Social and Emotional Learning: A Great Investment

International Year of the Child (IYC) - 1979

United Nations International Year of the Child


If you know anything about the value of high-quality early childhood education, you know that the Perry Preschool Project provided a very substantial return on the money invested in it.

To be exact, society had reaped $7 in benefits for every dollar spent by the time the 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the program reached the age of 27. More of them had graduated from high school, and they earned more money, owned more homes and cars, and had fewer arrests than their peers who’d acted as controls. (When they turned 40, the gains had climbed to $16 per dollar invested.)

Big payback for SEL

Columbia University researchers have just discovered another big winner. Their cost-benefit analysis of six social and emotional learning programs, The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning, shows that SEL delivers $11 in benefits for every dollar invested.

Although the programs they studied (Second Step, Responsive Classroom, 4Rs, Positive Action, Life Skills Training, and Social and Emotional Training) have different goals and approaches and target children of different ages and levels of risk, all of them bring benefits that greatly exceed their price tag. The children in these programs experienced significant:

  • Reductions in aggression, violence, substance abuse, and delinquency
  • Declines in depression and anxiety
  • Increases in grades, attendance, and performance on core academic subjects

213 studies can’t be wrong

A recent meta-analysis of 213 universal school-based SEL programs documented the same extraordinary results, but without examining costs. These interventions:

  • Enhanced social and emotional skills like recognizing emotions, empathy, managing stress, problem-solving, and decision-making
  • Promoted positive attitudes and social behaviors
  • Decreased behavior problems and emotional distress
  • Improved academic performance

The researchers found that SEL programs help all children, and regular classroom teachers can teach them, but this shouldn’t be an ad hoc affair. The most effective learning takes place when teachers use evidence-based programs and implement them faithfully.

An effective program includes four practices known by the acronym SAFE:

  • Sequenced—a step-by-step training approach
  • Active—active forms of learning like role-play and rehearsal
  • Focus—time spent on developing personal or social skills
  • Explicit—learning goals directed at specific social and emotional skills, rather than general ones

Head Start agrees

With such remarkable outcomes, it’s no wonder that Head Start is considering introducing SEL programs on a large scale. After testing PATHS, the Incredible Years, and a one-year version of Tools of the Mind, they found there are different ways to boost children’s social and emotional development, provided they’re evidence-based and include high-quality teacher training and coaching.

Challenging behavior and SEL

Children with challenging behavior may have trouble in the social and emotional realm. Because they’re frequently rejected by their classmates, they have few opportunities to learn and practice social and emotional skills. In fact, they may hang out with others like themselves, reinforcing their antisocial tendencies.

When you proactively teach SEL to the whole class, no one is singled out or stigmatized, and everyone learns the same concepts and vocabulary, making the skills easier to model, practice, use, and reinforce, and you can integrate them into the curriculum and everyday activities.

Clearly, social and emotional skills can be taught, and they’re worth every penny.

Here are some guides to SEL programs:

What do you think?

A nationally representative survey showed that most teachers believe social and emotional learning is important. What do you think? Are you using a social and emotional learning program in your classroom? Does it help you address behavior problems? We’d love to know your views.

Fighting Violence with Early Childhood Education

This summer two horrific mass shootings shocked the country.

The first, in July, took place at the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises”  in Aurora, CO, just down the road from Littleton, a town that’s still reeling from the Columbine massacre. The shooter, James Holmes, killed 12 and wounded 58.

The second attack, by an unrelated assailant, Wade M. Page, occurred in August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. Six died and three were injured.

This fall, two school shooters joined this nefarious company. A 15-year-old was charged with assault and attempted murder in Perry Hall, MD; and a 14-year-old shot into the ceiling of a packed classroom in Normal, IL. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Child with American flag and gun inTexas

A child with an American flag and a gun in Texas in the 1920s. Photo by Harry Walker, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library

Risk Factors

We know very little about these shooters, and we certainly don’t know what caused these attacks. But we do know some of the factors that increase the risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and we also know that risk factors are cumulative—one plus one equals more than two. They can easily become overwhelming.

In young children, these risks work to produce challenging behavior, and when that behavior continues into kindergarten and beyond it becomes harder and harder to change.

Children with behavior problems are frequently rejected by their peers, and as a result they’re deprived of opportunities to develop and practice the social and emotional skills they need for self-esteem and success.

Their behavior also creates problems in school, where teachers all too often make the situation worse by teaching them less and punishing them more.

No wonder children with challenging behavior develop into teens who drop out of school and turn to delinquency, gangs, drugs, and mental illness. As adults they’re more likely to commit violent crimes.

White Power

Even knowing nothing about his childhood, we can guess about how risk factors led one of these shooters down a dangerous path. The Milwaukee gunman was immersed in the neo-Nazi culture of racial hatred and its white-power music, “hatecore.” The songs he played on his guitar and bass were intended to incite violence and strengthen commitment to his cause.

To heighten the risk, he—and all of the other assailants, including the teens—had ready access to guns.

A Different Life?

But maybe once upon a time they were young children with challenging behavior. If they’d had strong relationships with their teachers and effective teaching, they might have turned out differently.

The police are lobbying for high quality early childhood education because research shows that it prevents crime.

What do you think? What causes violent behavior? Is it guns? Violent media? Poverty? Genes? And what can we do about it? Can high quality early childhood education prevent crime and violence?