As Safety Threats Rise in Schools, Could SEL Programs Help?

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

As Safety Threats Rise in Schools, Could SEL Programs Help?

Students are feeling less safe in school. New research shows how SEL can support.

By Christina Cipriano, Michael McCarthy and Miranda Wood     Mar 9, 2023

As Safety Threats Rise in Schools, Could SEL Programs Help?

Schools are becoming increasingly unsafe for our nation’s students — physically, socially and emotionally. American youth are in crisis.

According to one method of defining and tracking gun violence, compiled by The Washington Post, nearly 340,000 students have directly experienced gun violence at school since 1999, with 366 school shootings since then and no sign of this exposure slowing down. There were 46 school shootings in 2022. Less than three months into 2023, there have been seven.

In addition to physical violence, the identities of traditionally marginalized youth have been threatened by recent political discourse. The LGBTQ community is under attack with more than 300 pieces of legislation targeting this population across the country, some directed at schools, where all students should feel safe and accepted. There has also been an outlash of criticism on curriculum, coursework and materials, with efforts to restrict what educators teach, that has put racial, cultural and historical identities under attack.

America’s young people are feeling the weight of it all. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report providing data and 10-year trends on behaviors and experiences related to the health and well-being of U.S. high school students. The report included data on school connectedness, which the CDC defines as “the feeling among adolescents that people at their school care about them, their well-being, and success.” The report revealed that school connectedness was low among racial and ethnic minorities, LGBQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, Other Non-Heterosexual Identity) and female students. It also shared high numbers of some populations attempting or having a plan to commit suicide; numbers which all have been constant or steadily rising over the last decade.

These trends are extremely troublesome given the social and emotional vulnerability of marginalized populations — and families are concerned. A recent Pew Research poll of parental concerns found that among eight issues, including kidnapping, being attacked and unplanned pregnancy, about three-quarters of parents with school-aged children were “extremely” or “somewhat” worried that their children may struggle with anxiety or depression and bullying at school. These ongoing threats to the social and emotional well-being of marginalized students require urgent, direct support.

Universal school-based social and emotional learning (USB SEL) programs teach a range of skills and strategies that underscore how students develop self-awareness, form healthy relationships, set goals, make decisions and consider different perspectives. In K-12 settings, USB SEL programs have demonstrated success in improving the social and emotional states of our youth, while also boosting school climate and safety. The success of USB SEL programs has not gone unnoticed among families. Most parents support SEL, want SEL programming in their children’s schools and believe SEL is an important tool for their children’s future.

Although the evidence available for USB SEL programs is abundant, a fully comprehensive contemporary update of the field was long overdue. We — a group of researchers at universities in the Northeast — came together three years ago to address this gap and support the field of SEL in understanding its impact. Alongside colleagues from universities across the country, our team systematically analyzed over 400 studies from the last 13 years, representing the experiences of over half a million K-12 students from more than 50 countries. We looked at the impact of more than 250 distinct USB SEL programs on 12 student domains, as well as intervention quality, content, skills and SEL implementation. We recently published a review of our findings. As a result, the field now knows more than ever before about SEL, on a massive scale.

So, what do half a million students tell us about the promise of SEL to support the increasing threats facing our nation’s youth?

SEL Programs Support Students to Feel Safe at School

Above and beyond all other outcomes analyzed in our review, students reported robust positive improvements in their experiences of school climate and safety. This review understands safety to encompass inclusion, support, justice, healthy student-teacher relationships and a violence-free, physically safe environment. Students who participated in SEL programs reported better relationships with their teachers, witnessed less violent and aggressive acts at school, and expressed that their school environments have fair policies and rules. Students also reported feeling more supported, and on the whole, experienced increased perceptions of inclusion. This is key because our research found that when students feel that their school is a safe place to learn, they demonstrate a greater sense of well-being and perform better on learning tasks. This finding has significant implications for all youth, especially students with historically marginalized identities.

SEL Programs Support Students to Be Better Friends and Citizens

Our review of SEL teased out the differences between prosociality and civic behaviors and it turns out, the distinction matters. Prosociality refers to behaviors that help other people, such as mowing an elderly neighbor’s lawn, comforting a distraught friend or donating to a nonprofit. Civic behaviors and attitudes support the broader community. For example, engaging with democratic systems, understanding relevant sociopolitical issues, and developing ethical reasoning and a sense of social justice. Previous SEL research combined these constructs into a general category of social outcomes. However, in this review, the data showed a statistically significant difference in how SEL programs help students improve in both prosocial and civic behaviors. Given the wide range of skills and strategies embedded in SEL programs in the review, the result that students at scale demonstrate improved outcomes in both of these behaviors is promising. We are hopeful that increased adoption of SEL programming will further support youth to develop both prosocial and civics behaviors that support a healthy and equitable world where all our nation’s students and families are safe to learn.

How We Teach SEL Skills Makes a Difference

Our review found that the order in which skills are taught matters significantly. SEL programs teach a variety of intrapersonal skills, which support self-awareness and help kids manage emotions and cope with challenges, and interpersonal skills, which we use to interact with others effectively. We found that when programs teach intrapersonal skills before interpersonal skills, there are better outcomes across all domains for students. This suggests that students are better able to engage socially when they have a foundation in their own emotions, attitudes and beliefs. For example, students can better empathize with an angry classmate when they have first understood, identified and regulated their own anger. While some teachers develop homegrown SEL programming from menus of activities and strategies (sometimes referred to as kernels), our research suggests sequencing skill development from emotion to social skills is key. Implementation also matters and teachers play a critical role. According to our review, SEL programs delivered by teachers — rather than researchers and other non-school personnel — have a greater impact on student and school functioning. This further confirms the need for investments in educator training and support to bolster the effectiveness of SEL on student academic performance.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is clear that schools and students benefit from SEL programs. What remains less clear is the impact that SEL programming has on marginalized youth. Among more than 400 studies, none reported data on student sexual orientation. Native language status was also overlooked, along with disability status in most studies — and when disability status was reported, it was predominately categorized using general terms such as students with an “Individualized Education Plan.” Many studies also consolidated race and ethnicity into broad categories. Unfortunately, due to the lack of information reported and the overgeneralizations that were made across studies, we were unable to determine how specific groups of students benefited from the SEL programs they participated in at scale.

Despite the success of SEL programs on students as a whole, the field has largely overlooked how student identity affects how a learner participates in and benefits from SEL programming. More simply, students have abilities, experiences, backgrounds and knowledge that shape how they learn and develop new skills. Researchers and practitioners have the opportunity to work together to identify whether current SEL programs are addressing our nation’s diverse student body, including linguistic, cultural, intellectual, physical, sexual and gender identities.

The field needs more evidence on which program and implementation features foster meaningful student engagement with SEL and a deeper understanding of how these programs influence student outcomes. In other words, is there anything that unintentionally excludes certain students from benefiting from SEL programs? Such information can help researchers and practitioners design and deliver SEL content in ways that can better attend to the needs and backgrounds of varying student groups and identities.

As gun violence continues to tick upward, and political discourse around education becomes more exclusionary, now is the opportune time to invest in SEL to help all students develop the social and emotional tools necessary to navigate and change harmful environments.

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