Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 6

Evaluating Social and Emotional Learning Programs

Coordinated social and emotional learning programs provide the framework for creating caring schools.

Evaluating Social and Emotional Learning Programs - thumbnail
It's spring—planning time for the next academic year. The members of the school site committee have assembled for a difficult budget meeting. A variety of special programs in this 1,000-student middle school are at risk of being cut. At the same time, a prominent state senator has established a “whole-school” climate improvement program. New grants will be available even as other programs are eliminated. In these tight times, the competition for the new funds will be intense. The deadline for proposals is two weeks away.
“If we can continue our bullying prevention program with the new grant, that would be my first choice, and we're seeing some reductions in fighting and student conflict,” a vice-principal tells the group.
“The grant guidelines specifically say that these funds can't be used to support an existing effort,” says another member of the group.
“If we could sustain something for more than one or two years,” says a teacher, “we might really make a difference in kids' lives. Just when we're experiencing success, the funding ends.”
It's true, the others agree as the conversation continues. A poorly coordinated, piecemeal approach to addressing the typical challenges of a large middle school has created a patchwork of programs that struggle annually for survival.
Unpredictable, short-term funding patterns are one source of the problem, but the causes go deeper. Often, programs for social and emotional learning lack a coherent framework. Some programs pursue the latest fads, even when they are untested and unproven. Staff and administrators view these programs as “add-ons,” superfluous to their school's academic mission. But youth drug use, violence, bullying, sexual promiscuity, and alienation are closely interrelated, complex problems that develop over time within the broader context of the school, family, and community. These problems have a significant negative impact on a school's academic mission.
In recent years, state and federal mandates have required education programs to be based on scientific research in order to be eligible for funding. The education marketplace is crowded with programs that are designed to create caring schools but lack a strong research base. The new emphasis on accountability raises the bar for program effectiveness. Fortunately, a growing number of programs have demonstrated solid, quantifiable success (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2002).
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was formed to advance the science and practice of social and emotional learning by defining the field and providing a forum for high-quality scientific research. CASEL's mission is to promote students' success in school and life by establishing social and emotional learning as an essential element of education, preschool through high school. Through social and emotional learning, students learn not only how to be academically successful but also how to be healthy, caring, ethical, and actively involved in their schools and communities.

What Is Social and Emotional Learning?

In social and emotional learning programs, students develop skills to recognize and manage their emotions, develop caring and concern for others, make responsible decisions, establish positive relationships, and handle challenging situations effectively. Social and emotional learning builds the foundation for accepting responsibility; managing emotions; appreciating diversity; preventing violence, substance abuse, and related problems; and succeeding academically (Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, in press).
Research indicates that students learn in many different ways and that their learning is influenced by social and emotional factors (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997). An anxious, afraid, or alienated student has a diminished learning capacity. Conversely, students who are good communicators, decision makers, and problem solvers are more likely to feel a positive attachment to school and to experience success in both school and life (Pittman, Irby, Tolman, Yohalem, & Ferber, 2001).

Framework for Implementing an Effective Program

  • Is grounded in theory and research. It is based on sound theories of child development that demonstrate, through scientific research, beneficial effects on students' attitudes and behavior.
  • Teaches students to apply social and emotional learning skills and ethical values in daily life. Through systematic instruction and real-world application, students learn to recognize and manage their emotions, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish positive goals, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations effectively. They also display responsible and respectful attitudes and behaviors about self, others, work, health, and citizenship.
  • Builds connections between students and their school. An effective program uses diverse teaching methods to engage students in creating a classroom atmosphere in which caring, responsibility, and a commitment to learning thrive. It includes strategies to nurture students' sense of emotional security and safety and to strengthen relationships among students, school personnel, and families.
  • Provides developmentally and culturally appropriate instruction. It offers developmentally appropriate classroom instruction, including clearly specified learning objectives for each grade level from preschool through high school. It also emphasizes cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity.
  • Helps schools coordinate and unify programs. It offers schools a coherent framework to promote the positive social, emotional, and academic growth of all students. It coordinates school programs that address positive youth development, problem prevention, health, character, service learning, and citizenship.
  • Enhances school performance by addressing the affective and social dimensions of academic learning. The program teaches students social and emotional competencies that encourage them to participate in class, interact positively with their teachers, and develop good study habits. It introduces approaches to problem solving and cooperative learning that motivate students to succeed academically.
  • Involves families and communities as partners. School staff, peers, parents, and community members apply and model social and emotional learning skills and attitudes at school, at home, and in the community.
  • Establishes successful organizational supports and policies. The program addresses factors that determine long-term success, including leadership; active participation in program planning; adequate time and resources; and alignment with school, district, and state policies.
  • Provides high-quality staff development and support. Professional development for all school personnel includes basic theoretical knowledge, modeling and practicing effective teaching methods, regular coaching, and constructive feedback from colleagues.
  • Incorporates continuous evaluation and improvement. A data-gathering component assesses progress, ensures accountability, and shapes program improvement.

