocognitive skills. This lack of consistency doesn’t mean that social and emotional competence is “soft,” immeasurable, irrelevant, or faddish. It means that social and emotional development is multi-faceted and is integral to academics—to how school happens, and to how learning takes place (Blyth, Jones, and Borowski, 2018).


SEL Frameworks, Competencies & LEADING INSTITUTIONS

Given the multiple ways that different stakeholders view SEL, it is helpful to consider a framework.  Simply put, a framework is an important way for organizing thoughts, communications, and actions (Blyth, Jones, Borowski, 2018).  Frameworks are key ways of organizing and labeling social and emotional competencies and the social-emotional learning process as a means of supporting a widely agreed upon understanding of the competencies.  In this subsection we briefly review three frameworks including (1) Harvard’s The Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory, which explores the effects of high-quality social-emotional interventions on the development and achievement of children, youth, teachers, parents, and communities.  (2) Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence RULER program.  RULER is an acronym that stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotions. RULER supports positive emotional climates and the development of these skills in both students and the adults.  (3) The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, Foundations for Young Adult Success, A Developmental Framework (Nagaoka, et al., 2015). 


Then, we turn to a more comprehensive (not exhaustive) review of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2015) framework, competencies, learning environments, continuum of approaches to using SEL, theory of action for schoolwide implementation.  The final section of this Brief presents a overview of three SEL Programs that met CASEL’s highest level of reliability and validity selection criteria.



The Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory

The Taxonomy Project[6] is particularly relevant for SEL K-12 implementation efforts because the goal is to create a platform that highlights the points of alignment and divergence across social and emotional learning (SEL) frameworks in a way that enables those in the field to both identify common ground and to see what is distinct within any particular framework.  The researchers plan to produce a set of interactive online tools (available spring 2019) to help educators, policymakers, funders, and other stakeholders to better navigate the broad field of SEL or "non-cognitive" development. The project will produce: (1) a coding system that can be used to identify common elements across frameworks and to highlight what is unique within a particular framework, (2) a set of detailed Framework Profiles that summarize key information about a diverse selection of frameworks in the field; (3) an online Thesaurus that includes information about the skills in each framework (e.g., self-control, empathy, cognitive flexibility) and how they relate to those in other frameworks, and (4) a set of interactive visual illustrations that enable stakeholders to see and understand key similarities or differences across frameworks and between discrete SEL skills. 


The Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in Education (SECURe) project addresses children’s academic and social-emotional functioning which can be improved by targeting executive functioning and emotional and behavioral regulation via preschool and elementary school curricula.[7]    For readers interested in this student population, and all other projects, we encourage them to visit the EASEL website.[8]



Center for Emotional Intelligence RULER

RULER is an acronym that stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotions. RULER is an approach to create a positive learning climate and the development of emotional skills for all adults and students within the school.[9] It is a mindset and a language which everyone in the school community can talk about their emotions. Staff development activities and student learning units are implemented with flexibility, in terms of how long they are, when and in what order they are implemented, and how they are infused into the existing staff time and the academic curriculum. 


RULER differentiates itself from other SEL school-based initiatives in that it focuses first on developing adults in the school, both personally and professionally, so they can be role models and implement with fidelity the skill-based instruction for students. The goals of RULER include: (1) create a positive emotional climate, and (2) enhance emotional intelligence in students and all the adults involved in their lives. Additionally, the Center offers online resources (videos, lessons, family workshops, and more) and virtual sessions with a RULER coach to support schools throughout the implementation process.


University of Chicago

Foundations for Young Adult Success, A Developmental Framework

The comprehensive graphic of the Developmental Framework is presented in Appendix A, due to the sheer size and complexity of the framework.  The Chicago School Research, Foundations for Young Adult Success (which includes, but is not limited to, middle and high school students, ages 11-18), is based on its many years of research, and takes a larger focus on youth success.[10]  It’s not just “college and career,” it is fulfilling individual goals and having the agency and competencies to influence the larger world.




