Social-Emotional Learning Interventions: Familiarity and Use Among Elementary School Principals

By Brad R. Ervin, Lynn O’Connell, Amy L. Button-Ervin

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Only 40% of kindergartners enter school demonstrating the social-emotional skills required to be successful, indicating a need for SEL instruction. This study assessed 172 public elementary school principals’ participation in SEL decision-making and the selection procedures and decision-­making methods used. This study also reviewed their level of familiarity and their past and current use of CASEL programs.

Most participants were engaged in SEL program decision-making and learned about programs in various ways. Participants had little familiarity with CASEL programs as well as minimal exposure in using these programs currently or in the past, suggesting a need for increased professional development.

Keywords: social-emotional learning, CASEL programs, elementary school, principals, decision-­making, empirical paper.


With mental health diagnoses and suicide rates increasing among youth, there is a strong need for immediate social and emotional interventions. The primary focus of school is on academics, but with only 40% of kindergarten students manifesting the social-emotional skills needed for success (Yates et al., 2008), there is increasing pressure for schools to assist students with mastering social and emotional competencies and learning how to manage social and emotional demands in daily life (Elias et al., 1997; Greenberg et al., 2003). 

Given the unlimited frequency of social interactions children are exposed to in school settings, it is unsurprising that schools are critical locations for actively engaging students in SEL instruction and development. Serving as an important resource at the national level, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was created for the dissemination of tools for effectively teaching SEL competencies to students in schools. For example, CASEL identifies programs—referred to as SELect Programsthat are designed to teach students the social-emotional skills necessary to be well-rounded individuals and help evaluate them using rigorous inclusion criteria (i.e., programs should be well ­designed and classroom based, provide implementation support, and be evidence based [CASEL, 2012]). These programs have shown significant positive correlations between SEL competencies and various social, emotional, and academic outcomes (Durlak et al., 2011). 

Despite CASEL’s research dissemination efforts, schools continue to have difficulty implementing SEL programs. One reason may be the resources required for implementation. Programs often require financial commitment as well as time for training and implementation. In addition, implementer perception of little support, self-efficacy, and burnout has also been shown to impact implementation fidelity (Ransford et al., 2009). 

Among their duties, principals are responsible for  implementing, monitoring, and analyzing standards and programs (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022), including SEL programs. Previous research has indicated that principals generally hold positive views of SEL programs and are committed to improving student outcomes through SEL programming, serving as key stakeholders in the process (DePaoli et al., 2017). However, research has not yet identified the extent of principals’ familiarity with specific SEL competencies, practices, and resources available to implement SEL programs within schools. Consequently, the present study asked the following research questions:

  1. To what extent do elementary principals participate in schoolwide SEL decision-making practices?
  2. What are the levels of familiarity, past use, and current use among elementary principals regarding CASEL-approved programs?
  3. What selection procedures do elementary principals use to learn about SEL programs and interventions, and what decision-making practices are most important when choosing SEL programs and interventions?
  4. Are there differences in the characteristics of principals related to their familiarity, past use, or current use of CASEL-approved SEL programs?



Because SEL skills need to be addressed early in childhood and all of the CASEL-approved programs are designed for elementary grade levels, this study focused on viewpoints of elementary principals. The final sample of 172 principals included participants from all 10 regions of New York State. The geographic densities of the schools within these regions included similar percentages of urban (37%), suburban (34%), and rural (29%) settings. When evaluating the individual participants’ demographic characteristics, 71% identified as female, 28% as male, and 1% preferred not to say. With regard to race and ethnicity, the sample was primarily white (78%), followed by Black or African American (13%) and Hispanic (13%). Both Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander categories were identified by less than 1% of the sample. Half of the participants’ highest academic degree was at the master’s level, while 27.3% had a specialist degree and 22.1% had a doctoral degree. About 8% of the sample had a graduate degree in a mental health field.


The current study utilized a modified version of the Social/Emotional/Behavioral Intervention Survey
(McKevitt, 2012). The revised survey had four sections: (1) demographics; (2) learning about and selecting evidence-based interventions; (3) famili­arity and use of existing evidence-based, CASEL-approved interventions; and (4) decision-making about selecting SEL interventions.