How to Sustain an Effective Program

These guidelines provide a framework for implementing an effective social and emotional learning program, but a framework is not enough to sustain a program. Educators need tools to address the many decisions involved in supporting effective programs.
One of the most important tools is a method for assessing program quality and effectiveness in individual schools and districts. To this end, CASEL assembled an advisory panel of experts on social and emotional learning program development and assessment to collect and analyze program data. Members of the panel—school administrators, researchers, and practitioners throughout the United States—developed the 10 guidelines and used them to evaluate programs.
Because research shows that long-term programs have a greater impact on student behavior (Weissberg & Greenberg, 1998), the programs selected for review had to be designed to be implemented for at least two years. The panelists focused on widely available programs intended for general education students, not on those intended solely for special education or high-risk students.
With those criteria, the panelists reviewed 80 of 250 social and emotional learning programs (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2002). Of these, they identified 22 as “select” programs because they were outstanding in the following categories: instruction to enhance students' self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, and relationship skills; scientific evidence of effectiveness; and on-site professional development to support quality implementation.
CASEL also systematically rated programs by the extent to which they promoted schoolwide coordination, school-family partnerships, and school-community partnerships (seewww.casel.org). Unlike other reviews conducted by such organizations as the U.S. Department of Education, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CASEL's review focuses on a wide range of content domains, including violence prevention, substance abuse prevention, general health promotion, character education, sexuality education, and social skill promotion.

Three Exemplary Social and Emotional Learning Programs

Among the programs CASEL deemed select, many schools in the United States and other countries have implemented the following three. Although each school approaches its chosen program differently, all of the programs emphasize the link between social and emotional learning and academics.

Caring School Community

  • Class meetings in which students and their teacher discuss issues, plan, and make decisions that affect classroom climate. In the meetings, students establish norms of behavior and find solutions to common social problems.
  • A cross-age “buddies” program that pairs older and younger students for academic and recreational activities to foster a schoolwide atmosphere of trust.
  • Family involvement activities, which provide opportunities for students and their families to share ideas and experiences about what the students are learning at school academically, socially, and ethically.
  • Innovative whole-school, community-building activities that involve students, parents, and staff in building a caring, inclusive environment.
Professional development for Caring School Community includes program materials, a one- or two-day on-site workshop for teachers, and a three-day training-of-trainers institute for school teams that include at least one teacher, one administrator, and one parent. On-site follow-up support services include classroom demonstrations and advanced workshops.
In research studies involving 5,000 white, African American, and Latino students in grades K–6, students participating in the Caring School Community program improved in a wide range of areas. Their motivation level increased by 5 percent, whereas students' motivation level in the control group increased by only 1 percent. Prosocial motivation increased 10 percent among Caring School Community students compared with 4 percent in control groups. And teachers reported that students involved in the Caring School Community program engaged in more prosocial and problem-solving behaviors than did students in comparison schools (Solomon, Battistich, Watson, Schaps, & Lewis, 2000).

Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies

  • Identify and describe a wide range of feelings.
  • Calm themselves through breathing techniques.
  • Learn to understand others' perspectives by using an 11-step model to solve problems (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 1999; Greenberg & Kusche, 1998).
  • Listen, organize, plan, pay attention, and set academic goals.
PATHS hosts a two-day on-site professional development workshop and optional on-site follow-up support services, which include classroom observation, advanced training and consultation on program planning, implementation, and evaluation.
Well-designed evaluation studies have demonstrated positive behavioral effects for deaf and other special-needs students. Deaf students in 11 self-contained PATHS classrooms achieved a 6 percent increase in reading comprehension test scores compared with an increase of 3 percent among students in control groups. These PATHS students also experienced a 7 percent increase in their level of positive emotional adjustment compared with a 3 percent decrease in the control group (Greenberg & Kusche, 1998). White and African American students from low to middle socioeconomic backgrounds who were enrolled in PATHS regular education classrooms demonstrated less aggressive and hyperactive behavior than did students in control groups. Observers of these students also noted that, compared with students in control groups, PATHS students followed rules better, expressed their emotions more appropriately, and stayed on task more often (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 1999).

