Evidence for Learning: Social and emotional learning strategies

Social and emotional learning strategies

Moderate impact for very low cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies seek to improve learning and wider child development by improving children’s social and emotional skills. They can be contrasted with approaches that focus explicitly on the academic or cognitive dimensions of learning. SEL strategies might seek to improve the ways in which children interact with their peers, parents or other adults and are often linked with self-regulation strategies and behavioural interventions.

The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0 includes SEL as part of a child’s broader development and overall wellbeing. It is reflected throughout Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing’; as well as the Practice of Holistic, integrated and interconnected approaches’.

  • SEL approaches have a positive impact, on average, of 3 months’ additional progress on academic outcomes over the course of a year. This finding, however, has very low security, so early years settings should be especially careful to monitor the efficacy of SEL approaches in their settings.

  • SEL strategies can have a positive effect on aspects of early literacy and numeracy.

  • The studies in the Toolkit focus primarily on academic outcomes, but it is important to consider the other benefits of SEL interventions. Being able to effectively manage emotions and interact with others will be beneficial to children even if it does not translate directly to reading or maths scores.

On average, children who take part in SEL interventions make around three additional months’ progress in the early years. The evidence suggests that SEL strategies can have a positive impact on young children’s social interactions, attitudes to learning, and on aspects of early learning and development across the board.

However, though SEL strategies almost always improve emotional or attitudinal outcomes, not all interventions are equally effective at improving literacy and numeracy outcomes. More research is required to identify exactly which interventions are effective at improving these academic outcomes, and why they work.

There is limited evidence on the efficacy of specific SEL strategies in Australia and New Zealand in early childhood education settings, and no estimates of the impact on academic outcomes.

A program trial of Pathways to Participation in Brisbane supported 597 children from a disadvantaged area with the transition to school. A preschool social and communicative skills component, and a family component were provided. Boys who received the intervention showed significant improvement on teacher-rated behaviours. Follow-up analyses of the cohort of children 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.

  • The Toolkit evidence summary is normally able to examine whether certain intervention characteristics or contexts are associated with higher or lower impacts. The small number of studies in this topic area mean that it is not possible to do this analysis securely.

  • All of the studies identified in the review examined universal rather than targeted approaches to SEL. Evidence from older age-groups show that a combination of universal and targeted approaches can have positive impacts on outcomes.

  • The majority of studies have been undertaken in the USA, with only a few studies in other countries.

Though, on average, all children benefit, there is also some evidence that SEL approaches can benefit children experiencing disadvantage more than their peers.

Evidence suggests that children experiencing disadvantage have, on average, weaker SEL skills at all ages than their more affluent peers. These skills are likely to influence a range of outcomes for children: lower SEL skills are linked with poorer mental health and lower academic achievement.

SEL interventions in education are shown to improve SEL skills and are therefore likely to support children experiencing disadvantage to understand and engage in healthy relationships with peers and emotional self-regulation, both of which may subsequently increase academic achievement.

SEL is an important part of personal, social and emotional development, and includes improving self-confidence and self-awareness, managing feelings and behaviour, and making and managing relationships. Settings should carefully consider the outcomes they are trying to improve when implementing SEL strategies. Some key considerations might include:

  • How to ensure that the right professional development opportunities are in place to support the introduction of SEL strategies, and explain their value to staff.
  • How will you embed SEL strategies in routine practices, rather than treating SEL as a distinct area of focus.

Almost all of the studies included professional development or training for staff and this may be a particularly important aspect of the positive impact described in this evidence summary.

Overall, the median costs of implementing SEL approaches in the early years are estimated as very low. The costs associated with SEL approaches arise from professional training and development for staff, the majority of which are up-front costs.

Whilst the median cost estimate for SEL approaches is very low, the option to purchase additional books, resources and materials, and ongoing training and support means that costs can range from very low to moderate. None of the studies identified in this review examined targeted approaches, but these are known to be more expensive.

The security of the evidence around SEL is rated as very low. Nineteen studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The low study numbers mean that it is not possible to explore systematically how different features of the studies are linked with different effects. However, there is limited unexplained variation overall, which might support our confidence in the overall average effect.

There was an additional threat to the security of the evidence because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

Another challenge around this evidence base is that SEL approaches are often part of interventions which combine several approaches; when approaches are combined, it is not possible to establish which of the approaches involved leads to improved outcomes for children.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies19
Review last updatedFebruary 2023