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HomeFeaturesThe Importance of a Research-Based SEL Curriculum

The Importance of a Research-Based SEL Curriculum

Jazmine Franklin explains how the Center for Responsive Schools has developed a curriculum that supports a balance of academic, social, and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can deepen education. In order for students to be academically, socially, and behaviorally successful in school and beyond, they need to develop skills in the five core social and emotional competencies: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.). When students learn in classrooms that support not only their academic learning but also their social and emotional learning, they thrive. They learn more, and that learning lasts, their motivation and achievement grow, they are more connected to their communities, and they stand up for themselves and for each other. 
However, when schools and educators feel pressure to increase students’ academic performance, they frequently respond by trying to focus all their time and energy on academic learning, making sure that every possible moment is spent on academic pursuits. While it might seem logical that more time on learning would lead to higher test scores and improved achievement, that’s actually not what has the greatest effect on student performance. Student progress is often measured by IQ and achievement test scores, which are less predictive of future success than metrics that include SEL skills, such as educational attainment (Levin 2012). It’s when academic, social, and emotional learning (A+SEL) connect that students experience greater success in school and beyond (Duckworth and Schoon 2010).

Connecting Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Why does spending time explicitly teaching and practicing skills related to the five C.A.R.E.S. core SEL competencies have such a remarkable effect on academic performance? Because those competencies don’t only build social and emotional skills–they are also connected to crucial cognitive skills and abilities that are directly related to high academic performance in school and success later in life. 
For example, when students build assertiveness skills like seeking help and persisting through challenges, they are able to grow their self-awareness and self-confidence so they can handle challenging situations (Aronson, 2002). Developing responsibility skills like holding themselves accountable and making prudent decisions means that students are more likely to commit to studying, completing homework, and fulfilling their academic obligations (Zins & Elias, 2006). Self-control skills like managing overwhelming feelings, controlling impulses, and showing perseverance supports students in handling stress, focusing on important tasks, and attaining goals—all skills that support strong academic performance (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Elliot & Dweck, 2005). In addition, research tells us building these skills through SEL programs activates the prefrontal cortex and positively affects executive function skills–the cognitive processes that allow us to plan, focus, remember, and balance multiple tasks (Greenberg, 2006). 

The effects of implementing an SEL curriculum are seen not only at the individual level of student skill development, but also at the teacher, classroom, and school levels as relationships, expectations, and communities are strengthened. Students and teachers alike recognize the impact of this instruction. One teacher who uses Fly Five: The Social and Emotional Curriculum developed by Center for Responsive Schools shared, “I’ve had students ask for this. They’ll come up to me and say, ‘When are we doing SEL?’ They crave it. I go by their lead.” Another teacher using the curriculum added “These kids are really leaning into [SEL] because they’ve been looking for it. [Fly Five] empowers them to say the things that they have been trying to say.” It is the combination of explicit skill-building in the context of strong learning environments that creates the conditions for both short-term and long-term positive effects for students (Catalano et al., 2002; Schaps et al., 2004).

Teaching SEL

Explicit instruction in social and emotional skills may be the most impactful thing teachers can do in their classrooms. It’s clear that cultivating SEL skills is vital for success in and out of the classroom (Jones & Doolittle, 2017). To effectively leverage the opportunities of social and emotional learning for all students, teachers need two vital resources. 

First, they need access to a developmentally appropriate, research-based curriculum that is both aligned to explicit standards and robust enough to act as a fifth core curriculum. While SEL curricula in one form or another have existed for some time, until recently they often fell far short of the time explicit SEL instruction deserves in the classroom. In fact, in a recent nationwide survey, four out of five teachers indicated that more classroom support for SEL instruction was necessary for effective instruction (NCSEAD 2019). 

Second, teachers need support in cultivating and maintaining their own social and emotional competence and well-being. In a recent Gallup poll on occupational stress, teachers and nurses tied for the highest reported levels of daily stress (Schonert-Reichl, 2017)—and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic (Levinson et al., 2020). Teacher stress and emotional regulation are important for a range of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that teachers’ SEL competencies are linked to students’ SEL outcomes.  

According to Jones and Bouffard (2012), teachers who have strong social-emotional competence themselves are better able to build strong relationships with students, manage their classrooms successfully, and teach SEL skills effectively. Educators who intentionally develop their own social and emotional competence can better assess their own strengths and areas for growth and go on to effectively influence student learning (Patti et al., 2015). 

The opportunity for professional development specifically in SEL increases teachers’ awareness of their own social and emotional competence and their confidence as instructional leaders of SEL. Learning more about SEL also empowers them to plan, set, and hold expectations for instruction that develops SEL skills. Adults who have developed their own SEL competence can set the expectation for adult behavior and modeling of social-emotional competence. Research shows that strong social and emotional competence in adults is directly related to impactful SEL skill development in students (Jones & Doolittle, 2017).

