Evidence for Learning: Social and emotional learning strategies

Social and emotional learning strategies

The summary below presents the research evidence on social and emotional learning strategies in the Australasian context.

The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of communication and language approaches on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on communication and language approaches. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of communication and language approaches that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) generated this evidence summary in July 2019.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL, 2019). SEL lays the foundation for happy, productive lives, including school success (Durlak et al., 2011, Heckman, Stixrud, & Urzua, 2006).

There is limited evidence on the efficacy of specific SEL strategies in Australia and New Zealand in early years settings, and no estimates of the impact on academic outcomes. The most ambitious program to be trialled was Pathways to Participation in Brisbane, which supported children from a disadvantaged area with the transition to school (Freiberg, Homel, Batchelor, Carr, Hay, Elias, Teague & Lamb, 2005). A preschool social and communicative skills component and a family component (e.g., playgroups and a range of services) were provided for 597 children. Boys who received the intervention showed significant improvement on teacher-rated behaviours. Follow-up analyses of the cohort of children (Homel, Freiberg, Branch & Le, 2015) suggested children from intervention families showed positive improvements in behaviour and school attachment over the course of primary school, compared to children whose families had not been involved.

A randomised controlled trial of a SEL programme for schools in lower socioeconomic areas of Victoria found promising results for the social and emotional outcomes of parents and children. In the intervention, parents were supported as emotion coaches’ for children with behaviour problems (Havighurst et al., 2015). Another study in preschools in Sydney found promising impact of a program to support parents of children with anxiety problems through coaching that focused on anxiety management skills (Lau et al., 2017). Taken together, these studies indicate evidence of promise for targeted parental coaching on social and emotional outcomes. Neither study, however, collected any data on the learning outcomes of the approaches.

Other studies have tested the impact of improving caregiver capacities for coaching’ SEL. The Adelaide-based KidsMatter Early Childhood Initiative pilot evaluation (Slee et al., 2012) indicated a promising approach to working with early childhood education professionals and parents to support early childhood mental health. SEL was a core component in the observed gains in children’s social and emotional wellbeing, but academic impacts were not evaluated.

Building caregiver capacity may not immediately translate into improvements in children’s SEL: a small randomised controlled trial failed to improve knowledge or confidence in working toward children’s SEL (Davis et al., 2015). Another trial of a professional learning program was implemented in NSW with early childhood (EC) teachers and paraprofessionals who work with children who present or are at risk of challenging behaviours. Using a self-report instrument and action research the professional learning has shown promise to build early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals knowledge and skills in supporting children with challenging behaviours (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2017).

Other approaches which may appeal to EC educators such as free-play equipment in playgrounds (Bundy et al., 2017) or arts-based activities (Rickard, Appelman, James, Murphy & Bambrick, 2013) have not shown promising results. Direct focus on supporting capacities of educators and parents to coach children toward SEL is the most likely effective approach to show results for social, emotional, and academic outcomes.

Arthur-Kelly, M., Farrell, G., De Bortoli, T., Lyons, G., Hinchey, F., Ho, F. C., … Fairfax, W. (2017). The reported effects of a systematic professional learning program on the knowledge, skills, and concerns of Australian early childhood educators who support young children displaying or at risk of challenging behaviours. International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 64(2), 131 – 149. doi:10.1080/1034912X.2016.1181258

Bundy, A., Engelen, L., Wyver, S. Tranter, P., Ragen, J., Bauman, A. & Naughton, G. (2017). Sydney Playground Project: A Cluster-Randomized Trial to Increase Physical Activity, Play, and Social Skills. Journal of School Health, 87(10), 751 – 759.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2019). What is SEL? Retrieved from https://casel.org/

Davis, E., Gilson, K‑M., Christian, R., Waters, E., Mackinnon, A., Herrman, H., Sims, M., Harrison, L., Cook, K., Mihalopoulos, C., Marhsall, B., Flego, A., & Corr, L. (2015). Building the capacity of family day care educators to promote children’s social and emotional wellbeing: Resutls of an exploratory cluster randomised-controlled trial. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40 (2), 57 – 67.

Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82 (1), 405 – 432. doi:10.1111/j.1467 – 8624.2010.01564.x

Freiberg, K., Homel, R., Batchelor, S., Carr, A., Hay, I., Elias, G., … Lamb, C. (2005). Creating pathways to participation: A community-based developmental prevention project in Australia. Children & Society,19(2), 144 – 157. doi:10.1002/chi.867

Havighurst, S., Duncombe, M., Frankling, E., Holland, K., Kehoe, C., & Stargatt, R. (2015). An emotion-focused early intervention for children with emerging conduct problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(4), 749 – 760. doi:10.1007/s10802-014‑9944‑z

Heckman, J.J. Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behaviour. Journal of Labor Economics, 24(3), 411 – 482.

Homel, R., Freiberg, K., Branch, S., & Le, H. (2015). Preventing the onset of youth offending: The impact of the Pathways to Prevention Project on child behaviour and wellbeing. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No. 481. Australian Institute of Criminology.

Lau, E. X., Rapee, R. M., & Coplan, R. J. (2017). Combining child social skills training with a parent early intervention program for inhibited preschool children. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 51, 32 – 38. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.08.007

Rickard, N. S., Appelman, P., James, R., Murphy, F., Gill, A., & Bambrick, C. (2013).Orchestrating life skills: The effect of increased school-based music classes on children’s social competence and self-esteem. International Journal of Music Education, 31(3), 292 – 309. doi: 10.1177÷0255761411434824

Slee, P. Murray-Harvey, R. Dix, K., Skrzypiec, G., Askell-Williams, H., Lawson, M., & Krieg, S. (2012). KidsMatter : Early childhood evaluation report : Full report [online]. Adelaide: Shannon Research Press.

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Social and emotional; social skill; soft skill; skills-for-life; self-esteem; empathy; emotional intelligence.