Three Key Factors

The three key factors for young adult success are “agency, integrated identity, and competencies” (Nagaoka, et al., 2015, p. 2).  Agency is the ability to make choices about and take an active role in one’s life path, instead of being a product of one’s circumstances. Integrated identity is an internal sense of self for making choices and interacting in the wider world.  Competencies are abilities that enable people to effectively perform roles, complete complex tasks, or achieve specific objectives (e.g., critical thinking, responsible decision-making, ability to collaborate).[11]


Four Foundational Components

Underlying the capacity for the three key factors are four foundational components that include cognitive and noncogntive factors (e.g., mindsets).  The four foundational components are self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values.  The foundational components are developed and expressed in many spheres—within oneself, in relation to others, and in the larger world (Pellegrino and Hilton, 2012).  Each component is important because together they promote the development of other foundational components and the three key factors; they enable healthy, productive living at all stages of life; and, they directly contribute to youth success.


Developmental Experiences

Through developmental experiences youth learn knowledge, skills, values, mindsets, and the complex processes of self-regulation, and develop competencies essential to success in the 21st century.  Developmental experiences are opportunities for action and reflection and are “maximized” in the context of social interactions with others (Nagaoka, et al., 2015, p. 5).  Strong, supported, and sustained relationships with caring adults provide an important opportunity for youth to experiment with roles and identities, receive feedback, and build an integrated identity.  However, it is “imperative” for adults to understand the development stages and processes for youth because they can deliver the most effective experiences (e.g., classroom teachers delivering project-based learning units).


Implications for Practice

The Foundations for Young Adult Success is grounded in the understanding that opportunities for rich and varied developmental experiences through K-12 schooling are significantly determined by family resources, and schools cannot just expand experiences by adding programs.  These researchers believe we need to transform adult beliefs and practices inside institutions and structures that shape children’s learning and development.  Adults in school environments need to build a collective sense of responsibility for expanding opportunities and experiences for youth.  By doing so, youth have the opportunity to reach their full potential.


Relevance for SEL

The entire framework for the Foundations for Young Adult Success is highly relevant for the teaching and learning of SEL.  The most obvious topic, however, is that of competencies.  In agreement with CASEL (among others)[12], the Chicago University researchers consider competencies the abilities that enable people to successfully perform roles, complete complex tasks, or achieve specific objectives (Nagaoka et al., 2015). The Chicago researchers also support the need for schools to develop social-emotional competencies, which they associate with interpersonal skills (e.g., collaboration and positive communication, help seeking, taking initiative), among others.  “Competencies are the abilities to adapt and enact skills in an applied way while drawing on foundational components (self-regulation, knowledge, mindsets, and values) to carry out a task” (Nagaoka, et al., 2015, p. 25).  In short, competencies are important, but the set of foundational components that the competencies rely on is even more important.  SEL competencies need to be grounded in the four foundational components: self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values.


With a very broad understanding of the Foundations for Young Adult Success framework, we now turn to the CASEL framework and a more thorough review of their approach to social-emotional learning.

The CASEL Framework & Competencies

A widely used framework and set of SEL competencies is associated with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).  The wide use of the CASEL framework and competencies is often associated with the implementation of the CORE district efforts in California.[13]  In 2010 eight school districts partnered with CASEL to implement their framework (Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Santa Ana).  These districts became best known for the waiver they received from the U.S. Department of Education that freed them from some of their federal obligations under No Child Left Behind (Marsh et al., 2018). Under the terms of the waiver, six of the CORE districts developed an innovative accountability system that included measuring social-emotional learning in their multiple measures accountability system.[14] The 2015 passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act effectively ended the CORE waiver, but in early 2017 the CORE districts reorganized as a Networked Improvement Community (NIC) (Marsh et al., 2018).  It is important to understand that the CORE districts and schools elected to implement SEL in a manner that was relevant for their contexts. 


As reported by Marsh et al., (2018) in a research study of five CORE districts (10 schools), conducted in 2016-17, a significant number of schools implemented multitiered systems of support (MTSS), including a formal positive disciplinary approach (e.g., Restorative Justice, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), many schools promoted engagement, relationship building, SEL-related skills in elective courses (art, music, PE), and extracurricular activities (e.g., student clubs).  Also, all 10 schools used staffing decisions to support SEL including the use of counselors, the use of “advisory” (although there were various iterations), “listening rooms” staffed with part-time personnel, and in some cases using external partners such as therapists, or trainers on SEL.  The common thread, however, was the school culture-climate survey that was distributed annually at all CORE schools.