Effective Implementation

With compelling evidence like these studies, it’s no wonder that so many schools and districts are eager to implement a SEL curriculum as quickly as possible. To ensure effective implementation, however, it’s important to consider what makes an SEL curriculum beneficial. According to a 2011 meta-analysis of SEL curriculums, the most promising programs are the ones that follow “SAFE practices” (Durlak et al., 2011, 408). SAFE is an acronym that stands for sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. You can determine if an SEL curriculum follows SAFE practices by considering the following questions:

  • “Does the program use a connected and coordinated set of activities to achieve their objectives relative to skill development?”
  • “Does the program use active forms of learning to help youth learn new skills?”
  • “Does the program have at least one component devoted to developing personal or social skills?”
  • “Does the program target specific SEL skills rather than targeting skills or positive development in general terms?” (Durlak et al., 2011, 410)

In addition to being SAFE, recent studies show that SEL interventions have the highest rates of success when five factors are in place before instruction occurs (Jones at al., 2018, 2): 

  • SEL instruction should take place in positive, supportive contexts. Students must feel a sense of safety and belonging in order to feel comfortable taking risks, sharing and connecting with others, and making and learning from mistakes.
  • SEL programs should focus on adult social-emotional competence as well as student competence. Adults must have a solid understanding of the five SEL competencies in order to effectively teach the associated skills. In order to model the skills themselves, it’s also important for adults to be aware of their own social and emotional competence.
  • Students’ home and community environments should be involved so students are supported in and out of the classroom. When all areas of a student’s life are actively engaged, learning is more active and all-encompassing.
  • SEL programs should focus on developmentally appropriate behaviors and skills. For students to make the most of their learning, the targeted behaviors and skills must be ones that they are ready and able to learn. 
  • Reasonable short- and long-term goals should be set for student growth. Using a research-based developmental understanding helps to set appropriate goals for students in the short-term and long-term.

An Intentional SEL Curriculum

A good example is our Fly Five curriculum which was intentionally designed to incorporate the findings from these robust studies to create a comprehensive, K-8 SEL program. Every aspect of the program is coordinated with students’ developmental needs, aligned with cutting-edge research, and flexible to specific school contexts.

Meaningful Learning

Fly Five meets students where they are developmentally, allowing instruction to engage learners in cognitive and affective thinking, effectively challenging and supporting students in their growth. When teachers are empowered to use their knowledge of students to sequence instruction and progressively build upon student knowledge, learning is more meaningful and long-lasting. 
To do this effectively, educators need to assess students for their readiness to demonstrate a skill. That’s why each lesson is designed to provide formative data about student readiness with certain skills so educators can tailor instruction to meet specific student needs. One component of the curriculum is a student journal that contains reflection exercises, reading passages, vocabulary connections, and hands-on activities that align with each lesson. The reading passages and writing prompts in the student journals are leveled, with grade-appropriate Lexile ranges provided for reading passages. This information allows educators to more easily support students in accessing appropriate text and provides the opportunity for students to practice social-emotional skills while reinforcing literacy skills. One educator shared, “It’s pretty incredible watching my students grow using the language from Fly Five and expanding on their vocabulary and sharing with us.”
Social and emotional skills are best learned and demonstrated in environments where there is a significant degree of certainty, and it is safe to learn from mistakes. Fly Five uses age-appropriate interactive learning structures to provide a framework to support student connection and interaction.

The Mindful Student

Fly Five incorporates embedded instruction in emotion management. Learning to recognize and regulate one’s emotions through the powerful practice of mindfulness are lifelong skills used more and more commonly in schools and beyond. Corporations as varied as Google and Target have encouraged mindfulness practice for their employees (Schaufenbuel 2015), and the US Marines instituted 15 minutes of daily mindfulness for their soldiers (Penman 2012). Whether in classrooms or in the workplace, mindfulness lowers anxiety and stress, improves focus, and increases effectiveness in work (Bronfenbrenner Center 2017; Breen 2016; Emerson et al. 2017). The Mindful Student® curriculum, part of Fly Five’s program, includes 20 grade-specific, age-appropriate mindfulness lessons, aligning with a C.A.R.E.S. competency and grade level skill. The activities range from hands-on activities to quiet reflections. Conveniently available on easy-to-use card decks,

Setting the Standard for SEL

Social-emotional skills, like all skills, are best learned through regular, explicit instruction accompanied by time to practice and reflect on learning. Teachers are able to focus on providing that instruction, practice, and reflection when they have access to a well-developed, intentionally-designed SEL curriculum. One teacher explained, “[Students] have started to internalize the skills as they learn them. I’m looking forward to when they synthesize them all together.”

Students don’t stop practicing social and emotional skills when the school day ends. A fifth grade student shared, “I was at my basketball game and the other team was screaming ‘overrated’ while I was playing. But I knew I had self-control from what I learned with Fly Five, and I knew that it was going to be okay. Because of that, I won the championship.” Supporting SEL at home builds trust and respect between school and home while supporting students in regularly demonstrating social and emotional skills.

The School-to-Home Connection toolkit provides a structure for families to develop SEL skills together. Building a strong bridge between school and home reinforces the importance of SEL and provides a shared language for a child’s entire educational community to speak. The toolkit encourages SEL practice in all contexts of a child’s life and gives parents the skills they need, even if they are unfamiliar with SEL, to help their child’s SEL skills grow (McClelland et al., 2017).

A comprehensive, research-based SEL curriculum, combined with professional development tools, daily formative assessments, developmentally appropriate skills, standards-based instruction, and the flexibility to adjust to school contexts, will ensure students soar after they leave your classroom.

References available at

Jazmine Franklin is chief program officer of Fly Five at Center for Responsive Schools. She first joined the Center for Responsive Schools as a consultant and program developer—playing a vital role in the development of Responsive Classroom programs. Prior to her time at CRS, she spent six years as a second-grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools, and two years in Guilford County Schools, North Carolina. Jazmine is currently enrolled as a doctoral candidate in educational psychology at Walden University.

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