It’s not hard to understand why SEL has gained so much momentum in recent years. From the need to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce to SEL’s long-lasting impact on student happiness and wellbeing, we think it’s important for every student to practice social-emotional skills. However, with competing priorities and complicated national regulations (not to mention the all-too-common misperception that SEL takes time away from academic gains), we understand why it can be hard for schools and districts to make it part of their focus.

RAND Corporation recently released an interesting new report on SEL interventions whose outcomes meet evidence requirements put forth under ESSA that we think could be of great use to officials facing these challenges: Social and Emotional Learning Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act. In writing the report, RAND’s researchers sifted through hundreds of reports to settle on an analysis of the efficacy of over 50 interventions, and also overviewed the various options for districts seeking to use ESSA funds to try them out.

While the report is a great, comprehensive resource for districts looking to implement ESSA-compliant SEL programs, the presentation is dense (as is often the case with valuable research). We think it could nonetheless be of great use to district and school leaders, however, so we wanted to highlight the 7 key takeaways we found in our read-through of the report:

1) ESSA Requires Evidence-Based Interventions for Funding. Perhaps not news to everyone, but an important reminder of the context of the report. “ESSA requires the use of evidence-based interventions for a number of funding streams. The legislation defines three levels, or tiers, of evidence from empirical research: strong (Tier I), moderate (Tier II), and promising (Tier III) evidence. ESSA also includes an additional level (Tier IV) that does not require existing empirical evidence but instead requires (1) that the intervention is supported by a strong rationale for believing the intervention is likely to improve the targeted outcomes and (2) that an evaluation of the intervention is under way.” (For more information on what separates intervention evidence into these tiers, see pages 31-33 of the report).

2) SEL Can Play a Role in Academic Development. The authors of the report cite a number of resources to back up the idea that SEL programs are worth pursuing. “Research suggests that an emphasis on SEL can enhance, rather than detract from, schools’ core missions of promoting academic achievement and attainment (Osher et al., 2016). For example, a review of SEL interventions indicated that students who participated in these programs outperformed other students in several areas, including academic achievement (Durlak et  al., 2011). A recent follow-up to this review found that these benefits persisted 6 to 18 months post-intervention (Taylor et al., 2017).“

3) Evidence Points to SEL Intervention Efficacy. “SEL interventions can improve students’ attitudes toward themselves and others, social behaviors, and behavioral problems (Durlak et  al., 2011; Jones, Brush, et  al., 2017; Yeager, 2017). In addition, a substantial and growing body of research demonstrates the powerful relationships between social and emotional competencies and success in various contexts, including outcomes later in life, such as earnings and criminal activity. For overviews of this research, see The National Research Council and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.”

4) SEL “Outcomes of Interest” Under ESSA. According to the report, “the following potential student achievement and other relevant outcomes are referenced in ESSA:

  1. Academic achievement and closing achievement gaps
  2. Growth in academic achievement
  3. English-language proficiency
  4. graduation rates
  5. student engagement
  6. educator engagement
  7. student access to and completion of advanced coursework
  8. postsecondary readiness
  9. school climate and safety
  10. dropout prevention and/or reduction
  11. school safety measures (suspensions, violence, arrests, referrals)
  12. absenteeism (excused and unexcused)
  13. discipline actions (disproportionate use of out-of-school/ class sanctions)
  14. college-going
  15. workforce readiness
  16. successful transitions from pre-K to kindergarten, to middle grades, and to high schools”

5) Success Areas Delineated by Outcome Area, Grade Level and Setting. Educators have many options for SEL interventions that meet ESSA evidence requirements, but the number of SEL interventions that meet ESSA evidence requirements is greatest for elementary schools and urban communities:

6) Intervention Impact Varies Greatly in Terms of Both Results and Outcome Areas. The results of their analyses are neatly summarized in pages 43 through 57 of the report. For a deeper dive into each of the 50+ interventions they examined, the “Intervention Summaries” report is available on the same page as the main report.

7) RAND’s Recommendations (for more details, see pages 72-75 of the report):

  1. Conduct a Needs Assessment to Inform Decisions About SEL Interventions
  2. Use the List of Interventions in This Review as a Starting Point
  3. Take Advantage of Tier IV Flexibility if Needs Cannot Be Met by Interventions with Stronger Evidence
  4. Provide Professional Development and Other Supports to Build Educators’ Capacity to Gather and Use Evidence of Program Effectiveness
  5. Consider a Variety of SEL Programs and Strategies When Designing Approaches to Improving Students’ Social and Emotional Competencies
  6. Address Local Conditions to Promote Effective SEL Implementation
  7. Continue to Improve SEL Measurement

Social-emotional skills will be in high demand in the coming decades. For more information on how to make a new SEL program effective from the start (and use ESSA funding while you’re at it), we’d recommend reading through the full report.

For more, see:


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