Skills, Opportunities, and Recognition

Through schoolwide initiatives that strengthen teacher instructional practices and increase family involvement, the Skills, Opportunities, and Recognition (SOAR) program provides K–6 students with opportunities to apply prosocial skills, such as regulating emotions, listening and sharing, respecting others, cooperating in learning teams, and solving problems (www.channing-bete.com). These initiatives foster strong bonds with peers, teachers, and families.
  • Implementing proactive classroom management strategies.
  • Designing lesson plans to motivate students.
  • Monitoring and assessing student learning and mastery.
  • Using an eight-step model for teaching social and emotional skills that includes modeling, role playing, and independent practice.
  • Communicating clear standards to students.
  • Offering students meaningful ways to contribute to family life.
  • Creating a positive learning environment at home.
  • Strengthening factors to protect students from drug use.
Well-designed evaluation studies have found that, compared with students in control groups, students who participated in SOAR had better school achievement as indicated by better grades and fewer retentions in grade by age 18. SOAR students also demonstrated significant improvement compared with those in control groups in indicators of school misbehavior, such as cheating on tests and skipping school. Six years after the intervention, SOAR students reported engaging in fewer violent acts, having sexual intercourse less frequently, and having fewer sexual partners than students in control groups (Hawkins, Catalano, Kosterman, Abbott, & Hill, 1999).

Next Steps for Schools

Already, educators have access to many tools to facilitate creating caring communities of responsible and engaged learners. When educators use these tools extensively, the possibilities are exciting. Ideally, when school planning committees meet for their annual review and planning sessions, they will use a unifying framework for creating a caring school. Program coordinators, teachers, parents, and students will engage in a rich, productive dialogue on program results and improvement. School-based social and emotional learning programs will follow a logical plan and sequence. And everyone involved—students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community—will benefit.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2002). Safe and sound: An educational leader's guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning programs. Chicago: Author.

Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. (1999). Initial impact of the Fast Track prevention trial for conduct problems: II. Classroom effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 648–657.

Greenberg, M. T., & Kusche, C. A. (1998). Promoting alternative thinking strategies (PATHS). Blueprint for Violence Prevention (Book 10). Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, Institute of Behavioral Sciences, University of Colorado.

Hawkins, J. D., Catalano, R. F., Kosterman, R., Abbott, R., & Hill, K. G. (1999). Preventing adolescent health-risk behaviors by strengthening protection during childhood. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 153, 226–234.

Pittman, K. J., Irby, M., Tolman, J., Yohalem, N., & Ferber, T. (2001). Preventing problems, promoting development, encouraging engagement: Competing priorities or inseparable goals? [Online]. Available:www.forumforyouthinvestment.org/preventproblems.pdf

Solomon, D., Battistich, V., Watson, M., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C. (2000). A six-district study of educational change: Direct and mediated effects of the Child Development Project. Social Psychology of Education, 4, 3–51.

Wang, M. C., Haertel, G. D., & Walberg, H. J. (1997). Learning influences. In H. J. Walberg & G. D. Haertel (Eds.), Psychology and educational practice (pp. 199–211). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

Weissberg, R. P., & Greenberg, M. T. (1998). School and community competence-enhancement and prevention programs. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & I. E. Sigel & K. A. Renninger (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Child psychology in practice (5th ed.) (pp. 877–954). New York: Wiley.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (Eds.). (in press). Building school success on social and emotional learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Roger P. Weissberg, Ph.D., is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He is Executive Director of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). He directs an NIMH-funded Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Prevention Research Training Program in Urban Children's Mental Health and AIDS Prevention at UIC, and also holds an appointment with the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education. Professor Weissberg has published about one hundred articles and chapters focusing on preventive interventions with children and adolescents, and has coauthored nine curriculums on school-based programs to promote social competence and prevent problem behaviors including drug use, high-risk sexual behaviors, and aggression. Three recent books that he coedited are Healthy Children 2010: Enhancing Children's Wellness, Healthy Children 2010: Establishing Preventive Services, and Children and Youth: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Sage 1997). Professor Weissberg was the Research Director for the Primary Mental Health Project from 1980 to 1982. He was a Professor in the Psychology Department at Yale University between 1982 and 1992, where he collaborated with the New Haven Public School System to establish the New Haven's Kindergarten through grade 12 Social Development Project. He has been the President of the American Psychological Association's Society for Community Research and Action. He is a recipient of the William T. Grant Foundation's five-year Faculty Scholars Award in Children's Mental Health, the Connecticut Psychological Association's 1992 Award for Distinguished Psychological Contribution in the Public Interest, and the National Mental Health Association's 1992 Lela Rowland Prevention Award. He may be contacted at Department of Psychology (M/C 285), The University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607-7137. Phone: (312) 355-0640; fax: (312) 355-0559; e-mail: rpw@uic.edu.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 103032.jpg
Creating Caring Schools
Go To Publication