In addition to the California CORE districts, CASEL began the Collaborating District Initiative (CDI) in 2011 (e.g., Anchorage, Austin, Chicago, Oakland USDs), and in 2016 they partnered with American Institutes for Research (AIR) for on-going data collection and evaluation in the CDI schools.

CASEL defines SEL as[15]

…the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and main positive relationships, and make responsible decisions…… Integrated efforts are used to develop students’ social and emotional skills which is best done through (1) effective classroom instruction, (2) student engagement in positive activities in and out of the classroom, and broad parent and community involvement in program planning, implementation, and evaluation (p. 2)

As shown below in Figure 1 the CASEL framework[16] includes the three exterior rings of learning environments, looking at the closest to the student competencies and working outward, the environments include (1) the classroom and SEL curriculum and instruction, (2) schools, and schoolwide practices and policies, and (3) homes and communities, family and community partnerships.[17]  Located at the interior of the framework are the five interrelated sets of competencies, which are cognitive, affective, and behavioral.[18] The definitions of the five competency clusters are as follows: 

Self-Awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

Self-Management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

Social Awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Relationship Skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

Responsible Decision-Making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.


Figure 1 CASEL Framework



















Learning Environments

Turning to the exterior rings of learning environments, CASEL understands that middle and high schools are systems with multiple levels that influence students’ social and emotional development.  At the classroom level the quality of teacher-student interactions is one of the most important predictors of student academic performance and adjustment (Hamre and Pinata, 2007).  Interpersonal and organizational factors (e.g., leadership practices, common goals and norms, sense of collaboration, consistency of school rules, the physical safety of the school) at the school level also influence students’ academic performance and absenteeism, in part through their effect on school climate (Thapa et al., 2013).  In addition, students’ social and emotional development is influenced by the interactions they have outside of the school with family and community members.  Learning experiences can be enhanced by dynamic partnerships with community organizations, and family involvement.[19]



CASEL’s Continuum of Approaches & Effective Strategies

CASEL recognizes there is a continuum of approaches to promoting SEL, meaning schools can (1) integrate SEL in teaching practices to create a supportive learning environment, (2) integrate SEL instruction into an academic curriculum, (3) create policies and organizational structures to support students’ SEL, and (4) directly teach SEL skills using stand-alone lessons.  In short, SEL experiences can take place in classrooms through instructional activities, but, at the middle and high school levels SEL can also take place through health education, prevention efforts such as substance use or as dropout prevention (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2015).


Research conducted by and for CASEL (e.g., Durlak et al., 2010, 2011) have determined that the most effective strategies include the following four [SAFE] elements: Sequenced, Active, Focused, and Explicit.  The most effective SEL strategies are (1) sequenced and connected activities that nurture skill development, (2) active forms of learning to help master new skills, (3) contains at least one component to develop personal and social skills, and (4) targets specific social and emotional skills.  So, whether a school incorporates SEL in individual classrooms, with specific teachers collaborating, or implements schoolwide these strategies must be incorporated to achieve optimal outcomes.  These realities are examined below in a discussion of implementation challenges.



The use of high-quality SEL programs is not enough to ensure positive outcomes.  As we noted in Research Brief #1 (small/community schools), and Research Brief #2 (project-based learning), implementation with fidelity is critical to the success of a program and to achieving the desired positive outcomes.  In agreement with others (Buck Institute for Education), CASEL recognizes that initial training is important to help guide high-quality implementation.  Also, on-going supports like coaching and follow-up training are important.  There are schoolwide factors that can influence the implementation of SEL programs, too.  For instance, administrative support is needed, such as setting high expectations and allocating resources for promoting collaborative relationships.  School leaders who model the use of SEL language and practices and endorse the use of SEL practices throughout the school can create a climate that supports SEL (Marsh et al., 2018).