After revision of McKevitt’s (2012) survey, the ele­mentary principals were contacted via email requesting their participation. Upon proceeding to the provided hyperlink, consent to voluntarily participate was provided to the principals prior to completion of the survey. Participants were then provided with a debriefing statement and given the option to participate in a drawing for one of two $50 gift cards. Reminder emails were sent to all eligible participants two and four weeks following the original email distribution.

Only 40% of kindergartners enter school demonstrating the social-emotional skills required to be successful, indicating a need for SEL instruction.


Principals’ Participation in SEL Decision-Making

Overall, most principals reported participating in SEL decision-making practices. A vast majority of the respondents (90%) indicated that they participate in at least 70% of the decision-making practices and 64% of respondents reported they are always involved. Only one principal reported never participating, while 14 principals (8%) reported participating in 50% or fewer of the SEL decision-making processes in their buildings.

Principals’ Familiarity, Past Use, and Current Use of CASEL Programs

Overall, principals’ familiarity is rela­tively low. A majority (96%) of the mean familiarity scores for the individual programs indicated that on average the respondents were no more than somewhat familiar with CASEL programs (see Tables 1 and 2). At least 75% of the respon­dents indicated that they were not familiar with 15 of the 23 CASEL-approved programs, and 17 of the programs had 10 or fewer respondents indicating they were very familiar. Principals were most familiar with the Responsive Classroom (48% very familiar) and Second Step (40% very familiar) programs. 

Descriptive data indicated that the participants have used very few CASEL-approved programs in the past. In fact, 93% of the principals reported previously using five or fewer of these programs. When respondents did report past use, the same two programs that respondents identified being most familiar with were highlighted again: 55% of respondents reported previous use of Responsive Classroom while Second Step was previously used by 40% of respondents. About 91% of respondents indicated that they are using three or fewer CASEL-approved programs currently, 36% indicated current use of zero programs, and 64% reported current use of at least one program. Although this could be viewed as promising, use of various programs is limited: 74% of the programs are being used by 10 or fewer ele­mentary schools. Only two programs (Responsive Classroom and Second Step) had mean current use scores higher than .10 on a scale from 0 (not using) to 1 (currently using) and were each implemented by 34% of the respondents.

Selection Procedures for Learning About SEL Programs

Use of 10 learning strategies/resources was investigated, and the study found that principals used various methods to learn about new programs rather than resorting to just one approach (see Table 3). Mean scores for each of the 10 methods fell below 2 (on a scale of 0–3), indicating that on average principals rarely noted any method as being used every time they needed to learn about an SEL program. 

When specifically assessing individual strategies, the most frequently used methods for learning about programs were relying on past experience (54.1% often or always) and relying on colleagues or supervisors (54.4% often or always). Personal review of original publication materials for programs was reported as occurring often or always among 43% of the participants. Analysis of this data suggests that principals are most likely to consider their own or others’ perceptions of programs, which is often based on past use.  

With regard to the frequencies for use of various professional organizations as resources for SEL, the New York State Education Department was most used (64%), followed by the New York State PBIS Technical Assistance Center (39%) and Intervention Central (34.3%). CASEL was used by only 20.3% of participants, which may relate to low familiarity, as well as participants’ past and current use of the 23 CASEL SELect programs.

Importance of Decision-Making Characteristics for Choosing Programs

Findings indicate that each of the five characteristics provided—a colleague’s past success, overall cost, training required, implementation time, and research support—were indicated as at least somewhat important to principals (see Table 4). Few participants indicated “not important” for any of the characteristics. When comparing characteristics, over 80% of participants indicated that research support is very important when selecting an SEL intervention program. This was followed by 65% who indicated time required for implementation was very important and 62% of participants who indicated “very important” for the amount of training required.

Relationship Between Demographics and Familiarity and Use of CASEL programs

Three multiple regression analyses were conducted to assess the impact of principals’ demographics on familiarity and use of CASEL programs. The models for the relationships between demographic characteristics and familiarity (F (4, 154) = 1.707, p = .151) as well as past use (F (4, 149) = 1.513, p = .201) of CASEL programs were not significant. The model for the relationship between demographic characteristics and current use of CASEL programs, though, was statistically significant (F (4, 151) = 2.484, p < .05). Within all three models, geographic density, highest academic degree, and number of years as principal did not significantly relate to familiarity or use scores. However, the presence of a mental health degree corresponded significantly with familiarity and use of CASEL programs: Participants who held mental health–related degrees had a higher familiarity with CASEL programs, as well as more experience of past use and current use of CASEL programs, than those participants who did not have a mental health–related degree.


