Evidence for Learning: Social and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning

A summary of the research evidence on social and emotional learning in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of social and emotional learning 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 social and emotional learning. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of social and emotional learning interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Interventions which target social and emotional learning (SEL) seek to improve achievement by improving the social and emotional dimensions of learning, as opposed to focusing directly on the academic or cognitive elements of learning. SEL interventions might focus on the ways in which students work with (and alongside) their peers, teachers, family or community.

The studies reviewed below collectively highlight the increasing importance of SEL within the Australian Curriculum, and schools are taking on more responsibility for fostering student wellbeing and responding to mental health issues. SEL generally involves equipping students with the language and tools to monitor their own emotions and communicate effectively with others. Nonetheless, there seems to be some confusion amongst educators as to how best to integrate SEL within classrooms. One approach repeatedly mentioned in the literature was circle time’, which educators believed to be effective. However, the effectiveness of circle time requires further assessment beyond the use of teachers’ impressions and observations. Overall, SEL appears to be an important aspect of students’ school experience and overall wellbeing.

Hattie’s (2009) synthesis of eight meta-analyses examining the impact of social skills interventions yielded an average effect size of 0.40 (number of studies=540; number of people= 7,180). Studies that focused on improving students’ peer relations and social outcomes tended to have more positive results than those that sought to improve learning outcomes. The effect sizes were greatest in interventions involving younger students and students with poor social skills.

Wyn (2009) highlighted the crossover between wellbeing and learning: low levels of wellbeing will be detrimental for learning; barriers to learning will impact on personal wellbeing. She discussed how addressing social and emotional wellbeing in the younger years is necessary for developmental wellbeing over time. Furthermore, she argues that schools impact upon students’ wellbeing through teaching practices and school climate.

Iizuka, Barrett, Gillies, Cook and Marinovic (2014) used an intervention strategy that involved teachers undertaking training to develop their own social and emotional skills, in addition to being trained in how to employ a social and emotional learning program within their classrooms. The results showed a significant improvement in the wellbeing of students who were identified as high anxiety or high difficulty. Relatedly, McRobert (2015) reported that her students were better able to exert control over their feelings and behaviours after she introduced a SEL program.

While SEL is popular amongst educators, they are not necessarily confident in teaching related skills. Hayes-Williams (2014) found that teachers believed SEL to be an essential part of students’ development, and that it should be included in the curriculum. However, most of the teachers in the study felt that teaching SEL was particularly difficult, and that they needed additional leadership and training. This aligns with Temple and Emmett (2013), who highlighted that teachers need greater guidance on how to assist students with SEL in the classroom.

A popular SEL strategy is circle time, which involves students and the facilitator sitting in a circle and having a discussion. Day (2011) claimed that circle time gives children a safe space to express themselves and the opportunity to develop greater social and emotional awareness by listening to others. Roffey and McCarthy (2013) had pre-service teachers employ circle time in their placement schools and found that students’ social and emotional skills improved as a result.

McMillan and Jarvis (2013) highlighted that students with disabilities are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health problems. They examined intervention strategies aimed at improving social and emotional skills. Their review incorporated information from 17 other literature reviews and found that successful interventions tended to be in small groups or one to one, and focused on giving students the language/​skills to respond appropriately to their emotions and social environment.

Day, F. (2011). Circle Time for social emotional learning. Learning and Teaching in the Early Years, 17(3), 33 – 35.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London; New York: Routledge.

Hayes-Williams, K. (2014). How does the foundation staff of a new Catholic coeducation secondary school experience teaching social and emotional learning within school structures and as a regular component of an integrated curriculum? (Doctoral thesis, University of Wollongong, Australia). Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4256/

Iizuka, C. A., Barrett, P. M., Gillies, R., Cook, C. R., & Marinovic, W. (2014). A Combined Intervention Targeting both Teachers’ and Students’ Social-Emotional Skills: Preliminary Evaluation of Students’ Outcomes. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 24(02), 152 – 166.

McMillan, J. M., & Jarvis, J. M. (2013). Mental Health and Students with Disabilities: A review of Literature. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 23(2), 236 – 251.

McRobert, K. (2015). Programming for social and emotional learning in outside school hours care. Every Child, 21(4), 18 – 19.

Roffey, S., & McCarthy, F. (2013). Circle Solutions, a Philosophy and Pedagogy for Learning Positive Relationships: What Promotes and Inhibits Sustainable Outcomes?. International Journal of Emotional Education, 5(1), 36 – 55.

Temple, E., & Emmett, S. (2013). Promoting the development of children’s emotional and social wellbeing in early childhood settings: How can we enhance the capability of educators to fulfil role expectations? Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 38(1), 66 – 72.

Wyn, J. (2009). Touching the future: Building skills for life and work (Australian Education Review 55). Camberwell, VIC: Australian Council for Educational Research.

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Social and emotional learning; SEAL/SEL interventions; social skills; skills for life; self-esteem; empathy; emotional intelligence.