To these points Cervone and Cushman (2014) would add to integrate SEL schoolwide should embrace: (1) a web of support structures including a daily advisory period, small class sizes, formal systems for following student progress. (2) An intentional community including classroom rules created collaboratively by students and teachers. (3) A culture of respect, participation, and reflection including a focus on accepting differences.  (4) A commitment to restorative practices including peer mediation, peer juries, and peace circles; programs that reach out to parents.  (5) A curriculum of connection and engagement, including project-based learning, student choice, reading across the curriculum, service learning.  (6) A focus on developing student agency including encouraging students to “find their voice” in class discussions, personal writing assignments, and by helping them learn to persist in the face of challenges. 


CASEL’s School Theory of Action for Systemic SEL

Ideally, if school leadership and personnel elect to implement SEL schoolwide they can engage in the CASEL theory of action.  If readers are interested in examining the theory of action more thoroughly, please see the CASEL Guide 2013.  The following activities have been identified as those necessary for a schoolwide implementation of SEL.  (1) Establish a shared SEL vision with all stakeholders. (2) Conduct an SEL-related resource and needs assessment. (3) Develop an implementation plan. (4) Provide on-going professional development. (5) Adopt evidence-based SEL programs. (6) Integrate schoolwide policies and activities to promote social, emotional, and academic learning of all students., and (7) Use data to improve practice.

Recognizing the importance of collecting data it is necessary to consider the role of SEL standards and assessment practices.  We turn to these topics below.




Many educators know that all 50 states have stand alone preschool standards for social-emotional development, and many of these states also support SEL standards with other guidelines and resources (e.g., assessments and professional development) (Dusenbury et al., 2015). These standards include guidance on how to make instructional culturally and/or linguistically relevant.  In general, there is a great deal of variability in state standards. 


Turning to all K-12 students, as mentioned above, CASEL began the Collaborating District Initiative (CDI) in 2011, working with several districts to implement SEL, and, simultaneously helping state level personnel develop SEL Standards.  Given the interest of CASEL and the University of Chicago in SEL, it is probably not surprising to learn that Illinois was the first state to adopt comprehensive SEL standards with developmental benchmarks in 2004.  These efforts were followed by Kansas and Pennsylvania, both adopting standards in 2012 ((Dusenbury, Weissberg, Goren, Domitrovich, 2014).  The CASEL researchers found that incorporating SEL standards into others, like the Common Core State Standards, created a lack of comprehensiveness, and a diminished sense of priority.  As a result, CASEL recommends that states develop stand alone SEL standards with benchmarks.  Please see Dusenbury et al. (2015) for a comprehensive review of state SEL standards.[20]


Why Standards

In the past two decades, learning standards have become the driving and organizing force in education, and are the cornerstone of the current educational reform movement (Finn, Julian, & Petrilli, 2006).  Because academic learning depends on SEL, it is important for SEL be a part of learning standards.  Standards guide curriculum development and instruction by articulating specific goals and benchmarks for student learning within subject areas, grade by grade (Dusenbury et al., 2015). They create uniformity and coherence in education by establishing and communicating priorities, and providing a common language and structure for instructions. When standards are taken seriously, they become the plan or blueprint for instruction, shaping and influencing what happens in the classroom. Standards tend to be taken more seriously when they are connected to assessment. In turn, this is likely to create demand and opportunities for high-quality professional development.


Standards provide benchmarks for the five core competencies – if, indeed, a state uses the CASEL competencies.  Otherwise, state level personnel need to identify competencies and benchmarks that are relevant for their district and schools. SEL standards can reflect standards from other subjects (e.g., Common Core, National Health, American School Counselor Association, National Standards for Students).  The SEL standards can provide direction for teachers and administrators on how to support instructional practices, how to create a positive school climate and learning environments, how to deliver instruction that is culturally and linguistically appropriate.  In addition, there are tools to support implementation and provide professional development, particularly important for the selection and use of SEL assessments.


