Evidence for Learning: Social and emotional learning strategies

Social and emotional learning strategies

Moderate impact for moderate 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. Two broad categories of SEL strategy can be identified:

  • Universal programs that seek to improve behaviour or engagement throughout settings.
  • Specialised programs targeted at children with emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties

Existing evidence suggests that SEL strategies can have a positive impact on social interactions, attitudes to learning, and learning itself. On average, children who follow SEL interventions make around three additional months’ progress in early years settings and reception classes. Though, on average, all children benefit, there is also some evidence that social and emotional approaches can benefit disadvantaged children more than their peers.

However, though universal SEL strategies almost always improve emotional or attitudinal outcomes, not all interventions are equally effective at improving early learning outcomes. Improvements seem more likely when approaches are embedded regularly into activities, and when the introduction of SEL approaches is linked to professional development to support and explain the strategies to staff.

A small number of studies have assessed the impact of specialised programs for children with emotional or behavioural difficulties. On average, these programs show a moderate positive impact on learning. Again, there are some indications that programs involving professional development for staff are associated with greater improvements. In addition, the quality of implementation of the program and the degree to which early years professionals and other staff were committed to the approach appeared to be important.

  • Have you ensured 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?

  • How will you evaluate the impact of SEL approaches?

Universal approaches that encourage social and emotional learning throughout a setting will benefit from professional development and may require new materials and resources, but these costs are likely to be very low. Social and emotional strategies targeted at specific individuals will be much more expensive. On average, the costs per child are estimated as moderate.

There is very limited research in this area. There are a number of meta-analyses, though more research has been undertaken with children in primary schools than in early years settings, and more studies have evaluated the impact on disadvantaged or low attaining children or those with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

In early years settings, SEL approaches are often part of multi-component interventions so it is difficult to isolate the impact of the different social, emotional and cognitive dimensions.

Evidence strength
Number of studies7
Review last updatedSeptember 2021