A Renewed Commitment to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning

By Dr. Cheryl A. Luton

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Events in and out of the classroom over the last couple of years have served as both valuable and costly learning experiences for everyone involved—teachers and administrators, and students and their families. Research indicates that students at each elementary school grade level have lost academic ground and that progress has been stymied in social-emotional learning domains (Curriculum Associates, 2020). One bright spot is that many children have been able to return to their classrooms. Students are also beginning to make up for some of the educational losses that were sustained during the pandemic when just about everyone in education—students and teachers alike—was suddenly relegated to the Land of Zoom. 

For more than 40 years, Center for Responsive Schools (CRS) has been a leading advocate for promoting social and emotional learning (SEL) as critical for the holistic development of our K–8 children. Part of CRS’s mission has been to develop research- and evidence-based resources that facilitate gains in the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s core competencies of relationship skills, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, ­social awareness, and self-management (CASEL, n.d.). Today there are hundreds of available resources to help teachers embed SEL in their classrooms. 

Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (2015), the development and use of evidence- and research-based curricula and related resources have risen to a level of salience that did not exist prior to this legislation. However, it does not mean that every available curriculum component, innovative app, or video game should be adopted and implemented because their marketing blurbs reference SEL. 

The number of elementary schools that have integrated SEL into their curriculum is surprisingly low. Although all 50 states have pre-K SEL competencies, only 29 of them have adopted K–12 SEL competencies (CASEL, n.d.; Positive Action, 2020). In addition, the American Teacher Panel found that half of teachers surveyed were not aware if their states or districts had adopted SEL competencies (Hamilton & Doss, 2020). Part of the rationale for the low incidence of integration is that there is not enough research to justify the cost of buying the materials and software and for providing professional development and training opportunities for teachers. Another significant factor is the cost of the materials, even if their levels of effectiveness could be justified through the support of ­evidence-based research. 

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to objective research, published an extensive report that addresses the requirement that schools adopt only curriculum materials that are thoroughly researched and evidence based: Social and Emotional Learning Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review (Grant et al., 2017a). The goal of the RAND report was to better inform the implementation of evidence-based instructional interventions across the domains of social-emotional learning and to help local education agencies (LEAs) and state education agencies (SEAs) leverage funding that has been made available through ESSA (Grant et al., 2017a). 

The authors of the RAND report evaluated K–12 public schools across the United States. The report identified 60 SEL interventions that meet the evidence-based requirements of ESSA and that can be implemented to augment SEL skills across the curriculum through the use of ESSA funding streams. ESSA identifies qualified interventions according to three tiers of rigor, related to an intervention’s effectiveness that is dem­on­­strated through evidence from empirical research:  

Tier I indicates that there is a “strong” level of evidence from at least one experimental study. Studies of this nature included large samples from multiple sites and addressed topics such as students’ on-task behavior and reinforcement of appropriate behaviors. 

Tier II applies to a “moderate” level of evidence from at least one study that is quasi-​experimental in design. These studies also included large samples from multiple sites and addressed topics such as intrapersonal communication and civic attitudes. 

Tier III designates interventions where some “promising” evidence (e.g., positive correlations) exists for the program’s effectiveness in influencing gains. An example of a Tier III study included a large sample from a single site and addressed topics in interpersonal communication. 

In the RAND study a significant number of SEL intervention evaluations were conducted in school districts with student samples from low-income families and racial and ethnic minority groups (see the table). Key findings are summarized as follows: 

ESSA supports SEL through several different funding streams.

Evaluators identified 60 SEL interventions that meet ESSA’s evidence requirement. 

Educators in elementary schools and urban communities have the greatest number of ­options for SEL interventions that meet ESSA evidence requirements. 

Interpersonal competencies are the most common outcomes with positive results in studies of evidence-based interventions. (Grant et al., 2017a, p. 12)

In a separate publication, Intervention Summaries, Grant et al. (2017b) distill the findings of the original report, including evaluations of all 60 interventions that were identified as meeting ESSA evidence requirements. This document can be a tremendously helpful tool in selecting an effective SEL intervention, securing a funding stream for the purchase of materials and technology for students, and providing professional development and related training activities for teachers and administrators. 

With the RAND report’s analysis of programs that meet ESSA evidence requirements, representatives of LEAs and SEAs might be encouraged to secure funding from ESSA to implement interventions that have been shown to produce positive SEL outcomes. With the losses that have been sustained by students across all academic domains during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can perhaps take a fresh look at the programs that not only contribute to our students’ academic success but that can also put their success in life on a more certain trajectory by reinforcing social and emotional skills—the vital life competencies that have sustained the most damaging attacks.

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Dr. Cheryl A. Luton

Dr. Cheryl A. Luton is the coordinator of Elizabeth City State University’s master of education program. Cheryl has more than 15 years of experience in educator preparation. Previously, she worked for 15 years in public elementary schools. Her special research interests involve integrating music and arts in STEM curricula and preparing teacher candidates, especially those who consider themselves to be nonartists, to implement music and arts across the elementary school curriculum.

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