SEL Assessments

Assessment is critical for measuring progress toward educational goals. Ideally, in conjunction with SEL standards, states need to recommend reliable and valid methods of assessments that teachers can easily use to monitor student progress toward achieving standards.  In addition, district and school personnel need to understand the difference between formative and summative assessments, which are different ways to use assessments.  Formative assessment is typically thought of as measuring for learning.  These tools are used more frequently and to provide data to help guide instruction.  Summative assessment is often thought of as the measuring of learning, in part, because these tools are typically used annually to determine what learning has already occurred (e.g., has a learning standard been met?). How can educators select the right assessment?


How to Select an Assessment?

There are resources available to help in these efforts. Denham, Ji, and Hamre (2010) developed a compendium of assessment tools available to measure SEL.[21]  Another important resource is the Raikes Foundation Social–Emotional Learning Assessment Measures for Middle School Youth.[22]  More recently (Taylor et al., 2018), CASEL and the Rand Corporation established the Assessment Work Group (AWG) and together these organizations developed resources to support the selection of assessments appropriate for measuring SEL.  The CASEL, AWG Assessment Guide offers guidance to educators on how to select and use assessments of students’ SEL competencies, specifically interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge, skills, attitudes, and mindsets.[23]  The Rand Assessment Finder lists more than 200 assessments of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and higher-order cognitive competencies.[24] The Assessment Finder enables practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to explore what assessments are available and obtain key information about what they are designed to measure, how they operate, what demands they place on students and teachers, and what kinds of uses their scores support.


Additional Considerations

Given the fact that SEL competency assessment is an “emerging” area, all of the various researchers highlight several considerations that educators should address before selecting and using an SEL assessment (Taylor et al., 2018).  Perhaps most importantly, is not to use SEL assessments as a diagnostic tool.  These instruments are not appropriate for screening for behavioral or emotional problems (i.e., deficits).  Rather, a “strength-based approach” is recommended, where the focus is on students’ strengths and assets to promote positive development and prevent problems from emerging (Duckworth and Yeager, 2015).  In addition, SEL competency measures are not appropriate for high-stakes accountability systems.  When there is any chance that scores can be manipulated in any way (e.g., self-reported scores or survey questionnaire responses), or, if the instrument is not valid and reliable, then it should not be used.


Recalling the introduction to this Brief, with the changing demographics in public schools, issues of equity are also important.  Educators want to use instruments that do not simply reflect the values of the dominant culture.  We want to use tools that capture the strengths and perspective of students from all cultures.  It’s also important to understand that competency develops over time, from novice to expert.  Developmentally appropriate assessment tools are those that measure how competencies develop over time, and offer implementation supports to help educators understand learning progressions and align assessments tools to these sequences.

Once assessment tools have been selected, what are the range of expected outcomes and data that can be used to drive decision making.  We turn to this final topic.




Beyond selecting an appropriate SEL assessment instrument, there are a variety of methods for collecting outcome data on SEL competencies.  These methods include the following:

·      Self-report survey questionnaires and rating scales typically require students to rate their own abilities on a rating scale (e.g., feeling empathy)—an outcome not easily assessed with other methods.

·      Interview protocols require an interviewer to ask questions or to make statements that prompt interviewees to discuss or explore a prescribed set of topics or issues (i.e., perceptions of a learning environment or relationship).

·      Observation Protocols and Rating Scales. An external observer, such as a teacher, parent, or clinician, can evaluate student behaviors using a rating scale or a structured observation protocol.

·      Performance-based assessments provide structured opportunities for students to engage in complex, real-world or simulated tasks that can be used as direct measures of students’ SEL skills (e.g., project-based learning).

Whether one or all of these methods are used, the most important principle is that the data be used for the benefit of all stakeholders.


Using Data

It cannot be over stated how important it is for teachers, administrators, and all stakeholders interested in youth’s success to use the data they collect (Marsh, et al., 2018).  For instance, formative assessment data can be used to promote students’ competencies by promoting effective SEL classroom instruction.  These data can be used to nurture equitable learning environments by revealing disparities—which is exactly what Marsh et al. (2018) found in their study of CORE districts.  Summative data should be aligned, the SEL competencies and state standards need to be complimentary.  In addition, all assessment instruments should be able to detect change over time.


Once assessments have been selected, what kinds of outcome data are available to show effectiveness?  This final topic is addressed below.


