Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning
Decades of research in western contexts highlight the importance of social and emotional skills for success in school, career, and life. Students who participate in school-based social-emotional learning (SEL) programs perform measurably better in school than peers without exposure to SEL. They engage in fewer risky or unhealthy behaviors, are less likely to get married or have children before 18, are more likely to be employed, earn more, show more resilience, and are better able manage conflicts non-violently. In fact, the stream of benefits from SEL has been estimated to be worth $11 for every $1 invested.
The case for SEL is a strong one: it helps children heal from experiences with tragedy and violence; puts them on a path toward self-reliance by promoting skills that help them succeed in school and beyond; promotes equity and healthy relationships; and increases the community cohesion and stability that can empower individuals to resist violent extremism even in difficult circumstances.
A Wealth of Evidence
SEL adds to the lives of individuals and communities in many ways, from combating toxic stress to academic achievement to strong economic returns. There is a wealth of evidence that supports the value of SEL.
Academic Achievement. Students in SEL programs have shown an 11-percentage-point gain in grades and test scores. Studies find SEL interventions significantly increase students’ commitment to school as well, leading to better attendance and higher graduation rates. A recent study from the International Rescue Committee found that students in both Lebanon and Niger who participated in an SEL-based tutoring program achieved higher literacy and numeracy scores than their peers who did not participate in this program.
Combating Toxic Stress. Conflict and crisis threaten children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Children who experience severe and prolonged adversity can have a “toxic stress” response that damages brain development. This response can harm a child’s health, behavior, relationships, and ability to learn for years or decades following the stressful events. However, SEL opportunities provided in safe educational environments, with nurturing teachers and other caregivers, have been shown to help reduce or reverse the detrimental effects of toxic stress. SEL can also increase community cohesion and stability, and promote non-violent conflict resolution.
Hau’wa’s Story: Social Emotional Learning Provides an Opportunity to Thrive in Conflict and Crisis
Equity. Important for its own sake, equity, in which everyone is treated fairly and equally, also promotes social cohesion and stability. SEL is a powerful pathway to equity. Two decades of randomized, controlled trials show that the most marginalized youth, who struggle the most with behavior and learning, benefit the most from SEL, especially in academic outcomes.
Conversely, a recent study of the relationship between educational inequalities and violent conflict—covering 50 years and nearly 100 countries—found causality in both directions. Especially since 2000, where inequality in education rises, so does the risk of violent conflict, which in turn exacerbates inequality in education. These effects are strongest in fragile states. Continuing to provide education during conflict, especially to disadvantaged groups, “may be an essential element of peacebuilding in the wake of violence,” the study concludes.
Non-Violent Conflict Management. With SEL integrated in schools, students perform better at problem solving and use more strategies to resolve conflicts than children in comparison groups. They show more empathy and are less likely to resort to violence than their peers.
Workforce Development. Long-term studies show a strong relationship between social and emotional skills and positive career outcomes. For instance, self-control in childhood correlates with higher educational attainment, career success, and stable personal finances, in addition to better health and less substance abuse.
Workforce Connections: Key Soft Skills that Foster Workforce Success
Economic Returns. Researchers estimate the return on investment to SEL interventions as $11 for each $1 spent. Economic benefits range from increased health, work, and earnings to the reduction of substance abuse, conflict, crime, and incarceration.
The evidence speaks for itself: SEL is invaluable to students, especially those in conflict and crisis-affected areas. By fostering a quality, inclusive, and safe learning environment, SEL can restore children and youth’s sense of stability, dignity, and hope, which not only increases students’ attachment to school, but helps develop self-awareness, positive self-image, awareness of and empathy for others, healthy relationships, and problem-solving and responsible decision-making—all of which reduce tensions, and the likelihood of violence, between groups.