What Research Says about the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

What Research Says about the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

“This is a great new program that we’ll be implementing this year,” the preschool teacher said excitedly, thrusting a flyer into Sarah’s hands. “It teaches kids all kinds of social-emotional learning skills!”

Sarah read the flyer and wondered to herself, Social-emotional learning? What does that even mean?

Programs aimed at social-emotional learning teach kids vital skills for regulating their own emotions, recognizing emotions in others, and strategies for getting along with others. To many parents, this sounds like something kids should learn on their own, or perhaps in a high school extra-curricular class. But preschoolers?

It turns out that the most crucial years during child development are the years from birth to about four years of age. During this crucial period, children learn how to understand and regulate emotions, focus attention, and form prosocial relationships with teachers and peers. Children who fail to develop these skills are prone to emotional outbursts and frustration, which puts them at a disadvantage in terms of school readiness. In the long run, poor social-emotional skills put children at risk for more serious mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression.

A recent meta-analysis of the impact of social-emotional learning on children’s competence and behavior shows this quite clearly. A meta-analysis is a procedure scientists use to zero in on reliable scientific findings. It involves pooling the results of numerous quality studies to find out how much one factor impacts a second factor. The results of meta-analyses are more reliable than the results of individual studies, which may bounce all over the place, leaving people wondering what to believe.

The meta-analysis was published in 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, one of the most prestigious medical journals worldwide. The analysis was based on 63 studies involving over 18,000 children between the ages of two and six years. The results were stunningly clear:

Compared with control participants, children enrolled in social-emotional programs showed significant improvement in social competence, emotional competence, behavioral self-regulation, early learning skills, and reduced behavioral and emotional challenges.

There are many social-emotional learning programs offered across the country, and they differ in terms of their structure and their effectiveness. This meta-analysis found that the following two characteristics are crucial for producing good outcomes:

  • Programs delivered by facilitators, specialists, or researchers were more effective than those delivered by the classroom teacher—unless the teacher had in-depth training in social-emotional development and received performance feedback.
  • School-based programs that don’t involve parents produce effects that are specific to the classroom and don’t necessarily generalize to settings outside of school. More intensive programs that combine parent and teacher training lead to stronger outcomes that last over time.

These results show that a child’s success and happiness depend on developing skills that allow them to regulate their own emotions, understand what others are feeling, and choose how to respond to these emotional cues. They also show that parental involvement is a vital component of successful social-emotional learning.


  • Dr. Denise D. Cummins

    Dr. Denise D. Cummins is cognitive scientist, author, and elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. She has held faculty and research positions at Yale University, the University of California, the University of Illinois, and the Center for Adaptive Behavior at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. In her Psychology Today blog, Scientific American, NPR, and PBS NewHour articles, she writes about what she and other cognitive scientists are discovering about the way children and adults think, solve problems, and make decisions. Dr. Cummins also blogs about equestrian sports as The Thinking Equestrian.

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Dr. Denise D. Cummins
Author and Cognitive Scientist


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