SEL Effectiveness:  Outcome Data

As stated in the beginning of this Brief, it is beyond the scope of this document to present an exhaustive review of any topic or subtopic, including the data on effectiveness.  We encourage the reader to examine the various meta-analyses (Durlak et al., 2010, 2011), and recent research investigations (e.g., Marsh et al., 2018; Phase 3 (forthcoming) of the University of Chicago, Foundations for Young Adult Success, Nagaoko et al., 2015).  At the same time, it is exciting to consider some recent findings. 


CASEL’s 2015 Guide – SEL Programs for Middle and High School

Whether a district, school, or group of teachers has decided to implement SEL CASEL has made an extensive effort to help stakeholders identify relevant and high-quality programs.  Their 2013 Guide was devoted to Pre-K and Elementary Schools, and the 2015 Guide is devoted to Middle and High School.  In their Guides CASEL followed the same guidelines as the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to determine which programs to include.  Programs were rated and selected on the basis of the evidence of effectiveness, which had to meet the strict WWC standards for effectiveness (e.g., “the gold standard” of randomized control trials).  Based on their selection criteria CASEL categorized programs as SELect, Complementary, or Promising (Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2015).[25] 


In the CASEL 2015 Guide not only are there brief reviews of 80 programs (out of 380 that submitted an application for review), but they also provide brief descriptions of  “SEL-Related Approaches” including the following: (1) College and Career Readiness approaches, (2) Mindfulness approaches (e.g., meditation), (3) Student-Center Practices (e.g., teaching that promotes deeper learning), (4) Career Academies (e.g., career themed, often school-within-a-school), (5) Early Warning Systems (to prevent drug use, violence, bullying, dropout interventions), and (6) Technology (online learning).


The actual assessment of SEL is and continues to be a very nascent endeavor, with some outstanding resources to consider. Below are three examples from CASEL’s 2015 Guide for Middle and High School Programs.  These examples all met the “gold standard” for selection, meaning they received the highest rating on effectiveness.  These include: (1) Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education, (2) the Buck Institute for Education, Project-based Learning, and (3) Second Step: Student Success Through Prevention for Middle School.


1.     Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education

Expeditionary Learning (EL) is a growing provider of curriculum and professional development services to teachers and school leaders. The EL model combines an interdisciplinary instructional approach with ongoing training and coaching for teachers and school leaders. The EL curriculum uses an experiential approach in which students conduct research projects to share with outside audiences. Learning expeditions—case-studies of academic topics—often bring together teachers from different subjects to coordinate shared projects; this curriculum includes several elements that are closely aligned with the Common Core standards for English-language arts and literacy.  The program uses an advisory structure referred to as “crew meetings,” and  

the major goal of EL Education is that every student will be known and cared for. 


            Effectiveness.  CASEL reported that a 2013 quasi-experimental evaluation supported the effectiveness of EL Education.  The researchers (Nichols-Barrer and Haimson, 2013) had a sample of 3,016 youth in grades 6-8 (African-American 21%, Hispanic, 52%, 71% free and reduced lunch).  The impact analysis indicated that the five EL middle schools had a positive and statistically significant impact on student achievement in reading and math.  The magnitude of these impact estimates suggests that these EL schools are substantially increasing student achievement (Nichols-Barrer and Haimson, 2013, p. ix).


2.     The Buck Institute for Education (BIE), Project-based Learning (PBL)

The BIE model of project-based learning uses teaching practices to promote students’ social and emotional learning.[26]  This instructional approach is designed to help teachers make learning highly engaging and developmentally appropriate for secondary students.  It trains teachers how to design projects that engage students in collaborative learning within all single and multi-subject areas.  Students get experience in goal setting, problem-solving, and self-management.  At the core, students are engaged in a process of inquiry focused on an authentic problem.  Teachers are trained to used PBL, and to work with parents to support the student’s work outside of the school. 