Researchers have indicated that there is substantial pressure for schools to address SEL competencies by delivering SEL programs (Elias et al., 1997; Greenberg et al., 2003). CASEL (2012) has identified 23 SEL programs, and Durlak and colleagues (2011) showed that there are several positive outcomes when using such programs. The present findings indicate that most principals were regularly involved in the SEL decision-making practices within their schools, which is consistent with other research findings (e.g., DePaoli et al., 2017). It is reassuring that principals are involved in the process because when they are it can yield better resource allocation and subsequent program implementation. With that said, though, the low level of recognition and use of CASEL programs is concerning. Qualitatively, when asked what if anything they had learned by participating in the study, several participants indicated that they had not realized how many SEL programs were available. Others noted that they had never heard of CASEL. Thus, the lack of familiarity and use of these programs could be attributed to lack of exposure. Perhaps identifying ways in which school personnel—particularly principals and school psychologists—can increase their knowledge of research-supported programs would in turn enhance the implementation of SEL programs. 

Two programs—Responsive Classroom and Second Step—stood out as being more highly recognized and used by the participants. In considering the familiarity and use of Responsive Classroom in particular, there are factors that may especially appeal to principals, beyond financial benefits (Belfield et al., 2015) and previous endorsements (e.g., New York State Education Department, 2018; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2018). Specifically, many of the 10 essential teaching practices (e.g., Morning Meeting, logical consequences, collaborative problem-solving, positive language) identified by Responsive Classroom correspond to what many teachers already use (CASEL, 2012). Principals may prefer programs that correspond with known teaching practices to increase buy-in, intervention confidence, and ultimately the effectiveness of the implementation (Winter, 2006). 

Most of the surveyed principals rely on colleagues or past experience when learning about SEL programs, indicating that they generally utilize anecdotal evidence rather than empirical data. The primary implication of these findings is that principals seem to require support for selecting and implementing school-wide SEL programs. With regard to selection, marketing strategies would best be received if disseminated and made available through multiple modalities. In addition, the assessment of strategy use among other members of SEL decision-making teams (such as teachers) could provide more insight regarding where resources could be allocated for marketing and professional development.  

The dissemination of SEL program resources to all school personnel appears warranted. In this study, many of the principals relied on their colleagues, and in order to ensure that all participating colleagues are knowledgeable of research-supported programs, they must also have familiarity. 

An additional recommendation is to utilize the findings of this study as a baseline measure for a longitudinal study. As advancements in the field of SEL occur (including the development of new mandates), it is suspected that the familiarity with and use of CASEL programs will improve. Thus, an exploration of potential growth in knowledge of CASEL programs would be useful.


The results indicate that the surveyed elementary principals have a limited awareness of the 23 CASEL programs. Past and current use of most of these programs is also limited. In connection with mental health literacy, results implied that principals with mental health–related degrees had higher levels of familiarity with and use of CASEL-approved programs. Further assessment of this population of principals is warranted to fully investigate what contributed to their higher familiarity with and use of CASEL programs. In addition, it would be interesting to explore whether principals with mental health degrees had more traits in common with their mental health professional colleagues (e.g., school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers) than with their teacher or administrator colleagues. 

This study suggests that training programs for ­future principals should incorporate discussion of the importance of SEL programs in schools. For those administrators currently in the role of principal, varied methods of dissemination of information about CASEL-approved programs is warranted. Continued professional development on the most effective and efficient ways to carry out these responsibilities is also suggested with the goal of early identification and intervention for students with SEL deficits. 

In summary, the next steps for research and development of principals’ familiarity with and use of CASEL-approved programs should include: (1) increased dissemination of information regarding SEL programs in various modalities, (2) additional training opportunities regarding programs, and (3) the development of specific SEL standards at the state and possibly school district level.

See articles references here.

Brad R. Ervin

Brad R. Ervin has a PsyD in school psychology and is a school psychologist in the Bath-Haverling Central School District in Bath, New York.

Lynn O’Connell

Lynn O’Connell has a PsyD in school psychology and is a professor of psychology within the Division of Counseling and School Psychology at Alfred University, Alfred, New York.

Amy L. Button-Ervin

Amy L. Button-Ervin has a PsyD in psychology and is an associate professor of psychology at Alfred University, Alfred, New York.