Effectiveness. In a randomized control trial Finkelstein et al., (2010) investigated the use of a problem-based economics curriculum.  Since 1995, the Buck Institute has partnered with university economists and expert teachers to create the Problem Based Economics curriculum. The curriculum was developed to respond to National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) standards, and it is supported by professional development for teachers. This study examined whether the Problem Based Economics curriculum developed by BIE improved grade 12 students’ content knowledge as measured by the Test of Economic Literacy. Students’ problem-solving skills in economics were also examined using a performance task assessment. In addition to the primary focus on student achievement outcomes, the study examined changes in teachers’ content knowledge in economics and their pedagogical practices, as well as their satisfaction with the curriculum.


The researchers evaluated the professional development and curriculum content on a sample of 3,752 grade 12 students (40% Hispanic and 40% Caucasian).  The researchers found that students who received the program/ “treatment” outscored their control group peers on a test of economic literacy and on a problem-solving assessment task (17 weeks after baseline), compared to students from the control group.  Statistically significant differences in favor of the treatment teachers were also reported on a measure of satisfaction with the teaching materials and methods (Finkelstein et al., 2010, p. xi)


3.     Second Step: Student Success Through Prevention for Middle School

The Second Step Program is a skills promotion program for students in PK-8th grade.  The middle school version uses free-standing lessons to promote students’ social and emotional learning.  The program uses a variety of interactive strategies that include direct instruction, video modeling, partner and group discussion, behavioral skill practice, and interactive homework assignment.  Every lesson includes videos that are visually appealing to youth and support program delivery.  Students learn how to work together in groups to practice empathy, communication, and problem solving.  Grade 6 has 15 lessons, grade 7 has 13 lessons, and grade 8 has 13 lessons.  Each module lasts between 30 to 60 minutes and is accompanied by written materials.  Highly structured and directive training is provided, along with online resources.


Effectiveness.  In a randomized control trial Espelage, Low, Polanin, and Brown (2013) studied a cohort of sixth graders using a longitudinal approach. Teachers implemented 15 weekly lessons of the sixth-grade curriculum that focused on social emotional learning skills, including empathy, communication, bully prevention, and problem-solving skills. All sixth graders (n = 3,616) in treatment and control conditions completed self-report measures assessing verbal/relational bullying, physical aggression, homophobic name calling, and sexual violence victimization and perpetration before and after the implementation of the sixth-grade curriculum. The researchers conducted multilevel analyses that revealed significant treatment effects with regard to physical aggression. The treatment effect was substantial; individuals in treatment schools were 42% less likely to self-report physical aggression than students in control schools. The researchers found no significant treatment effects for verbal/relational bully perpetration, peer victimization, homophobic teasing, and sexual violence. Within a 1-year period (i.e., the longitudinal design), the researchers noted significant reductions in self-reported physical aggression in the treatment schools. Their results suggested that Second Step holds promise as a valuable prevention program to reduce physical aggression in adolescent youth.



Blyth, D., Jones, S., & Borowski, T. (2018).  SEL Frameworks—What are they and why are they important.  The Assessment Work Group.


California Department of Education. (2016).  Preparing all students for college, career, life, and leadership in the 21st century.  Superintendents Advisory Task Force on Accountability and Continuous Improvement.  Sacramento, CA.


Cervone, B., & Cushman, K. (2014).  Learning by Heart.  The power of social-emotional learning in secondary schools.  What Kids Can Do.  Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity in Education.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2015).  CASEL Guide Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs.  Middle and High School Edition.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2013).  CASEL Guide Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs.  Preschool and Elementary School Edition.


Denham, S., Ji, P., & Hamre, B. (2010). Compendium of preschool through elementary school social-emotional learning and associated measures.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, Social and Emotional Learning Research Group, and CASEL.


Duckworth, A. L., & Yeager, D. S. (2015). Measurement matters: Assessing personal qualities other than cognitive ability for educational purposes. Educational Researcher, 44(4), 237-251.


Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., & Pachan, M. (2010).  A meta-analyusis of after-school programs tht seek to promote personal and social skills in children and adolescents.  American journal of Community Psychology, 45, 294-309.


Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicky, A., Taylor, R., & Schellinger, K. (2011).  The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions.  Child Development, 82, 405-432.


Dusenbury, L.,Weissberg, R., Goren, P. & Domitrovich, C. (2014). State Standards to Advance Social and Emotional Learning Findings from CASEL’s State Scan of Social and Emotional Learning Standards, Preschool through High School.  Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.


Dusenbury, L., Newman, J., Weissberg, R. P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C., & Mart, A. (2015). Developing a blueprint for education in social and emotional learning, preschool through high school: The case for state learning standards. In J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook on social and emotional learning: Research and practice. New York: Guilford.


Espelage, D., Low, S., Polanin, J. & Brown, E. (2013).  The impact of a middle school program to reduce aggression, victimization, and sexual violence.  The Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(2), 180-186.


Farrington, C., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T., Johnson, D., & Beechum, N. (2012).  Teaching adolescents to become learners – The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review.  Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.


Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C.-W., Hirschman, B., and Huang, M. (2010). Effects of Problem Based Economics on high school economics instruction. (NCEE 2010-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.


Finn, C. E., Jr., Julian, L., & Petrilli, M. J. (2006). The state of state standards 2006. Washington, DC: Thomas Fordham Institute. publications/soss2006.html.


Goleman, D. (1994).  Emotional Intelligence.  New York, NY: Bantam Press.


Hamre, B., & Pianta, R. (2007).  Learning opportunities in preschool and early elementary school.  In R. Pianta, M. cox, & K. Snow (Eds.), School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability (pp. 49-84). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.


Hussar, W., and Bailey, T., (2014).  Projections of education statistics to 2022: Forty-first Edition.  Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.


Jones, S., & Kahn, J. (2017).  The evidence base for how we learn.  Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.  Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute.


Marsh, J., McKibben, S., Hough, H., Hall, M., Allbright, T., Matewos, A., & Siqueira, C. (2018).  Enacting social-emotional learning: Practices and supports employed in CORE districts and schools.  Stanford, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).


Maurer, M., & Brackett, M. (2004).  Emotional literacy in the middle school.  Port Chester, NY: Dude Publishing.


Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C., Ehrlich, St., & Heath, R. (2015).  Foundations for Young Adult Success.  A Developmental Framework. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.


National Research council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century.  Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, J. Pellegrino and M. Hilton (Eds.).  Board on Testing and Assessment and Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral Social Sciences and Education.  Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press.


Nichols-Barrer, I. & Haimson, J. (2013). Impacts of Five Expeditionary Learning Middle Schools on Academic Achievement.  Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research. file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/EL_middle_schools.pdf


Pellegrino, J., & Hilton, M. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st Century.  Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.


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Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S., Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2013).  A review of school climate research.  Review of Educational Research, 83(3), 357-385.


The Aspen Institute Education & Society Program (2018).  Pursuing social and emotional development through a racial equity lens: A call to action.  Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute.


Tough, P. (2013).  How children succeed.  New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.





[4] In 2010 eight school districts partnered with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to implement their framework (Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Santa Ana). 




[8] ibid


[10] Please see their website and the extensive number of reports, briefs, white papers, etc. that have been published in support of this framework.

[11] Please note, these competencies are also included in the CASEL framework, and discussed later in this Brief.

[12] Four Keys for College and Career Success, 4Cs.


[14] Garden Grove and Sacramento elected not to implement the SEL accountability system.  


[16] Ibid, p. 3

[17] The Chicago Youth Adult Success framework would also agree on the importance of these learning environments, it is the level of emphasis or focus that may fluctuate in any given SEL program.

[18] In the CASEL Guide 2015 there is an acknowledgement (p. 3-4) that these competencies reflect the three domains that the National Research Council (2012) identified in their report on deeper learning (i.e., critical 21st century learning competencies needed for success in college and career).  The domains include: cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal knowledge and skills.  Also, see our Research Brief #2, Project Based Learning, for more information on the NRC domains.

[19] All of these learning environment characteristics (positive teacher-student interactions, positive school climate, and partnerships with families and the community) are also discussed in Research Brief #1, Small/Community Schools, and Research Brief #2, Project Based Learning.






[25] Please see the 2015 Guide for a complete description of their selection methodology (pp. 11-15).


[26] The BIE project-based learning model is discussed more thoroughly in our Research Brief #2.